Sinn Fein lessons for Matabeleland smaller political parties – patience pays

For years we have lamented that for many Matabeles the hope of a new era of equality and prosperity promised by the Zimbabwe independence in 1980 and later, the Unity Agreement of 1987 has failed to materialise. Years of political instability left Matabeleland underdeveloped in all areas; the region has some of the highest levels of social inequality in Zimbabwe, including some of the highest levels of child poverty, poor education infrastructure, skills poverty, unemployment and a large number of ‘working poor’.

Sinn Fein, a small party but political giant in Northern Ireland has vital lessons for the Mthwakazi movement – small, incremental gains eventually make for huge achievement. Principle, focus and patience, whereupon patience is not just viewed as the ability to wait but the ability to maintain a good attitude while waiting, are an asset for any political institution.

It has taken Sinn Fein 117 years to be the main party in the Northern Ireland government; the party was formed in 1905 with clear goals for an independent Ireland free from British rule and for the Republic of Ireland to be one country, but it had been a small party in successive Northern Ireland governments and even smaller in British politics until recently. The party has become the largest party in Northern Ireland after winning 27 seats in the 2022 election. The Democratic Unionist Party secured second place on 25 seats, a loss of three seats from 2017.

To help you understand the scale of Sinn Fein’s achievement, this result has been described in the media as a seismic political moment for Northern Ireland as a unionist party has always been the largest party in the assembly since the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921. That dominance ended with this election.

As realists we acknowledge that Zimbabwean independence has failed to translate into any gains for Matabeleland. It had been our reasonable expectation and belief that with independence and later, Unity Agreement the authority to regulate Matabeleland’s political and economic space would be returned to the people and their elected representatives yet our experience is that of ethnic Shona people exerting tyrannical control over us.

We cannot change the past but from it we have learned valuable lessons one being that we cannot trust our progress to be engineered and facilitated by mainstream politics because its goal is control and management, not the empowerment of the region; mainstream Zimbabwe politics has consistently failed to fundamentally change the dynamics of power in the country, and dynamics of poverty and social inequality in Matabeleland.

Real change in Matabeleland will only be driven by local organisations, run by local people with a truly local agenda for empowerment. We accept that a change in Zimbabwean government is required, but that cannot continue to supersede the urgent need to address the ever-deepening local crises of poverty, inadequate access to public services, economic and political insecurity and the need for a reasonable standard of living in our society.

Change is possible, but that requires us to change our thinking. Instead of sheltering in the false comfort of big mainstream organisations hoping to be saved, let us begin to change ourselves; instead of dismissing local organisations for not being national, being small with little impact, let us define what will constitute change to us. Remember, not every change comes with benefits.

There is a need for the local population to pull its weight behind local political and social movements, but these organisations need to prove they deserve public support by articulating their goals and showing that they see beyond the current phase of politics in Matabeleland. The vision must be for the empowerment of Matabeleland and Matabeleland citizens, and that should include the redistribution of wealth, improvement of the well-being of the aged, the advancement of youth, the liberation of women and the protection of our children.

Principle, not just the size of an organisation should be the only factor influencing our political choices; no organisation is too small to influence change; it is only us who will turn the seemingly small organisations of today into giants of institutions that will transform not only the political landscape of Matabeleland but the entirety of Zimbabwean politics tomorrow. Impatience has continued to push the public into the idea of ‘any change is welcome’ but that ignores the fact the current government is a by-product of that stance in 2017.

We have been down in the valley for 42 years, there is nothing to lose by using time wisely to build appropriate institutions and the right attitude. Yes, time is priceless and every second is measured in Matabele human lives and suffering but let us exercise patience and resist quick fixes that do not even begin to address our challenges.

The race is not for the swift but who will endure the test. The future remains in our hands; lessons from the past, be it through the 1987 Unity Agreement or Zimbabwean Government of National Unity of 2008, are that quick fixes that patch up cracks do not address fatal structural deficiencies. Let us seek with honesty and integrity to construct a political process which reaches out and embraces everyone in the region; this will be a process that embraces diversity and equality of our communities. The objective of our politics must be for a system, policies and institutions that will earn the allegiance and respect of all communities of Matabeleland.  

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