Homogeneity versus Heterogeneity: the Future of a Zimbabwean Identity
A colleague of mine once remarked, “It is amazing how the issue of who you are and where you are from becomes critical [only] once you leave Zimbabwe’s borders”. Indeed, for many Zimbabweans the question of what it means to carry a Zimbabwean identity becomes topical only after leaving Zimbabwe. For those who moved to South Africa, like me, the question “Where are you from?” is a familiar, daily encounter.
As a people, we have defined ourselves in a certain way. The characteristics I have heard Zimbabweans describe themselves are: “hard working, educated, speak English well like the British, Christian and ambitious”, to list a few. These supposedly self-endearing characteristics are however often juxtaposed with the homogenised Zimbabwean identity as defined by other Africans. Here in the legislative capital of South Africa, Cape Town, you are identified as a Zimbabwean if you are black, have a darker skin color than indigenous South Africans, speak Shona [a language native to Zimbabwe] loudly or cannot speak the local lingua. Outside these obvious markers, indigenous South Africans frequently ascribe the following traits to Zimbabweans: backward, materially desperate and starving. Zimbabwean men are labeled as criminals and regularly accused of ”stealing” local Xhosa women from local men. Zimbabwean women, on the other hand, are blamed for increased incidences of prostitution in the city.
As the 2013 Zimbabwe elections are rapidly approaching, one of the issues that many of us are grappling with is envisioning a future Zimbabwe once all the dust has settled. This is of course, assuming that all will go well and that the elections will deliver a government that will begin to unite Zimbabwe and work towards uplifting people’s lives.
So as Zimbabweans start to imagine a Zimbabwe they desire, the challenge is how to create a Zimbabwe that is inclusive of all, while retaining its distinct identity. Of course the politics of national belonging is entrenched in the insider/outsider dichotomy, and by asserting that we belong to Zimbabwe we are also forced to pick those who do not belong. This balancing act can easily find us being xenophobic, tribalist or racist to name a few unpalatable possibilities.
Following our independence the dominant national self-understanding was entrenched in a linear liberation war narrative, which told the story of the good black people’s army that worked with the masses to overthrow the bad white colonial force. Over the years the national narrative silenced the women and their role in the liberation struggle, identified white Zimbabweans as sell-outs, excluded the role of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) wing in the liberation, marginalised those identified as minority ethnicities and totally refused to acknowledge that some regular black people fought on the side of (white) Rhodesians. More recently, the ruling ZANU-PF also wrote off the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a Western neo-colonial project. Because the national discourse couched everything in categories of black and white, members of mixed race were also inevitably obliterated out of the national narrative. Also missing from the narrative to date are the gays and lesbians whose existence is an unwelcome national reality. Those who have emigrated from Zimbabwe were also written out of the national narrative and often constructed as deviants on a mission to acquire other people’s identities.
So, as Zimbabwe opens a new page, the question is: who really is Zimbabwean? In 1980, 33 years ago when Zimbabwe attained independence, the dominant discourse divided Zimbabweans into sellouts and patriots; blacks and whites based on the liberation struggle narrative. But that was then, and the context that made sense of these identities is long gone. Particularly the youth of today (those below the age of 25) have little experience of the battle of the races except the hateful rhetoric that continues to be reproduced by political and media discourses. Sadly, these identities lock everyone into a box and do not provide for fluidity, such as white people being sympathetic to the black people’s cause, or black people in support of the Rhodesian forces, and yet there is evidence of these being lived realities.
Evidently, this type of binary framing has its roots in the colonial state’s understanding of power which it located in the (white) settler community and which it denied to those who were identified as the indigenous (black) other. Ironically, after independence the new nationalist state changed the face of the players but maintained the exact same dichotomous principles.
While the liberation generation might have every right to think in binary terms, based on their negative experiential knowledge of the racist colonial state, my question is: what happens now? Should this negative history continue to shape the younger generations’ perceptions of racial and ethnic difference? Should this negative framing of the nation continue to be used to prevent the development of democratic pluralism? What we have to be wary of is the realisation that the nation state is always communicated in oneness, a homogeneity which if not carefully thought out, can marginalise some of the people which it should ideally incorporate.
Painful as the history of Zimbabwe has been in the last 15 years, what is evident is that the motions that the country has gone through are not unique. Of course the particularities might be different, but almost every other post colonial state in Africa has had that moment of rethinking and reshaping itself and questioning the liberation legacy of nationalist definitions that came with independence. While the role that the liberation generation played in emancipating the nation needs to be appreciated, that history must not be a curse, but a lesson that encourages us to incorporate new and silenced narratives.
I, for one, want my children and my children’s children to understand that society is not static and that identities are not locked in nationalist essentialism. I want them to live and preach a doctrine free of xenophobia, ethnic hatred, sexism, racism and homophobia. I see that as a possibility in the future Zimbabwe I am imagining, which begins with a free and fair election.
About the author
Rutendo Hadebe is a Zimbabwean feminist who moved to Cape Town with her family to escape the political and economic crisis in the country at end of 2009. She maintains a close relationship with Zimbabwe and hopes to return there in the future.