Reflections on tribalism in Zimbabwe

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OVER a 1000 years ago three of my distant relatives who were tribal leaders on the Scottish Border with England, were taken prisoner by English troops and hanged for treason. Their crime? Supporting Robert, the Bruce in his struggle with England over Scottish independence. In the subsequent war, Bruce was defeated and my distant relatives fled Scotland and settled in County Cork, a part of what is now Northern Ireland. They were fiercely Protestant and formed the foundations of the Protestant/Catholic divide that has plagued Ireland for hundreds of years.

By Eddie Cross

Eddie Cross is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) MP for Bulawayo South

Eddie Cross is the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) MP for Bulawayo South

I am by descent a Graham of the Graham Clan in Scotland and have the right to wear a Kilt and attend Clan gatherings. We use the Clan motif of a shield and a heron as our “totem” with the inscription of “In God we Trust” on our letterhead. When I tell Zimbabweans that I have a “totem” and belong to a Clan by descent – they are astonished. Even more astonished when I can cite my ancestors back to 1036 AD.

Has this got any relevance to my life today as an African by birth and choice? In 1876 my Great Grandfather – G W Cross came out to South Africa in a sailing boat and took up the pastorate of a small Baptist Church in Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape. He never returned to Ireland and died in South Africa. All his working life in South Africa he regarded himself as an African. My Grandfather, even more so and played a key role in the country right up to his death in 1953.

I have no known relatives in Ireland or Scotland but when I visited Scotland for the first time with my family, I felt an uncanny sense of belonging in the Highlands. A sense that these people were somehow related to me – I get no such sense in England and Europe, in fact there I feel decidedly foreign. Dublin has the same effect on me. When my son went on a “walk about” in Europe one year, he disappeared for a few days in Belfast and a few years later married a girl who had been studying nursing there. She was born in Zimbabwe but is as Irish as you can be, we call her “Wonder Woman”.

In Africa, historical tribal roots are much more recent and influential. Before colonial settlement here in 1893, the tribes of southern Africa were in a state of almost constant conflict. When the Afrikaners, fleeing British colonial rule in the Cape, arrived on the Transvaal Highveld, they found it deserted, villages burnt and the land littered with skeletons. This followed a campaign by the Zulu King to dominate, assimilate or destroy the smaller tribes in the hinterland.

The States of Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana were created as “protectorates” by the Victorian State to protect their populations from the marauding Zulus and their compatriots. Even today, people who live in Zimbabwe remember the stories by their forefathers of the raids by the Impi’s of Mzilikazi and Lobengula. The elders in the Ndebele Tribe also remember the raids, but for a totally different reason.

The first battle between the Settlers in Rhodesia and the Ndebele took place at the Shangani River and was caused by the demand by the Settlers that the Ndebele stop their raids on the Shona Tribes. Lobengula regarded that as a threat to his influence and power and the result was his defeat and eventual death.

Once the country had been subjugated by force of arms, the Settlers lost no time in marginalizing Tribal Chiefs and dominating economic, social and cultural life with their imported culture, religions and values. They used the Tribes as a means of social domination and control, rather than true representatives of the people they served and ruled over.

Finally, when the colonial powers were eventually beaten and a majority ruled Government took power, the process unleashed many forces that had been previously suppressed by the colonial administration. Respect for the rule of law – a concept foreign to Africa, diminished, the role of Tribal leaders was reinforced, leftist ideologies picked up during the struggle became influential and a scramble for the assets and resources of the country was unleashed – it was “our time to eat” the new elites claimed.

In this scramble for power, influence and wealth, tribal roots have taken on a new dimension. It is not uncommon to find that all the domestic workers on a road in the suburbs are from one tribe – even a village. In companies, Government departments and organisations, long serving managers and controllers see to it that the people working in those institutions are largely drawn from their home Districts.

On a wider scale, the tribal dominance of one of the Shona Clans (very similar social institutions to my own Clan structure) has meant that they have tried to extend their influence and even control across the country. The genocidal campaign launched against the supporters (largely Ndebele and Kalanga) of Zapu in 1983 resulted in perhaps half the Ndebele population leaving the country and simply blending into their culture and language groups in South Africa. Partly as a result, over 70 per cent of the population of Bulawayo – the former Capital of the Ndebele Kingdom, now speak Shona or another non-Ndebele language.

In 1980, in the first truly democratic election (and perhaps the last for 37 years) the country was split right down the middle – those in the South West voting Zapu and the rest of the country voting Zanu. Despite the efforts of both Parties to maintain a semblance of national character, the country divided on Tribal lines after 87 years of colonial and non-tribal administration.

This Tribal division was maintained until Zanu PF destroyed Zapu in the savage campaign run from 1983 to 1987 when the “Unity” accord (in fact a surrender) was signed. Zimbabwe slid uncomfortably into a one-Party State with the minor tribes suppressed and subordinate to the Shona majority.

Then in 2000 the Movement for Democratic Change emerged, organized by the Trade Union movement with its former General Secretary as the President. Trained over the previous 40 years and nurtured by the Trade Unions of Europe and the ILO the MDC was deliberately and consciously nonracial and non-tribal. Partly because the minority Tribes had been suppressed and marginalized by Zanu PF under Mugabe, the minorities took to the new Party with enthusiasm and the Party swept the Cities and took many Tribal regions – like Binga and Hwange. Since then the MDC has steadfastly maintained its position as a National Party and refused to be aligned with any tribal or ethnic groups.

It has not been an easy road to walk, Ndebele interests always wanted special recognition and representation and the influence of tribal affiliation is found in all areas of the country – Chipinge with the Ndou for example. Now suddenly the spectre of Ndebele Nationalism is raising its head again – a new “King” has been sworn in (the first in a 100 years), a new alliance is proposed between various Ndebele and Zulu dominated groups. Ndebele leaders in both Tendai Biti’s Party and the MDC T are demanding special treatment and threatening to coalesce around a new separatist Ndebele/Kalanga leadership.

This is very dangerous and retrogressive and I hope the MDC Alliance will reject this initiative and maintain its historical stance; devolved power and control within a unitary State is the only way forward. Anything else can only take us backward.

Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on his website www.eddiecross.africanherd.com

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