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Why are ethnic Shona people defensive about tribalism?

Ethno-nationalism remains a huge problem in Zimbabwean society with particularly devastating outcomes for Mthwakazi and ethnic Ndebele people yet many ethnic Shona people are quick to dismiss it, even going to the extent of accusing victims of being tribalists themselves.

Calling victims of tribalism tribalists for complaining against tribalism is shameful arrogance but its political effectiveness is doubtless. For the fear of being called ethno-nationalists, many of our Mthwakazi brothers and sisters consciously distance themselves from pro-Mthwakazi movements and parties and their activities, completely disregarding all reason.

These captured souls have proven to be a vital link, and defenders in Mthwakazi, for the tribal institutions of Zimbabwe; they have not only adopted a convenient ‘see nothing, say nothing’ approach regarding Shona supremacist policies and the associated injustice on Mthwakazi citizens, but they are the loudest in calling out every pro-Mthwakazi protest an act of tribalism.   

It is not humanely possible to be free of bias but it is never impossible to deal with such conscious and subconscious attitudes when people are willing to accept their presence. We cannot escape the overt and subtly messages of Shona superiority and we cannot continue to ignore that Gukurahundi was a genocidal act and that ethnic Ndebele people were targeted because of who they were, and not any wrongdoing.

Sadly, it is convenient for many to ignore the facts and choose to believe the state narrative that proffers that those killed were dissidents. Scant attention is paid at the state’s definition of dissident at the time. We shall not beat by the bush, ZANU’s unwritten and unspoken definition of dissident is projected in many of Mugabe’s speeches and by the 5th Brigade’s elaborate and targeted actions; being a dissident was equivalent to being anti-establishment, not being of ethnic Shona origin and a threat to the party’s dream of Shona supremacy. This explains the killing of unborn Mthwakazi citizens.

Video credit: AP. A vivid description of Gukurahundi atrocities from victims that also defines a dissident in the eyes of the State.

Addressing tribalism is not on ethnic Shona people’s ‘to do’ list; in fact it makes many ethnic Shona people feel anger, fear and guilt, which in turn leads to denial, minimisation and defensiveness; this is in spite of the glaring evidence that tribalism inevitably touches everyone.

The biggest challenge in Zimbabwe is that the system and its institutions are not created to know or see, or to listen or hear, or to acknowledge or validate the impact of ethnic Shona dominion on other ethnic groups. It is no surprise that many of our ethnic Shona brothers and sisters are simply not receptive to finding out what Mthwakazi has to say about her experience under an ethnic Shona dominated system and institutions.

Instead of listening to Mthwakazi’s experience of tribalism, the ethnic Shona leadership digress and elevate to the pinnacle of political morality the holiness of the 1987 Unity Accord, and intimidate anyone who dares question the validity of that ‘agreement’. To take as authentic and fair an agreement in which one party has a gun pointed to their head is moral decadence.

ZAPU agreed to sign the Unity Agreement to save human lives, to stop the targeted and illegal murders of unarmed civilians in Matabeleland and the Midlands by the ZANU-led government and not to effectively sacrifice multi-party democracy, and certainly not to validate ethnic Shona supremacy.

Genuine progress in dealing with tribalism is hampered by the fact that many of our ethnic Shona brothers and sisters are bad at admitting implicit bias and therefore good at denying the realities of tribalism; the reflex to shutdown conversation on tribalism actually helps to keep it alive.

By refusing to engage in conversations about tribalism, ethnic Shona people are complicit in Zimbabwe’s institutional tribalism. These institutions perpetuate tribal inequality and injustice, and worse still the defensive attitude protects the main beneficiaries of tribalism, the elite, from scrutiny and accountability.

ZANU PF’s tribal anxiety carefully natured in people must no longer shape our worldview. We will fight tribalism but not fall into the trap of hatred of a whole nation. Even among tribalists, not all are irredeemably tribalist and comfortable beneficiaries of tribalism.

Defending tribalists is not the intention but we recognise that like many of our Matabeleland brothers and sisters, there are many ethnic Shona people griped by ignorance acquired from ZANU PF’s manipulation of the past dished out as history education in formal academic institutions. We are victims of the past and only we know fully well what it is and how it feels.

We will give chance to even one person who is willing to listen and see a different perspective. There are many ethnic Shona people for whom the system has brought nothing but misery, there is no harm in engaging with those who are willing to listen to our side of the story and work together for a better future, even if it is as neighbours.

We are realists and recognise that a society free of domination and bias may never be achieved but our lifelong and ongoing goal is to set up checks and balance that will help to identify biases, try to nip them in the bud, challenge them, develop new information that promotes respect within society and seek to create systems that care, that are considerate of the welfare, safety and security of all citizens regardless of ethnic origin.


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