“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment,” said American statesman Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).
I recalled this saying after I read on various websites this week that MDC national chairman Goodrich Chimbaira, addressing a political rally in Gwanda about a fortnight ago, urged people not to vote for “pot-bellied Shonas” because, according to him, they are already overfed. Phew!
Yes, in the heat of the moment, many a wrong thing has been said — such as in 1999 when newly-installed MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, addressing the biggest audience so far of his political career of over 40 000, excitably thundered that President Robert Mugabe must step down voluntarily or “we will remove you violently”, playing into the hands of the regime for which he could have got a lengthy jail term.
Or in 2002 when Mugabe labelled Mbare people “totemless”, totally burying Zanu PF’s political chances in that poverty-stricken, but key constituency.
This was a statement based on prejudice — and it has been counterproductive ever since that the perennial losers have resorted to unleashing a shadowy violent group, Chipangano, to recover lost political ground, but so far without success.
Granted that the playing field in this country is not level and that access to it is reserved for an already advantaged elite, the disadvantages suffered by others have become less tribal — at least post-1987 Unity Accord — than socio-economic.
That is why former top PF-Zapu members who have embraced the Unity Accord have benefited immensely and are now fabulously wealthy. (I won’t mention names because I could be arrested and charged with criminal defamation.)
Of course, it must be acknowledged that the overlap between minority groups and the poor is very large, but some of this apparent exclusion has more to do with demographics than anything else.
And there is no doubt that one day a Ndebele will be President of Zimbabwe, but utterances such as those by Chimbaira will have the effect of delaying this inevitability.
They are bringing to the surface latent tribal feelings and this puts off the average Ndebele and average Shona. You don’t uplift the Ndebele by pulling down the Shona in such a crude way.
It is easier to be prejudiced against an “unknown person” than one you know — and Chimbaira is feeding those prejudices to simple, rural folk some of whom have never stepped out of Matabeleland. To them, whatever he says must be the gospel truth.
But you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; that is, it is easier to persuade people if you use polite arguments and even flattery than if you are cantankerous and confrontational.
Now we have this from Chimbaira, barely two months after MDC Women Assembly chairperson Thandiwe Mlilo told party supporters in Magwegwe, Bulawayo, cynically and heartlessly exploiting MDC-T deputy president Thokozani Khupe’s loss of hair due to chemotherapy for breast cancer:
“Something is wrong with people from this region. Why do you always fight to be deputies for Shonas? Look at Khupe, the MDC-T deputy president has lost all her hair fighting to be (MDC-T leader Morgan) Tsvangirai’s deputy.”
This utterance was not only perversely tribalistic, but sexist as well.
But why have both Mlilo and Chimbaira not been reprimanded by the MDC because they cannot have spoken in a personal capacity at a party platform?
Has the party resolved that in order to make inroads in Matabeleland, they have to go overtly and crudely tribal? That this will differentiate them from the MDC-T as they are basically fighting over the same political turf?
If that is the case, then they are taking this too far as this may yet prove to be a negative differentiator because the nation has moved past such basic instincts.
For one, Bulawayo is the most cosmopolitan city in Zimbabwe, a melting pot, a place where people of different cultures and tribes have formed a largely integrated society.
“Outsiders” — like Mlilo and Chimbaira, who are both Shonas — should not come in and stir trouble among people who have co-existed mostly peacefully for generations.
Maybe the strategy is that for this blatantly tribalistic line to be more effective, it must come from a Shona “exposing” Shonas.
But a racist statement uttered by a white man doesn’t cease to be one merely because it has been uttered by a white man against his own kind.
It remains an offence, period. Those trying to capitalise on Chimbaira’s wild remarks had better wake up to that fact.
The fact that these words were uttered by a Shona against Shonas doesn’t make them any less tribalistic than if they were uttered by a Shona against Ndebeles and vice-versa.
People should avoid being short-sighted, focusing too much on the short-term gain and ignoring the long-term effects of their approach.
Let’s bring context and understanding to this debate rather than shoot aimlessly in the dark totally disregarding the dynamics at work, causing heavy collateral damage.
The MDC prides itself in having educated, intelligent leaders, but that is not a learned way to treat a sensitive issue such as tribe in this country.
The language used is too crude and uncouth. Let’s avoid prejudicial generalisations that reinforce divisions and entrench tribal stereotypes.
This works against a party positioning itself as mainstream as opposed to fringe parties like MLF.
People must stop making tribalistic slurs or jokes — through apparent proxies like Mlilo and Chimbaira —when claiming to be victims of tribalism — that’s reverse tribalism.
Reverse tribalism happens when members of a tribe that has historically been targeted or marginalised, randomly accuse individuals of another tribe of being tribalist, with no provocation; it is a form of intolerance in which a person categorises another person as a tribalist without any evidence of that person’s actual character.
People must not automatically assume that one is a tribalist because of their tribe; not all Shonas are tribalists neither are all Ndebeles.
Just be fair, open-minded and treat people with respect. Sure you might come across some terrible characters from all tribes, but you will come upon great people as well – and you never know who might turn out to be a great friend.
So, the least expected from the MDC was to dissociate itself from these ignorant utterances, but they haven’t. Now the survivability of the party itself is being questioned across the media for this and other reasons.
Wrote civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jnr, who was killed by a white racist’s bullet in 1968:
“Racism is man’s gravest threat to man — the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason” — like merely having a pot belly.
And so it is with tribalism.