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‘The Europeans are the children of my sister ...
19 Mar 2013

MY wife and I returned recently from a two-week research trip in Zimbabwe. We took it, rather unwisely, on the eve of the government referendum on the constitution, and we stayed with one of the legends of reconciliation in Zimbabwe’s tortured history of black-white relations. We have come back with fresh insight into the tragedy that is present-day Zimbabwe.

It was impossible for us to go into the rural areas around Masvingo because for a white man to be seen talking to chiefs, spirit mediums and farmers about tree-planting rituals would be immediately interpreted by the powers that be as an attempt by the opposition party to influence people towards a no- vote in the upcoming referendum. The refusal by a senior official of the government to let us go into the rural areas belied the extraordinary friendliness and deference we received from almost every single Zimbabwean we encountered during our visit. In spite of this friendliness, one is aware of the deep malaise that exists between black and white in Zimbabwe. And if one looks carefully at the outstretched hand of friendship from blacks towards whites in that country, a gesture that one is constantly aware of in all one’s dealings with ordinary Zimbabweans, one will see upon it the scars inflicted by chimurenga, the ancient struggle for freedom and for simple human dignity. It is a gesture that pleads for reciprocation and understanding — one that says “we want to be friends, but we cannot forget how you have treated us”.

So what happened? What happened to make the governor so angry with us and everyone else so willing to be friends? Some answers were found in our long conversations with Inus Daneel, founder of the earthkeeping movement among traditionalists and African Initiated Churches and campaigner for justice and reconciliation in that war-torn country. Daneel is a white Afrikaner, Dutch Reformed theologian, and the only white man to have been inducted into the Mwari cult of the High God in the Shona religion. He was privy to a remarkable revelation that took place in the caves of Matonjeni in the Matopos mountains in 1967.

The Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the Smith regime on November 11, 1965, and the infamous and ridiculous assertion by Smith of a thousand-year rule of so-called white civilisation had been greeted with celebration by the whites of the then Rhodesia. For blacks it was received, reluctantly, as a declaration of war. The Smith regime inevitably became associated with white, Western, Christian, “civilised” superiority. Whites in South Africa generally loved it because it gave the apartheid regime some legitimacy. But here was a white Afrikaner, who has never forsaken his Christian faith or his Afrikaner identity, listening to the oracle of Mwari, trying to find in the caves of Matonjeni another perspective.

The actual circumstances of how he got to be there is a story straight out of a Rider Haggard novel. He had first been rejected by the oracle because of an inauspicious thunderstorm the night before while he was awaiting permission to enter the cave. Languishing in a nearby village while his Shona colleagues consulted the oracle, he was approached by a messenger of the priest of the High God to shoot an eagle that had been feasting on the villagers’ chickens. He nervously took aim at the bird that was perched on a nearby cliff. He missed and the eagle took off, soaring into the sky above him. But he was not known as mafuranhunzi — “the one who shoots the fly” — for nothing. He shot at the flying eagle with his rifle and miraculously brought it down, felling it within yards of the aghast priest. “Look,” the priest said, “he waits for it to fly and then plucks it out the sky!” Mafuranhunzi nodded slowly in grave agreement, trying to hide his own utter astonishment at what he had accomplished.

Mwari had spoken, cancelling the message of the previous night, and a short time later Daneel found himself at the mouth of the cave consulting with the oracle.

But it was what the oracle said about the relationship between the blacks and whites that was most fascinating. “The Europeans,” it said, “are the children of my sister [vazukuru]. I love them, but with regard to this law, I have no need of them. I do not want them to approach this place where I live, because they do not act properly. They always fight with the country.” Daneel’s explanation of the significance of the sekuru-vazukuru relationship between black and white is profound.

It was remarkable that at such a time, Mwari should qualify black-white relations in terms of the sekuru-mazukuru (maternal uncle-sister’s son) relationship, which in Shona kinship is the most cordial relationship least dominated by the seniority principle. Possibly, this metaphor was used because of the unusual circumstance of a white attending an oracle. On the other hand, Mwari may have been revealing what he or she considered to be the ideal for black-white relations. Mwari even indicated a certain fondness for the “white vazukuru” who were granted the customary privileges in the black uncle’s house and yard. But the vazukuru did not observe prescribed tribal code of proper conduct. They did not simply freely use their black uncle’s (sekuru’s) possessions, as they were entitled to do, but actually alienated large parts of the land which Mwari owned and which his or her black sons controlled by virtue of their common descent and inheritance. Worst of all, the white “nephews” denied their black uncles the fundamental rights and dignity to which the latter are entitled according to age-old custom. In a profound manner, therefore, Mwari was urging his or her white “nephews” on the eve of war to heed the laws of the land and thus to help create a situation of peaceful co-existence safeguarded by the stability of the Shona kinship structure. At the same time, Mwari in no uncertain manner rebuked and warned his or her wayward nephews (Daneel 1970:84).

Daneel went immediately to the local district commissioner of Masvingo (then Fort Victoria) at the time, Bob Menzies, to relay the message and plead for sensitivity to Mwari’s wishes and embark on negotiations with the black nationalists. His pleas were rejected and the revelations rubbished as mumbo jumbo.

The dogs of war were released, and the rest is history. Smith’s “thousand years” turned out to be 15 years of bloody guerrilla warfare, leaving the country wounded, crippled and bitter.

Smith’s legacy of intransigence continues to blight the Zimbabwean landscape, causing all whites, in the eyes of many Zimbabweans who lived through the war, to be guilty by association, no matter how innocent they might be. When Daneel went to see the senior official in Masvingo province to get permission for us to move around the rural areas, he encountered an embittered war veteran who berated him with the fact that his father had been killed by the whites and his body had never been recovered, which meant, according to Shona tradition, that he would continue to roam the spirit world and inflict malevolence on his living ancestors. And this some 30 years after independence!

Of all the current explanations for the tragedy that is Zimbabwe, the one that I have briefly outlined above seems to have been completely lost. It helps explain the anger and bitterness of this official. It also explains why an indigenous church, when approached by our Shona research assistant asking for permission to photograph their open-air Sunday service, forced him to go on his knees and explain why it is that whites want to join them in this way at this point in time; it explains the newspaper headline that read “Apostolic sects side with Mugabe in referendum”; it explains why the West, in general, is seen with profound suspicion; why the Christian religion in its Western form has difficulty in disentangling itself from an imperialist identity; and it helps explain, though not justify, the farm occupations, the paranoia of the ruling elite, and the subsequent destruction of the country on so many levels

One cannot help but wonder what might have been if the wisdom of Mwari had been heeded. Even if one rejects the religious cosmology in which the definition of the relationship between blacks and whites in Zimbabwe was couched, the idea of indigenous Zimbabweans being the uncle and naturalised whites being the nephew was a brilliant, if quaint, innovation. It was a playful, innocent, respectful relationship that was being envisaged. If, instead of being greedy and intransigent, the whites had simply accepted the basic tenets of the relationship as outlined by the oracle, and respectfully negotiated a settlement with the freedom fighters from the beginning, the “nephews” would probably still be there in Zimbabwe, contributing positively both in government and in the economy.

• Professor Tony Balcomb is a senior

research associate in the School of

Religion, Philosophy and Classics,

University of KwaZulu-Natal.


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