The reverberations of British colonialism echo into the 21st century as a centuries old dispute in southern Africa inexorably leads to a demand for independence. Modern day Matabeleland is seeking to return to its former status as a sovereign nation, severing its synthetic ties with Zimbabwe. Its “Notice of Demand for The Restoration of Matabeleland State” was delivered by the Matabeleland Liberation Organization (MLO) to Zimbabwe and Great Britain in December 2015. On March 16 I had the honor of speaking with Paul Siwela, President of the MLO. This is what I learned.
Siwela was born and grew up in Victoria Falls in the province of Matabeleland North in modern day Zimbabwe. At the time of his birth (1962), Victoria Falls was in the British colony of Rhodesia, named after the British businessman and imperialist Cecil John Rhodes. The city is adjacent to its namesake, the largest waterfall in the world that was originally called “Mosi-o-Tunya” by the local tribes, which is translated “The smoke that thunders.”
Siwela is a serial entrepreneur, having always owned his own businesses from a young age. That independent spirit and learning the history of his people, the Matabele (or Ndebele), drew him into the Matabeleland independence movement. That history is disturbing.
The Colonial Period
Matabeleland was the Ndebele Kingdom in the early 19th century when King Lobengula reigned. He had succeeded his father, King Mzilikazi, in 1870. Lobegula signed treaties with South Africa, Botswana and Zambia that established national borders that were internationally recognized, and remain so today. In 1894, during the British and French colonization of Africa, Mashonaland (“the land of the Shona people”) and Matabeleland (“the land of the Ndebele people”) were forcibly unified into a single entity, without the consent of (or even consulting) either the Matebele or Shona people. The union was simply a colonial administrative convenience. Against Queen Victoria’s will, Cecil Rhodes had marched into Matabeleland to claim it for the crown. The Queen recalled Rhodes to London to account for his actions. However, when he returned he bribed many Conservative Members of Parliament to support his political agenda. Prime Minister Salisbury also supported the charter of forced unification so ultimately the two lands remained joined as a British protectorate.
The Ndebele rebelled twice against the British in the First and Second Matabele Wars. In the First Matabele War in 1893, the British machine gun decimated Lobengula’s troops near the Bembesi River, even though they were outnumbered fifteen to one. In the Second Matabele War in 1896, the Ndebele revolted against the British South Africa Company. Although the Ndebele and Shona fought together, the British ultimately subdued this uprising also. By pitting the Shona against the Ndebele, Britain maintained control over the region, while the Shona slowly gained positions of power.
As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, Rhodesia gained its independence as the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1980. In order to quell imagined and state-sponsored dissent, Prime Minister—and later President—Robert Mugabe sought the assistance of North Korea, in the form of weapons and military training. N. Korea trained a Shona contingent that became known as the Fifth Brigade, which killed tens of thousands of Matabele, a genocide that Matabele fear could repeat itself. (Curiously, Britain sided with the Shona dominated government of Zimbabwe during the Matebele genocide.) Discrimination of Matabele and abuses by Shona continue to this day, but they are not officially recognized by the government of Zimbabwe.
While the trials of the Matebele are incomparable to those of Texans, we share a common past of independent sovereign nationhood and the yearning desire to chart our own destinies. The synthetic union of Matabeleland and Mashonaland will be dissolved as was the former amalgam of Soviet east bloc countries. Paul Siwela, may you succeed in leading your people to independence as did Moses 3,300 years ago when he conveyed the LORD’s demand to Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”