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Zimbabwe: Time to tackle systemic tribalism

You cannot genuinely talk of building a bright future when you are in denial of factors darkening the present. Zimbabwe’s primary problem is endemic tribalism, but this view is not universally accepted, a position that raises challenges to any attempts to address it. Tribalism in Zimbabwe is endemic because the socio-political systems that govern society have, for decades, misrepresented, marginalised, mistreated and under-represented non-Shona communities. The socio-political science system has justified tribalism with Shona historians and educators actively promoting a falsehood that Ndebele people are foreigners in what they describe as Shona territory; allegations of historical abuse and theft of Shona assets including women by the invading Mzilikazi (first king of Matabele) are awash — and, too often, successful careers have been built from it.

Implicit tribal biases – or stereotypes – can only be changed if people are aware that these exist and want to change. Ending systemic tribalism is not an easy undertaking, but it is not impossible; this will require those in the system to collectively acknowledge and study its presence and ask how and why it happened. We need an in-depth understanding of the root causes, even as we seek to correct the ongoing damage.

Zimbabwe’s post-independence political foundation and formulation is tribal supremacy, and tribalism informs the government system. It is an exclusive system strongly linked to the Shona tribe and extends privilege to the tribe while enacting various barriers preventing marginalised communities from influencing the political discourse.

What the Zimbabwe political system and its supporting institutions project is a majority tyranny that promotes and protects the majority ethnic Shona people, their culture and their interests while marginalising everybody else. This is a political space whose expectation is for minority population groups to adjust and adapt to it or risk total exclusion and/ or punishment.

Decades after the Gukurahundi atrocities, it is a social and political tragedy that endemic tribalism is still the dark cloud over the country that mainstream politics wilfully embraces because of its obvious implications on access to political power. In present-day Zimbabwe you must be popular with the guardians of the country’s socio-political power – the Shona constituency – and that often means being combative, unyielding in your approach to the Matabeleland constituency but be receptive and wilfully promote and protect Shona interests, at whatever cost, to gain political power.

Coexistence is the political future not a threat; it does not mark an end to difference but extends respectful accommodation, we just need to work out how to make it peaceful; the current fractured communities simmering with anger, suspicion and hatred are an existential time bomb. Tribalism must be faced head on, communities need to talk about it, acknowledge and deal with its effects; ignoring it for short-term, often selfish, gains is harmful for the future.

People heavily affected by Zimbabwe’s tribalism are mainly from minority communities. To be clear: there is an intersection between social inequality, political power and tribe in Zimbabwe, and tribal inequality and social inequality are deeply intwined. And it is a fact that communities suffering the most from the effects of inept, tribally skewed policies have often contributed the least towards those policies.

While the Shona tribe dominates all facets of the Zimbabwe state, makes unilateral decisions on matters of local, national and international policy, the rest of the population is marginalised but still expected to bear the consequences of some flawed policies.

Change must come, fighting systemic tribalism must be our top priority if the country’s independence is to become meaningful to all. However, deep-rooted cultural norms and selfish interests mean tribalism remains the least discussed and the widely ignored socio-political factor in Zimbabwe.

Lack of interest and slow progress in addressing prejudice and stereotypical views and the manifested tribalism can best be understood from the several competing variables, from political interests of the political elite down to presumed safety assurances that the dominance of state institutions by Shona people guarantees the ethnic Shona public.

In present-day Zimbabwe an unprecedented tribal divide has been engineered; ethnic Shona people have been indoctrinated well enough to believe in their importance, retain unhelpful stereotypes of inferiority of other population groups, and even more dangerous to trust, without question, the Shona elite’s every intention; the Shona public is only keen to accept and maintain the status quo and ill-prepared to listen to alternative proposals.

We face three hurdles in our efforts to deal with tribalism: first, it is how to convince those who are benefitting and/ or perceive benefits from the current system; second, it is how to reassure those who are afraid of change in fear of losing real or imagined benefits from the present system, and thirdly, is how to get minority groups to trust the intentions of privileged Shona people enough to sit at the table and draft policies meant to extend privilege to everyone.

Difference must not lead to enmity; peaceful coexistence is possible. Causes of tribalism must be unravelled, corrected and its damage redressed. It is not a matter of choice but a right that all humans should have equal access to opportunity, security, protection of their civil liberties and freedoms. Communities must accept tribalism has no place in a politically inclusive, socially responsible and economically sustainable future we want to create.

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