Has Zimbabwe become a racist nation and are we about to institutionalise racism in our Constitution? This is an emotive question that is beginning to come to the fore as the nation interrogates the draft constitution made public last month.
But one would have thought the question of racism belonged to the past. Racism was institutionalised in Zimbabwe during the colonial era. In fact, it was institutionalised the world over until the affected people began to fight it culminating in the decolonisation of almost all nations that had been subjugated by the imperialist nations of Europe. In 1980 Zimbabwe achieved its decolonisation and started on the road to build a non-racial society. Or, was this really mere politicking?
Interestingly, Zimbabwe joined hands with the rest of the world in fighting apartheid, considered to be racism in its ugliest form. With the fall of apartheid in 1990, the world must have heaved a sigh of relief in the belief that the monster had been finally defeated.
But racism has proved to be a hydra that continues to resurrect its heads in different forms all over the world. We see incidents of racism in sport and in business and we also see it in politics especially when neighbouring nations fight for resources. The troubles between Sudan and South Sudan are racist, so are those between Israel and Palestine. But generally nations have proclaimed their aversion to racism; when it pops up, it is quickly denounced and apologies exchanged.
Until recently, racism in Zimbabwe only manifested itself in incidents such as when some unknown white employer used derogatory language against his employees. Such incidents had become rare but when they emerged they have fired up otherwise dormant emotions. This is mainly because the war against racism is still fresh in the minds of most adults in Zimbabwe. The war was brutal and many people are wont to evoke its memories in times when tensions between white and black are taut.
There has been a raging debate as to whether there can ever be reverse racism. Many scholars have said that racism is about economic power and only white people have economic power and therefore only they can really be racist. But it has been demonstrated for example by former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin that political power can also give rise to virulent racism, that some scholars have called reverse racism. In other parts of the world racism based on political power has come in the form of ethnic cleansing whereby the dominant ethnic group attempts to forcibly remove from their territory, or exterminate, minorities they deem undesirable.
Two evils have begun to emerge in Zimbabwe: one of them is xenophobia, the other is racism, call it revere if you like, but it’s still racism. Xenophobia has manifested itself in the way Zimbabweans hate fellow Africans such as West Africans who have established successful businesses in Zimbabwe. There have been calls from weaker local businesspeople to chuck these foreigners out of the country; some important ministers have actually supported this lobby.
Racism has been demonstrated in the way we have treated the white section of our population in the past 10 years or so. During the colonial times, successive white government practised racism in a way that paralleled apartheid. Blacks were categorised as second-class citizens excluded from the mainstream economy. This is a fact of history which we fought successfully to destroy. At independence, many diehard racists took the gap and went to countries where racism was still being tolerated. Thousands of whites remained — obviously including some dyed-in-the-wool racists — but the general outlook was that bygones could be bygones; a new non-racial society could emerge out of the ashes of the war.
Generally, Zimbabwe was doing fine as far as race relations were concerned until about 15 years ago when blacks again began to feel excluded more and more from the mainstream economy. Many factors led to this real or perceived exclusion not least of which were poor government policies that led to the decline of the economy leaving huge sections of the population impoverished. Naturally, and even correctly, the impoverished people pointed at the government for their woes and quickly wanted to see a change of leadership.
But the rulers had scapegoats for their own failures; this was not helped by the fact that the white community seemed to be prospering while the rest of the country was living in dire straits. This made it easy for the rulers to revive racism as a weapon of choice to save their own skins. They then embarked on what one prominent politician labelled a “racist enterprise” of grabbing from the “rich whites to give to the poor blacks” so as to “correct historical imbalances”.
The enterprise gave birth to a new language with new terms that will forever haunt the nation. When President Robert Mugabe defined the enemy in racial terms the die was cast. “Let’s strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy; let the white man tremble.”
After the strife that beset the country since the turn of the millennium, Zimbabweans have been given a chance to reflect on where they wish to go as a nation. The Global Political Agreement gave the country this opportunity. The constitution that we are working on therefore should be the crystallisation of our new vision, which vision should have as one of its cornerstones the building of a new non-racial society.
Although the current constitution draft portends to do so, there are too many areas that defeat this. It is important to look again at the sections in the draft that go against what is so nobly stated in the Preamble and the Founding Principles.
The Preamble speaks of us being united in our common desire for equality and our resistance to racism, and commitment to building a just nation founded on values of equality and fairness, among others. This is repeated in the Founding Principles, where Zimbabwe is founded on respect for fundamental human rights and recognition of the equality of all human beings, as well as others. Likewise, in Chapter 4, Human Rights (4.13), “Every person is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” And “Every person has the right not to be treated in an unfairly discriminatory manner on such grounds as their nationality, race, colour…”
We should set out not to institutionalise racism as the draft seems to do.