The Machine Gun and the Assegai

When Mzilikazi arrived at a place they named Gubulawayo (or the place of slaughter) he had several thousand young Ndebele men with him, the remnants of an Impi (regiment) that he had led in a campaign on the highveld of what is now called the Transvaal. The date was the early 1830’s.

Highly organised as a military unit, the Ndebele quickly subdued the local tribes, eliminating those who would not be subjugated and turning the others into vassals. They then turned their attention to the region and in the ensuing decades up to 1890, they terrorized the people to the north and east of where they had settled. Queen Victoria was obliged to establish two protectorates – one in the area now called Zambia and the other in what has become known as Botswana to limit the impact of these raiding parties on those communities.

In 1893, the white settlers who had arrived in dribs and drabs over the previous decade found that establishing their mining and farming ventures was nearly impossible with the annual raids by the Ndebele looking for bounty, women and cattle. They issued a dictum that the Ndebele forces were not to cross the Shangani River and thereby cut off the mainstay of the Ndebele economy which was the raiding parties of young Ndebele men armed with the classical assegai.

The King of the Ndebele, Lobengula could not accept this threat and immediately dispatched some 30 000 men to the Shangani. The settlers responded with two small columns from Fort Salisbury and Fort Victoria. The settlers were armed with Gatling guns and search lights for night operations; the Ndebele did not have a chance. They crossed the river and in the ensuing battle, 3000 men lost their lives in return for a handful of the settler column. The Ndebele returned to their Capital only to see it destroyed by the King who then fled towards the Zambezi to eventually die by his own hand.

The lesson, superior weapons always win.

For the next 87 years a tiny band of white, European origin settlers dominated the country and its administration. 40 per cent were of Scottish extraction and a third, Afrikaans speaking settlers from South Africa. They were Protestants and brought their culture, religion, traditions and language with them. They regarded the indigenous people, traditions and culture as inferior and backward.

They established a small, diversified economy that was quite unusual for a country in Africa, comparable only to what the settlers in South Africa had created in a period of some 300 years. They divided the country up and adopted a mild form of apartheid and firmly kept the control of the country in their hands.

But in the process they brought the Christian missions who gave the indigenous people education and health services and in the process established a thriving Church that has become indigenous in its own way. By doing so, they sowed the seeds of Nationalism and the struggle for the return of control to the black majority. It started in 1949 and culminated in the war of independence which started in real terms in 1970. By 1980 the white administration had capitulated to local and regional pressure and Zimbabwe emerged from the ashes of the war under a majority government.

What many did not understand about the new dispensation was its complexity. We had 4 armies, 11 tribal groups – in the south west dominated by the Ndebele and in the North and east, by the Shona. Memories are long in all societies and the simmering hostility between the Ndebele and the Shona was just under the surface – suppressed by the administration for 80 years and now unleashed. But there was another realm, that of the clash between the modern and the ancient. This was complicated by a heady mix of ideologies – from the Soviet Union, Beijing and the West and all clashing with a deep desire to return to the “old ways”. Overarching all of this was the imposed “Lancaster House” agreements and Constitution and of course, a small, diversified and remarkably resilient, modern economy.

Very quickly the influence of the white, Anglo-Saxons waned and the African cultures took ascendency. Patronage became the norm; you were a fool if you did not steal to feed your family and your Clan. You were obliged to employ your relatives and extended family and even people from your “Kumusha”. The new power brokers discovered the magic of the Reserve Bank and its capacity to print money or extort money from others through exchange control. The Central Bank became a national cash point and eventually we had 250 million per cent inflation and suddenly reality set in and the whole caboodle crashed.

In the process hundreds found themselves enriched, many millionaires. Millions were rendered destitute and were driven out of the country by desperation and found themselves all over the world making a living for their families at “home”. In the process talking many languages, but mainly English and absorbing the Anglo-Saxon cultures that they had fought in the liberation war. Back home many thousands found themselves exercising authority and control of local institutions in the modern sector. Their children were going to private schools and gradually losing all knowledge and respect for their “primitive” roots in the rural areas.

What is happening now in places like Zimbabwe and all over Africa, is a gigantic clash of cultures – tribal, ethnic, religious, the old ways and the new. How will it all end and when? I simply have no idea, but what I do know is that the Assegai is no match for the machine gun. Eventually the modern will win over the ancient. What we have to make sure of is that in the process we do not lose what is valuable and beautiful in our old cultures and replace them with the worst of the new. That is the real struggle that will open up once we have beaten Zanu PF and start to bring real change to Zimbabwe.

Just two other thoughts – the new can only be built with any confidence and security on the foundation of national healing for all the things we have done to each other in the struggles of the past centuries and on the basis that we are all Citizens with full rights and the guaranteed protection of the State. Democracy may be flawed and difficult to manage and entrench in these societies in transition, but it is still the best way forward.

E G Cross
Bulawayo, 29th June 2013