Calls for autonomy by minority ethnic groups sweeping across Eastern Europe seem to be trickling down to Africa just like demands for democracy, which resulted in the demise of communism, did.
Zimbabwe, which was on the brink of declaring a one-party state, has been no exception. Ndebele-speaking people, who are estimated at just about two million, are increasingly calling for autonomy because they believe they have been marginalised and sidelined by the Shona who constitute 80 percent of the population.
The calls have so far been made by mostly academics who feel that problems the people of Matebeleland are facing aren’t being addressed adequately or promptly because they do not have a say in the running of their own affairs.
Their frustration has been compounded by the fact that although the man they consider to be their leader, Joshua Nkomo, is now a vice-President and there are several other Ndebeles in the cabinet, they have done nothing much to alleviate the plight of Ndebele who suffered bitterly during the five-year civil strife from 1982 to 1987. This they believe is because their hands are tied as the former ZAPU leaders were merely co-opted into ZANU-PF to give it more credibility.
An estimated 5 000 people were killed during the strife and another 500 are reported to have disappeared. Most of the atrocities are reported to have been committed by the North Korean trained Five Brigade (also known as Gukurahundi). The government, on the other hand claims they wee committed by “dissidents.”
The denial by either party to shoulder the blame for the atrocities has resulted in most of the families which lost relatives being unable to obtain proof that their relatives were killed. They cannot therefore obtain vital documents.
Those most inconvenienced are children who cannot obtain birth certificates as it is a requirement that the name and identity documents of the father must be submitted for one to obtain a birth certificate. If the father is dead then a death certificate must be produced.
Most women have also been unable to claim terminal benefits of their spouses who were working since a death certificate is required before this can be paid out.
Normally, when women find themselves in such a situation, they are required to fill an affidavit stating that their husbands are dead. Police then endorse the affidavit and it becomes official. But according to Nicholas Ndebele former director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and now secretary general of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association: “Police have not been forthcoming. In fact, they refuse to have anything to do with people who died at the hands of Gukurahundi.”
The government which is the only one that has information as to who was really responsible for the atrocities seems to be turning a blind eye to the problem. It set up a commission in 1985 to investigate the atrocities but has so far declined to publish the findings. This has led to wide speculation that it must have been security forces that were involved otherwise if it was someone else the government would have published the results washing its hands clean.
Ndebele and other human rights activists believe that publication of the report would provide the proof families need to obtain death certificates for their spouses. Some are even wondering why the government refuses to do so since it can no longer be sued for compensation because under Zimbabwean law, any debt falls away if it is not claimed within three years, according to human rights lawyer, David Coltart.
The anger and frustration of the Ndebele has also been fuelled by recent discoveries of human skeletons at the Antelope Mine in Kezi and elsewhere. The bones were discovered by workers who were cleaning an old shaft. What has astounded the people, however, is not the discovery of the human remains as such but the reaction of people like Stephen Nkomo, resident minister of Matebeleland South, and Joshua Nkomo himself.
People were surprised to hear the Nkomos express shock at the “discovery” of the remains because just before they joined the government in 1988 they had been complaining about bodies of people killed by Five Brigade being dumped into the mineshafts.
Another bone of contention has been the way the government is tackling Bulawayo’s water problem. They are now citing the example of Chegutu whose problem only surfaced recently but was addressed within weeks, yet Bulawayo’s problem is almost as old as independence itself.
It is these actions that are leading to calls for autonomy as the Ndebele believe that with autonomy they can elect their own leaders who will understand their problems better.
The most recent call was made by Mthandazo Ndema Ngwenya, a University of Zimbabwe lecturer, who is also the chief spokesman for the recently launched Mahlabezulu Cultural Society. The society aims to “put the record straight” as to the causes and consequences of the 1893 Anglo-Ndebele war which it says led to the abolition of the Ndebele state.
Although Ngwenya says the Ndebele are not seeking to create a separate state but are merely seeking autonomy to rule their exclusive area, his call bordered on tribalism rather than seeking rights for a minority group.
His argument was vastly different from that of another lecturer, Jonathan Moyo, who has also advocated for autonomy. Moyo’s call was directed at the whole country rather than the Ndebele and he argued that the present eight provinces should be reduced to smaller number to cater for the various groups. Ngwenya, on the other hand, lumps all Shona speaking groups as a privileged majority.
Ngwenya also gave the impression of a united people in the western part of the country yet there have been calls by other minority groups which feel they are being oppressed by the Ndebele. They have even formed an association called Vetoka, an acronym for Venda, Tonga, and Kalanga speakers. Even this association leaves out the Nambya. These groups also feel undermined as they are forced to communicate in Ndebele and their children have to learn Ndebele as opposed to their mother languages.
Ngwenya also seems to base his argument on the false premise that all Shona-speaking groups are privileged yet, there is known bitter rivalry between the Karanga, Zezuru, Manyika and smaller tribes like Korekore.