If developments over the past year are anything to go by, there is every reason to expect the region to play a leading role in influencing the political direction in Zimbabwe.
Within a year, the region has witnessed the revival of Zapu under the leadership of former Zanu PF politburo member Dumiso Dabengwa and last month’s launch of the militant Mthwakazi Liberation Front (MLF).
MLF is made up of Zimbabwean exiles who for years have been waging their struggle on cyberspace and are not making it a secret that it’s their mission to push for the secession of Matabeleland and Midlands from the country.
The ascendancy of Welshman Ncube to the presidency of the smaller faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has seen some quarters claiming that the party is now a regional project.
The question among most voters now is whether the new political formations and the re-branded MDC will make an impact in future national politics, given the history of Zimbabweans voting on regional lines since 1980.
Paul Siwela, who in 2002 unsuccessfully challenged President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential elections, says the new parties and MDC would never get any seat in the provinces outside Matabeleland and Midlands.
“They are not going to get anything in Mashonaland, the people there would not vote for them because they are identified with Matabeleland,” Siwela said.
“In fact the vitriol that is being directed at Welshman Ncube in the media after he took over from Arthur Mutambara shows that Zimbabwe is a divided country.
“It is a colonial legacy that should be addressed.”
Siwela who ran on a federalist programme and gained 4% of the vote said there was nothing wrong for the new parties to be confined to the region as Matabeleland politics were unique.
Since independence the region has complained about perceived marginalisation and the grievances were multiplied by Mugabe’s decision to deploy the North Korean trained 5 Brigade, which human rights groups say murdered 20 000 civilians for their political affiliation.
PF Zapu led by the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo, which has Matabeleland and Midlands as its strongholds, was forced to merge with Zanu PF in 1987 to end the bloodshed.
Dabengwa and his group complained that the Unity Accord did little to change Matabeleland’s fortunes forcing them to break away from Zanu PF.
“The problem is that the new parties that we have seen coming up except MLF still talk about taking Matabeleland to Zimbabwe yet people on the ground are now talking a different language,” Siwela said in apparent reference to MLF’s secession rhetoric.
Brilliant Mhlanga, a UK-based Zimbabwean media scholar said Ncube’s elevation and the rise of radical movements in Matabeleland were an indication of significant changes in the country’s political landscape.
“It is a pointer that Matabeleland has been reawakened,” Mhlanga said.
“Ncube’s election should save as both a warning and safety device.
“Warning in the sense that people have to know that now is the time to accept the people of Matabeleland as citizens worth considering for any office in the land including the presidency.
“Failure to do so will further embolden, radicalise and spur the people of Matabeleland into asking for any reasonable answer why they continue being part of Zimbabwe when they have nothing to benefit from it.”
A number of organisations have copied the Zanu PF strategy of dealing with the Matabeleland question by preserving posts below the presidency for representatives from the region.
Even in MDC-T it is an unwritten rule that the position of deputy president and either the chairman or secretary general are reserved for a representative from Matabeleland regardless of their popularity.
This could explain the scepticism surrounding Ncube’s ascendancy and the assumption that MDC is now a regional party.
Mhlanga believes tribal bigotry has become entrenched in Zimbabwean society and would take a lot of work for Ncube to change the perceptions.
“What we are seeing so far is that people are now in search of a common character,” he said. “This explains why Ncube has decided to offer himself as a candidate even in future for the highest office in the land.
“That should be celebrated but you will note that those who are supposed to help the society appreciate itself of having come of age are at the forefront of demonising such a positive development.
“It is now clear that Zimbabwe is a state fully embroiled in an identity crisis.
“The major source of our problems is rooted in our fear of unity.”
The new MDC leaders also appear to be aware of the challenges that come with Ncube’s presidency with its secretary general Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga writing saying the attack on the party after its congress “puts a spotlight on the unresolved ethnic issues, the one party state ideology and the adherence to peaceful and democratic transfer of power.”
“Interestingly, the fact that the MDC-T and Zanu PF have Shona leaders makes them national,” she said. “Is the verdict, therefore, that a Ndebele cannot as a matter of fact be considered for president of Zimbabwe?”
Political leaders can only ignore the current agitation in Matabeleland at their own peril, especially given that it’s taking place at a time when South Sudan citizens appear to have successfully campaigned for the secession of their country from North Sudan.