Revisiting the Idea of Zimbabwe From Liberation to Crisis

Updated: Jun 17, 2021

Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni Chair of Epistemologies of the Global South University of Bayreuth Germany

Keynote address delivered at the “Zimbabwe @41 Series: Unpacking A Progressive Approach Towards a Nation-State” organized by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, 15 April 2021: 11am-13.00pm


Thank you for the invitation to speak at this important event: Zimbabwe@41 Series: Unpacking a Progressive Approach Towards a New Nation-State.

Let me on this occasion speak as a concerned citizen of Zimbabwe rather than an academic. This will enable me to touch on the practical and existential issues and challenges facing as a people.

We are meeting at an important time when our beloved Zimbabwe is turning 41 years old on the 18th of April 2021 as an independent country. This is an independence which cannot be taken for granted because of the sacrifices made towards its attainment.

This event is also taking place at an important moment in the history of our beloved Zimbabwe characterised by animated debates about on the Patriotic Bill. A Bill which directly speaks to the core aspect of patriotism linked to belonging and citizenship in a nation-state.

The troubling issue is that every time we arrive at this important day of 18 April of every year, we not only reflect on the issue of sacrifices made for the attainment of political independence, we also reflect of the journey we have travelled since 1980 as a people.

It is a moment of remembrance and as well as auditing the journey travelled since 1980. Some of the most important matters arising include: The very meaning of being independent and being free: to what use have we deployed and put our independence?

  • How we have created Zimbabwe and into what type of a polity?

  • Have we managed to cultivate inclusive belonging, citizenship, unity, patriotism, dignity, pride & heroism?

  • How we have we been distributing our national resources, who has benefited and who has not?

  • How we have governed ourselves since 1980 and have we widened the scope of justice and rights which were denied under colonial rule?

  • Have dealt effectively with problems of hetero-patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism

  • On the infrastructure and development of the country, have we progressed or regressed?

  • What has been our successes and failures on the pertinent social questions of health, education, and employment?

  • More importantly have we ensured internal security and social peace of the citizens and indeed made life of citizen matter?

  • How have we been using and abusing our national institutions for progressive and regressive purposes?

  • Has our choice of leadership been according to our constitution and rule of law?

These to me, are pertinent patriotic questions which every Zimbabwean has to be concerned about and we must pose them without fear and favour if indeed we are patriotic because they are about us and our country—they constitute what amount to “national question”—a question which is always at the centre of the “nation-state building project”—the very making, creation and construction of Zimbabwe. They always take us back to the drawing board to assess our achievements and failures.

Increasing there is an emerging question of how does Zimbabwe exist.

It is a patriotic question which cannot arise out of vacuum. There is a context in which it arises.

It is a question which also troubled me and I wrote a book: Do Zimbabweans Exist? Trajectories of Nationalism, National Identity Formation and Crisis in a Postcolonial State (2009).

The same question troubled Professors Brian Raftopoulos and Alois S. Mlambo to extent of editing a volume entitled Becoming Zimbabwe: A History from Pre-Colonial Times to 2008 (2009).

We can even flash back to Ibbo Mandza’s Zimbabwe: A Political Economy of Transition (1986) where questions of state-making and nation-building were posed. It is a question which is at the heart of the nation-state project?

Taking over the Rhodesian state is not the same as creating Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has never been a given.

Zimbabwe has never been a pre-existing formation. As a unitary nation-state, Zimbabwe had to be created.

Zimbabwe has never been a successor state. The late historian Stan Mudenge was being ethnically mischievous to link postcolonial Zimbabwe to the pre-colonial Munhumutapa state.

This argument of Zimbabwe as our modern creation must not be mistaken for a dismissal of our rich precolonial history.

Our precolonial history is characterised by diversity of political formations, some small in scale existing as chieftaincies and other big in scale to amount to kingdoms and states.

We can name some of them as Torwa, Rozwi, Barwe, Manyika, Ndebele, Gaza, Mutapa as well as numerous chieftaincies that rose, fell and resurfaced.

This means that in our modern creation of Zimbabwe we are informed by a rich history. But we cannot choose one political formation and simplistically make it an antecedent of modern Zimbabwe because we come from diverse political formations.

