Hadebe Hadebe

Most people often claim or present themselves to be in control of situations and their environment. This refers to issues such as language, identity, sexual preferences and ideology. However, the reality is that as a people we live and survive in unpredictable spaces that we cannot determine, understand and or control with utmost certainty.

People live on serious contradictions and most of them exist in our blind spots, that is, we are probably unaware of them. Everyone with eyes or brain has a blind spot, and that is a default setting of all humans. We are therefore natural “flip floppers” with realising how much we contradict ourselves. This usually occurs outside our consciousness minds and is a function of subconsciousness. 

The subconscious mind is instinctive and tuned to make us ready to adapt. Without this capability, simple and monotonous tasks like driving a car would be very exhausting. Fortunately, the subconscious level and instinct “automate” routine life and frees the brain to think about other things. 

In politics, there are way too many blind spots and contradictions. This article uses the example of Zimbabweans and Zimbabwe as a case study to illustrate the point. Zimbabwe has a population of 14.86 million, with the conglomeration of Shona speakers (i.e., Manyika, Karanga, Ndau and Zezuru) accounting for the population. Shona is over 80%, Ndebele around 16% and the rest belongs to other smaller language groupings. 

Since independence in 1980, the Shona have generally taken advantage of their huge majority to dominate all spheres of Zimbabwean life, from politics and economy to national culture and national lingo. In the main, this is what has caused latent tensions between them and the Ndebele in particular. The Ndebele is this case refers to the Ndebele-speaking groups in the west like the Kalanga, Sotho, and so on.

Zimbabwe has generally been unable to build what can be defined as a “national culture”, meaning the identity that underlies the country’s social cohesion and nationhood. This is not unique to Zimbabwe, but this is endemic in the post-colonial state in Africa, where ethnic groups look or treat each other with suspicion, contempt and, sometimes, intolerance and violence are a national feature.

It is important to note that the differences in Zimbabwe can generally classified as from subtle to visible, but they are not extreme as in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya. Nonetheless, the research conducted by Hugh Mangenya confirms that there are “ethnic tensions between the Shona and Ndebele of Zimbabwe”. Also, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni claims that “the project of nationalism ended up unravelling along the fault-lines of Ndebele-Shona ethnicities and the post-colonial nation-building process that became marred by ethnic tensions and violence of the 1980s”.

Mangenya notes that any discussion of ethnicity would always be characterised as “fanning tribalism” and is therefore “suppressed or criticised”. It is important to mention that this article does not intend to stoke tensions, but its focus is to illustrate how contradictions and blind spots manifest in our lives. Thus, anyone reading this piece should recognise the educational value of the discussion, and not use it to achieve nefarious political ends.

The Shona culture drives the Zimbabwean identity, and this is observable in the interaction between groups and the country’s outlook in general. 

In the early 1990s, according to the book by ex-Botswana president Quett Ketumile Masire titled ‘Very Brave or Very Foolish?: Memoirs of an African Democrat’ (2006), Robert Mugabe was displeased with South Africa demanding that the chairmanship of the SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security should be rotational. Mugabe was the permanent chair of the organ. Nelson Mandela won the fight and today the political positions at SADC are rotated among its members. 

But this left a big mental scar on Zimbabwe as it started to look its neighbour with suspicion. Of course, Harare was not at all wrong to take this negative posture. South Africa was always going to become what the US is in the Americas or what China, Germany Russia are in their backyards. It is never easy to live in the shadow of a hegemon. With great foresight, it is easier to imagine what went through the ruling elites in Harare: South Africa was going to dominate the region politically, economically, culturally, socially and otherwise.

First contradiction. Unknown to Zimbabwe was that the country was going to run into political troubles that plunged its economy and currency to what they have become today. Politically, Mugabe heavily relied on Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” to fend off pressure from Britain and its allies. It later emerged that Mbeki also thwarted an approach by British PM Tony Blair who wanted South Africa to back military plan to remove Mugabe from power. This “regime change scheme” could have decimated Zimbabwe into pieces like Syria, Libya and Iraq.

Second contradiction. Following the fallout with the West, Zimbabwe’s economy is forever on its knees as a result of economic sanctions. The country relies on imported finished goods from South Africa and also sends scores of its “economic refugees” to its southern neighbour. The ruling Zanu-PF has become unsettled by South Africa’s decision not to renew the special permits for nearly 200,000 Zimbabweans working and studying in the country. 

Third contradiction. Although Zimbabwe has its back against the wall, Harare still harbours resentment towards South Africa as demonstrated in its “dollarisation” of its economy. The reality however is that Zimbabwe conducts more than 60% of all its trade with South Africa, which means that the rand would have been an obvious choice. Among others, the late Morgan Tsvangirai, Bankers Association of Zimbabwe, Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and economist Ashok Chakvarati have also called for the adoption of the rand.

