Ethnicity vs tribalism: Interview with Dr Enocent Msindo

Updated: November 11, 2012

Enocent Msindo


Dr Enocent Msindo, you were born in Zimbabwe, got your PhD at Cambridge and are now a Senior Lecturer in African History at Rhodes University, South Africa. What drew you to history in the first place?

My interest in History began over two decades ago when I was a Secondary school student, precisely in form two when a very engaging teacher taught us in our first term about the transition from feudalism to capitalism (that old piece of World History!) and the ensuing class struggles.

When I got to the university, (during that time in Zimbabwe, the University of Zimbabwe was THE university and all other ones that were emerging were not yet taken serious) I took up History, Archaeology and Philosophy. My interest in History was very evident in that even as I was doing my first degree, I started visiting the National Archives of Zimbabwe where I often mixed with more established researchers from across the globe. While studying I met the most famous scholar whom I read avidly at high school, Terence Ranger, who taught me for two years. At Cambridge University I was fortunate to be part of the inaugural stream of the Gates Scholarship. I graduated first with an MPhil in Historical Studies and then did a PhD in History.

What led you to the subject of your book?

When I started my research, Violence and Memory, a book about Matabeleland by Alexander, McGregor and Ranger had just been published by James Currey. I found this, like most works on the region, to be a history of the Ndebele, and Matabeleland, as perceived from the supposedly majoritarian Ndebele. It did not highlight alternative histories of the rest of the people of Matabeleland.

I then thought of finding out how those depicted as minorities and often silenced in both the government and history books perceived themselves as a people over a long period of time in which they were subjected not only to Ndebele hegemonic social and political processes but also to successive repressive colonial and post-colonial political regimes.

In this light, I thought my story would not make sense if I studied the Kalanga alone rather than comparatively with the Ndebele so as to unearth the different social and political processes that have shaped both ethnic identities and also a new composite identity that later developed – Matabeleland regional identity.

I deliberately chose the Kalanga because they claim relationship with earlier Rozvi or even the Torwa political cultures, and this makes them claimants to being ‘the originals’ of the land, when comparing themselves to the Ndebele who came later.

Secondly, Kalanga had a network of relations not only within the country, but beyond, with trade relations with the Tswana – and such relations informed their ethnicity and also their dealings with the Ndebele. Third, Kalanga are arguably the largest ethnic group in Matabeleland, barring those claiming Ndebele ethnicity, and were the first ones to encounter both invading teams of the Ndebele when they came to the plateau.

How has ethnic identity been shaped?

Because of the events of the 1960s,specifically the rise of African nationalism; the split in the leadership of the nationalist movement; and ensuing factionalism that characterised the rest of the 1970s, then the violence meted on Matabeleland people by the government in the 1980s, Matabeleland has grown more and more into a complex regional entity. This regional identity also thrives on contemporary politics whereby those aspiring to political office build political profiles and raise political parties by taking advantage of the already existing popular anger that is in most of the people in Matabeleland.

However, Ndebele ethnic identity thrives specifically on Ndebele material culture; Ndebele theatre performances; music and dance, which are more often than not, commercialised. It also thrives on the fact that there are still remnants of the Khumalo Clan (abeSikhosini/the royalty), and some ‘organic’ Ndebele chieftaincies who are still accorded some measure of respect by Ndebele people. There is also an annual ceremony to commemorate what is called King Mzilikazi Day, in honour of the first Ndebele king, Mzilikazi Khumal.

A prominent theme of the book is that ethnic identities were already well established by the time colonial rule was imposed. In what way, if any, did colonial rule subsequently shape these identities?

The argument about pre-colonial ethnic consciousness came in the wake of my efforts to freshen up scholarship around the creation of identities.

Established scholarship, especially in Southern Africa has emphasised that pre-colonial Africans did not have ethnic groups and did not live as such. I demonstrate that the chief problem lies in the ways scholars reacted to colonialism and also to the ways scholars have defined ethnicity, which has often been mistaken for (political) tribalism. Secondly, dominant scholarship on pre-colonial Africa has focussed more on political identities and forgotten to examine the social (or socio-political) aspects of African societies, which includes ethnicity.

In this book, I do not dispute the manipulative machinations of colonialism and that it shaped the ways people perceived themselves. However, my argument is that although colonialism created certain conditions that favoured the creation of some identities and modes of behaviour, they (colonisers) were not operating in a vacuum, and colonialism’s creative power has been exaggerated. The innovations and negotiations that were happening in the internal African societies have often been ignored or assumed to have been driven by colonial agents, missionaries and the African elites. This assumption misses the point.

The colonial authorities tried in many ways to dictate the way Africans thought about a number of things: the imposition of Ndebele chiefs upon Kalanga communities; the imposition of unpopular chiefs among the Ndebele; the looting of Ndebele state cattle and how these were ill-distributed, which created tensions; the imposition of isiNdebele in Kalanga communities; their attempt to legislate in marital traditions through what they called customary law and so on. I wanted to explore how these communities came up with ideas and identities that hugely undermined the colonial projects.

And what is your next step?

For the next few years, I will concentrate on examining the evolution of colonial and post-colonial information policy and propaganda in Zimbabwe from as early as the 1930s. This is a project for another book to be completed in the next few years. The project comes in the wake of growing concerns about press freedom and democracy in Zimbabwe. A historian is required in this field that has been dominated by journalists!

Ethnicity in Zimbabwe: Transformations in Kalanga and Ndebele Societies, 1860-1990

By Enocent Msindo

Published by University of Rochester Press

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