By Takura Zhangazha*
There is a new but old currency to our national politics in Zimbabwe. Its infamously referred to as 'tribalism' and where one is politically correct, ethnocentrism or simply ‘ethnicity’. In the academic world these are highly contested terms particularly where they become linked to analyzing electoral and political power contests.
Our politicians rarely present their pursuit of power on the basis of ethnic identity publicly. The proof always turns out to be in the power sharing configurations either in the run-up to an election, its aftermath or national ‘unity’ agreements. Or alternatively, gate-keeping of specific provinces as 'no go areas' for other opposition political parties.
In our immediate contemporary politics there is the whispered aspect of this ‘ethnic’ dimension to political power and even opposition political office.
In the case of Zanu Pf’s ongoing succession battles it has been whispered in the corridors of power that it’s the turn of the ‘Karanga’s’ in muted reference to current deputy President Mnangagwa’s potential to take over. Others from the same party reportedly swear that it will never happen and appear to be propping up other candidates in an apparently ‘counter-ethnic’ coalition basis and in similarly muted fashion.
In the opposition, the same can arguably be said to be true, though with the intention of courting former Zanu Pf supporters into a grand opposition party coalition. This in somewhat similar fashion to the Kenyan example of political coalitions.
In all of these developments, a key question that emerges is whether it is right or wrong in the first place to claim an ethnocentric place at the table of power. Especially via appealing to an ethnically derived popular base. There is no one answer and no one reason at which the same are arrived at.
In fact there are varying arguments in support and against the use of ethnic identity to pursue national or localized political office.
One of the most significant arguments around this was posited by the late academic Professor Masipula Sithole where he argued that essentially there is nothing inimical to democracy about ethnic identity on the African continent. Not only because such politicization of ethnicity is universal (its there in the West as it is in the South) but also because both Marxism and modernization have ostensibly failed to resolve the issue on the African continent. In his view what might be more important is democratic inclusion.
Other contrary arguments against ethnicity playing a prominent role in national politics posit that it causes divisions and diversion from national unity, which in most of our African experiences is more contrived than it is democratically arrived at. This approach has wrongly led to dictatorial attempts to forcefully stamp out diversity in pursuit of what is a false national unity via one party states.
These somewhat real and equally academic arguments are sometimes dismissed as not quite understanding ‘African politics’ or a claim at a base uniqueness of ‘tribe’ to the African continent. The truth of the matter is that the post colonial state will always have vestiges of ethnic identity. They do not however remain permanent. They are however subject to gross politicisation and ‘instrumentalisation’ to whip up emotions in pursuit of power for its own sake.
As Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani argues, these usages of ‘tribe’, ‘ethnicity’ even ‘race’ only became full political strategies at defining and ruling with the onset and consolidation of colonialism. Sadly they have been carried over by our contemporary African leaders to present day politics. Even if in whispered tones as is currently the case in Zimbabwe.
The point that however must be made is that there is much more to our national politics beyond ethnicity or tribe. It is a point that must be made beyond the centrist intentions that were the one party state (and Marxism) or the colonial modernization project (divide and rule). Across Zimbabwe, and across many African states, we may have differences that include geographical location (particularly where its away from the lucrative center), language, historical injustices and in rare cases cultural differences but we share a common humanity that transcends the pursuit of political power.
This latter truth is what our competing political leaders are better off making greater reference to. that is our common challenges that include but are not limited to human rights and equality for all, access to basic social services, jobs, and secure livelihoods without discrimination.
While the electoral battles over succession in Zimbabwe may now unfortunately include whispered references to ethnicity and 'tribe' we have to overcome such misrepresentations of our values in pursuit of power.
Yes we are a postcolonial state that is still reeling from the impact that colonialism had on African identities but this is not reason for us to regress. You can come from a specific village, district, province or speak a different language dialect as does everyone else in Zimbabwe, but we have to forge a much more elaborate, inclusive and democratic culture that transcends these more often than not contrived identities. It is not only what you say to your own kinsmen/women that matters. Instead it is now what you say to the whole country while keeping your fingers on the national pulse that in the end is more visionary.
^Title of this blog borrowed though with different meaning from the title of the Chinese Film, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)