The likes of President Edison Mnangagwa and finance minister Ncube do not favour return of the decommissioned Zimbabwe dollar. In any manner, after adopting the US dollar as its main currency, Zimbabwe enjoyed relative economic stability, but its problem was that the country did not an official agreement with the US Federal Reserve to use its currency. That was before currency scavengers mopped all dollars from the economy, and the RBZ struggles to replace them since there is no agreement with Washington.

An even bigger contradiction

The Shona dynasties generally resisted developing a national culture which includes the Ndebele language and culture. Equally, the Ndebele, just like Barotse in Zambia (Barotseland), conceptualise their “homeland” of Matebeleland to be a different or separate entity from Zimbabwe. The country has therefore struggled “to balance the ethnic factor in their respective political organisations in a bid to gain national support and in a bid to manage ethnic differences”. 

This challenge goes far beyond the Ndebele-Shona axis but the problem has also be evident with the broader Shona establishment. Ndlovu-Gatsheni mentions that “Within ZANU the burden was how to balance and manage the equally volatile issue of intra-Shona ethnicities involving Karanga, Zezuru, Manyika and Korekore groups”. These problems also beset the ANC in South Africa but, as previously stated, the debate on ethnicity is treated with secrecy and is therefore suppressed.

The political and economic crisis, discussed earlier, is creating a conundrum for Zimbabwe, especially in the language front. The issue of language is a complex one since it goes beyond linguistics, words (lexicon) and even ethnicity as it involves other aspects that could be considered “political” and “sociological” in nature. The Shona-Ndebele divide is likely to be undermined by a blind spot which is the South African silhouette that is reshaping the region in more ways than one.

In the case of Ndebele in Zimbabwe, for example, there are three real issues it needs to contend with. Firstly, there is a hegemon in South Africa that “imposes” everything on its neighbours like media, perspectives, etc. Secondly, there is a bigger Nguni bubble across the border in South Africa than is dominated by the Zulu-like languages, which are distance cousins of Zimbabwean Ndebele. This bubble comes with culture, music and other things. Thirdly, Ndebele is smaller compared to the dominant Shona language in Zimbabwe.

With these realities in mind, the Zimbabwean Ndebele language has had to either a swim or face death for the language. However, the existence of the hegemon and its dominant culture are likely to benefit Ndebele more than Shona groups. And this could have major ramifications for the “national culture” in Zimbabwe. Ndebele could establish itself as part of the regional lingua franca that could dilute the power of the Shona languages in Zimbabwe.

As already pointed out, we live in a world of contradictions. Most of the Shona speakers have flocked to South Africa since the mid-2000s and it is interesting to observe the Shona speakers make attempts to speak IsiZulu and IsiXhosa, something they would not ordinarily do back home. Why is this important? These Shona-speakers will start to expand the culture of the hegemon but without realising the benefits that are likely to accrue to the Ndebele language, which they generally resist with all at their disposal. 

This is not actually unique to the Shona and language. For example, overtime the minority Ndebele itself annihilated other minority languages in Western Zimbabwe such as Sotho, Kalanga, Venda, Xhosa, Tsonga as found in the three geographic territories that were occupied by the Ndebele before 1900. Zulu and Xhosa also bolstered their stakes by swallowing many languages in the coastal areas.

Even the large versions of Sotho and Tswana are not good for their smaller cousins in Lesotho and Botswana, respectively. From a sociological perspective, the big problem that the Sotho and Tswana spoken in South Africa come with the culture of the hegemon as well, which is a mix of cultures, languages and mannerisms. In the same situation as the Shona in Zimbabwe, also the presence of a big hegemon in South Africa probably rests in the blind spots of elites in Maseru and Gaborone. Arguably, Namibia, ESwatini, Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi are going through the same process. 

Countries like Angola and Mozambique (Portuguese, Latin) and DRC (Lingala, French) could be spared from the cultural dominance of South Africa to a larger extent since they belong to powerful cultural bubbles. But people from these countries have made South Africa their second home; and also welcomed Mzansi media, music and retailers. Overtime, they are likely to be drawn into the spider web. Many Angolans and Mozambicans dumped Lisbon for South Africa, words like “sawubona” and “heita” can now be heard in the streets of Maputo and Luanda.

For many people in upper classes, they might not follow what is happening in Southern Africa because they are usually comfortable in their own countries. But the subalterns, lower classes, have escaped to South Africa where they have adopted local languages, cultures and mannerisms. This has huge implications for the upper classes across the region especially in political terms. 

In conclusion, it was probably worth learning how the Shona speakers who probably resisted the Ndebele language back home but only to meet up with it in South Africa, without even realising the conflict they are creating in themselves. They will export the Zulu-like “speak” back to Harare, Masvingo, Gweru and Mutare. After this, they suddenly realise that Bulawayo has grown bigger. That is the power of contradictions that come with blind spots.

The changes occurring in the region are also occurring in the blind spot of many South Africans, which means that they may have to reconsider their “purity”, “exceptionalism” and “superiority”. South African culture is already a concoction of cultures and languages: Nigerians, Zimbabweans and others are doing their bit to influence the powerful culture of the region. 

Siya yi banga le economy!