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Ethnic politics on the Zimbabwean campaign trail: Do voters really care
Marko Phiri, African Arguments
February 19, 2013

View this article on the African Arguments website

Since independence in 1980, there appears to have been an ingrained political psyche peculiar to Zimbabwe’s Matebeleland region, where the political landscape has been painted in ethnic colours. Historians say today’s tribal politics date back to the 1960s and 70s when nationalists were agitating for independence from the then white minority regime. This is dismissed by those who insist that the liberation struggle was ‘ethnicity blind’ – the main nationalist formations, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) having within their ranks diverse ethnic compositions. Yet this question is once again on the table as the country prepares for polls slated for 2013, which could still be pushed back to 2014 and even 2015 according to some reports.

From the late vice-president Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu which entered into a “unity pact” with Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF in 1987, to the revived version of the party under the leadership of a former Home Affairs Minister Dumiso Dabengwa, to Welshman Ncube’s MDC, there remains a reading of local politics through an ethnocentric prisms, despite protestations by the political leaders that these definitions are fictions created by ‘tribalists’.

Zapu was itself revived in 2008 as a protest to what was seen by Ndebele politicians in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, as Mugabe’s reluctance to recognise the underdevelopment of Matebeleland. Zapu leader Dumiso Dabengwa was accused by erstwhile Zapu comrades who remained in Zanu PF as sowing seeds of ethnic division. This was despite the fact that Dabengwa endorsed Simba Makoni’s failed bid for the Zimbabwe presidency in the 2008 under his Mavambo-Kusile project.

Mavambo-Kusile itself presented yet another twist to the country’s enthopolitics where a political leader from Matebeleland would endorse a leader from the Shona majority, something already criticised by activists here who say they want to reverse the myth that no Ndebele can rule Zimbabwe.

The financial difficulties this political outfit finds itself mired in – threatening its participation in the coming polls – also raises questions about its support base. The country’s main political parties rely not only on largess from well-heeled supporters, but also from subscriptions from grassroots members.

Another twist in the ethnopolitics of Zimbabwe concerns differences within the dominant Shona ethnic group. Some contend that Zimbabwe will never be ruled by anyone who isn’t a Shona – itself a group made of up from numerous dialects, which themselves have been subject to unending debate about one particular group dominating the country’s politics.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti, who is also MDC-T Secretary General, kicked up a storm when he commented that it was time politicians from other Shona dialects took over the State. It was, however, an acknowledgement of what cannot be ignored: Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, carries the burden of ethnic politics, and it is still instructive that some of Mugabe’s harshest criticism has emerged from his own Shona tribesmen and women.

Albeit latent, these ethnic tensions remain, but it is another thing altogether if political leaders can harness these in pursuit of political office. But whether or not voters really care about ethnicity remains a question that will be answered in the coming polls, if those stoking ethnic emotions have their way.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T originally emerged as an eclectic mix of Zimbabweans of all hues and ethnicities. However, Ncube’s MDC is now being identified as unabashedly pro-Ndebele (as seen, for example, in reader comments on the MDC’s Facebook wall). This could be a test for those players who are expressly pro-Matebeleland, some critics say anti-Shona, and have been on the vanguard pushing for a separate Ndebele state.

I listen a lot to people talking politics here, but always wonder if ‘ordinary’ voters really care about voting preferences based on tribal/ethnic loyalties. Some critics believe that political parties emerging from Matebeleland seek to cash-in on the ‘angry vote’ where long disgruntled people from the region accuse Robert Mugabe of deliberate economic marginalisation and are therefore expected to vote for a regional political party led by their ‘own people.’

Welshman Ncube, fingered by Tsvangirai and others as pushing the ethnic ticket, dismisses this. He asserts himself as a ‘national politician’ despite Tsvangirai casting aspersions on him claiming that he is a ‘village politician’ (due to confining his campaign trail to rural parts of Matebeleland). Ncube has had to shrug-off that rather odious tag by insisting that he is not some kind of tribal lord, but a genuine contender to the national political throne.

The history of Zimbabwe’s post-independence elections shows the rural vote to be the largest bloc, with Mugabe for years claiming the rural areas as his main support base. Ncube could, after all, be playing politics as usual – strategising that if he can penetrate this demographic, he could turn out as a genuine political powerhouse rather than a politician who has been accused by political opponents of appealing to ethnic loyalties and stoking tribal hate in the process.

The issue of language and ethnic belonging has come out as important in attempting a forensic detailing of how Zimbabweans in fact choose or will choose their leaders. It didn’t assume such importance in previous polls, where Tsvangirai emerged to challenge Robert Mugabe, but it is no doubt gaining resonance in contemporary politics, especially in light of the coming election. Anger is growing, especially in Bulawayo, where whole industries have shut down with some relocating to the capital city Harare amid little or no government intervention towards an economic bailout for these firms.

Morgan Tsvangirai managed to capture the people’s hopes and aspirations in Matebeleland and presented himself as a man of the people and nothing was being said in 2008 about voting for a Shona in Matebeleland being anathema. If anything at all was being said, it emerged from fringe pressure groups such as Ibhetshu Likazulu, which fashions itself as secessionist and has always questioned the logic of voting for a Shona – the very people Ibhetshu accuses of “killing our people” during the Gukurahundi back in the early 1980s. Ncube himself has claimed that while Tsvangirai presents himself as a paragon of democracy, MDC-T continues to offer token positions to people from Matebeleland, a pointer for many here that tribalism cuts across the country’s politics with poorly disguised fervour.

The MDC Deputy Secretary General Moses Mzila-Ndlovu, who is also a government minister, claims both Mugabe and Tsvangirai are anti-Ndebele “tribalists,” a barb that apparently only buttresses the assertion that ethnicity is a critical factor in today’s politics. The anger from the 1980s Gukurahundi killings lingers on with those identified perpetrators insisting it is a closed chapter of Zimbabwe’s history. Ncube, like his MDC’s Secretary General, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga, says there is a general belief within Zanu PF and the MDC-T that politicians from Matebeleland are not cut out to lead Zimbabwe in their own right. But as politicians bicker about ethnicity and the national interest, voters could still find themselves hard done by a poll that has too many political parties that will split the vote. The fear is that this could in fact hand over victory to the long-despised Robert Mugabe.

Two controversial opinion polls issued this year attempted to take the pulse of voting trends in Zimbabwe and tried to map the voting trends and preferences based on the country’s regions. The Freedom House survey entitled Change and ‘New’ Politics in Zimbabwe put it this way:

“The survey results suggest that the MDC-T’s support base had become more Shona-centered than it had been in 2010 when the Ndebele constituted a slightly higher proportion of those that declared they would vote MDC-T than the Shona. The MDC-T also continues to have substantial support in the Karanga, Ndau, Zezeru and Manyika groups. ZANUPF’s support base also appears to have been in flux. The single biggest ethnic chunk of its support now seems to come from the Korekore group, followed by Shona, Zezeru, Karanga, Ndebele and Ndau. The 2012 ethnic profile of the ‘vote is my secret’ category is not clearly differentiated from those of the two main parties. This grouping is predominantly Shona, followed by Zezeru, Karanga, Ndebele and Manyika.”

It is curious that recent studies had, up until now, failed to train the spotlight on this dynamic, a variable that is emphasised in American opinion polls where minority groups or any other demographic is polled to find out whether they will vote Republican or Democrat.

One wonders though whether the tribal/ethnic breakdown of voter intentions is really useful or whether it overemphasizes overt ethnicity-based political affiliations, when what the country has seen in previous elections is bloody political violence spurred by mere political party affiliation.

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