Nation-building is always about how to mould and forge a common identity out of people of diverse historical and social backgrounds.

Precolonial antecedents of Zimbabwe

The lands between the Zambezi River in the North and the Limpopo River is the South, was of course inhabited by African people of diverse identities.

Of course, our pre-colonial formations contributed to rise of a national imaginary and national consciousness, for example, by providing the Great Zimbabwe monument around which the imagined nation would crystalize and the nationalist movements in the 1960s began to use the name Zimbabwe in their projection into a postcolonial sovereign nation-state.

Great Zimbabwe Walls

The early nationalists even toyed with use of Matopos—because of its spiritual and ritual significance as a possible source for a name for the imagined postcolonial nation-state.

With hindsight we now realise that extreme care has to be taken in our selection, mobilization and deployment of pre-colonial symbols, heroes, and names so as to make sure we are sensitive to our diversity and ensure inclusivity not exclusivity.

Coming from diverse backgrounds does not in anyway mean we are not one people just like different languages does not mean we are not one people.

A nation-state is possible where commonalities are used to create an equivalential chain of unities.

Primary resistance of 1896-1897

The Ndebele-Shona Uprising of 1896-1897 provided a myth of foundation of African unity for a national purpose.

The liberation struggle drew not only inspiration from this uprising but also examples of heroes and heroines.

Again, hindsight tells us that our problems arise when we become careless in our selection of heroes and heroines and ignore others.

Colonialism and its rejection of existence of Africans as nations

Colonialism was against any notion of an African nation.

The colonized Africans were nothing but inchoate and contending tribes. So, Zimbabwe was never in the minds of colonialists.

Our historical record and experience, is that of persecution of those who developed the national imaginary and national consciousness of an African nation called Zimbabwe.

But through colonial racism and exploitation of black people, colonialism provoked a nationalist sentiment on which a national imaginary and national consciousness emerged.

Also, by drawing boundaries, and destroying precolonial social and political formations, colonialism brought black people together in the towns.

Through provision of education, colonialism created the African educated elite who led in the struggle for an independent nation.

African nationalism and imagination of Zimbabwe

Nationalism itself had to be created and cultivated by the nationalists.

History, symbols, songs, and grievances became important resources for the nationalists in their creation of nationalism. The wearing of skin-hats was part of creating nationalism.

Popular nationalist consciousness had to be generated and sustained.

Why the early educated elite chose to wear skin-hats together with modern suits meant that they were constantly navigating tradition and modernity carefully as they redefined themselves as African nationalists.

Symbolism and particular nationalist pedagogy are always necessary for raising people’s consciousness.

The result were mass nationalist movements like National Democratic Party (NDP), Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).

Hope and expectation of a better life in an independent Zimbabwe had to be created as part of mobilization of the people for the struggle for Zimbabwe.

Nationalists had to develop skills in political persuasion of the black population. Of course, the ugly head of violence always reared itself also within the moment of building nationalist momentum itself.

But persuasive ideology and slogans were far more effective than coercion and violence.

While monolithic unity became a battle cry of African nationalism, within it there were serious power struggles which always brought in ethnicity, tribalism, regionalism, and death.

The challenge was about how to collapse ethnicity so as to raise a national consciousness.

Perhaps, it was because of how hard it was to pull the people out of their ethnic identities into national identity that most leftists in the liberation struggles adhered to the idea of the death of tribe for the nation to live.

One can posit the question of how can a tribe be killed without killing a people? Those who mistakenly believe that minority groups can sacrifice their identities while the majority groups retain theirs must have their heads checked.

This is where the very concept of a nation-state become problematic in the sense that there is always an assumption of a pre-existing nation to form a fulcrum of the state.

In a context where there is historical and social diversity, it is better to think of a ‘rainbow nation’ where diversity is celebrated and no ethnic group has more claim to belonging and the state than others because of numerical superiority.

Perhaps a citizen-state is the best framework to work with in contexts of diversity.

As Mahmood Mamdani has proposed it, this entails de-coupling of the nation and the state.

The result is a nation which is diverse under one state, with all the people enjoying common citizenship guaranteed by the constitution not ethnicity.

Unfortunately, even among the nationalists, ethnicity wreaked havoc and caused div