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Ndebele artists compelled to perform in their 'oppressor's' language?

05 Jul 2022 at 06:22hrs | Views
In his analysis of ethnicity and tribalism in Zimbabwe, Eleph Gula-Ndebele explains that the ethnic cleansing of Ndebele people during the Gukurahundi genocide is a sore that refuses to go away for many people of Ndebele lineage. Being [a] Ndebele man myself, I feel in many ways it demonstrated the fact that we are still viewed as outsiders in the land we have inhabited for over 150 years.

Although Gula-Ndebele highlights the ethnic issues that play out in independent Zimbabwe, particularly the marginalisation of the Ndebele, he does not acknowledge the linguistic issues that accompany this ethnic marginalisation. Björn Lindgren, however, notes that, in the aftermath of the post-independence mass killings, 'people in Matabeleland responded by accusing Mugabe, the government and the "Shona" in general of killing Ndebele'.

This certainly intensified the victims' awareness of being Ndebele and a sense of not being part of Zimbabwe.3 Finex Ndhlovu attests to the linguistic marginalisation of Ndebele when he points out that although Ndebele is not officially considered to be a minority language, in relation to Shona, it is a minority. So all these languages found in south western Zimbabwe are minority languages although Ndebele may pretend not to be one. Nationally and in terms of function, Ndebele is indeed a minority language.

Shona language and cultural references have, indeed, dominated all facets of life in independent Zimbabwe, marginalising other languages and cultures in the process. Shona hegemony is notable at the level of governance in the centralisation of all administrative and executive functions in Harare. Moreover, beyond this, Shona hegemony is visible at a social and cultural level, in that there is a reduction of Zimbabwe to Harare and being Zimbabwean to being Shona. For example, historian Stan Mudenge characterises Zimbabwe as a successor state of the Shona Munhumutapa Empire,5 while politicians, including President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, evince this Shona imperial position when they go to Matabeleland and address people in Shona without any interpreters. This affirms that all Zimbabweans are expected to be proficient in the Shona language and able to identify with the Shona language and culture.

These implicit and explicit constructions and (re)presentations of Shona as the standard of Zimbabwean-ness have far-reaching implications for questions of power, voice, audibility, recognition and participation in various fields of cultural production in Zimbabwe.

This article analyses a narrowing of space in the field of the creative arts, an antipathy for multi-ethnic participation in cultural production, and the denial of voice for those who are non-Shona speaking. Drawing primarily on Bourdieu's theory of practice, the article reveals how the field of the arts, much like the rest of Zimbabwe, is encoded with Shona as the standard language and culture. The valorisation of Shona (and the conflation of what constitutes Shona and Zimbabwean culture), has seen the subjugation and silencing of other languages. Focusing on a visible trend of Ndebele-speaking artists relocating to Harare and espousing the Shona language as part of their presentation repertoires, we discuss this as agentive performativity by the voiceless to gain audibility and visibility by performing in the recognised, 'legitimate' language. This also reveals the denial of products articulated through their own cultures and languages. Through recursive discourses and practices framed around an exclusionary Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front) (ZANU[PF]) nationalism, Shona people and their culture have been normalised as autochthonous, while other cultures and people have been cast as allochthonous.7 The use of Shona in national public forums, and the insistence that non-Shona people speak or accede to the saturation of this language in Zimbabwean space, are characteristic of the domination and marginalisation of minorities in Zimbabwe.

The appropriation of Shona, including the fluency in Shona by Ndebele-speakers, which some scholars celebrate, is not complemented by a similar fluency in Ndebele by Shona-speakers.


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