ETHNIC tensions between the majority Shona tribe, which dominates the ruling party, and the minority Ndebele tribe continue to simmer in Zimbabwe beneath the mantle of a three-year-old unity deal.
"The whole thing in this country's politics is tribal," says Makhatini Guduza, a veteran Ndebele political activist. "It will never be national."
Ethnic tensions have been fanned in recent months by the mysterious deaths in car accidents of several Ndebele intellectuals and suggestions by some Ndebeles that the government should compensate the families of victims of the massacres of Ndebeles in the mid-1980s.
Ndebele leaders who supported the idea of a unitary state at independence in 1980 now advocate more regional autonomy in Zimbabwe as the best means to ensure that minority tribes are not discriminated against politically and economically.
The Shona account for about 77 percent of the black population.
The ruins of Great Zimbabwe bear testimony to the Shona's past dynastic kingdom, which was one of the most advanced and developed civilizations in southern Africa as early as the 13th century. At that time, the Shona spread far beyond the borders of Zimbabwe - to Botswana in the west and Mozambique in the east.
Early in the 19th century, the Zulu ancestors of the Ndebele clashed with the Shona. These warriors, counted among the Nguni peoples who include the Zulus, Swazis, and Xhosas in South Africa, completed their conquests of Mashonaland in the 1840s and established themselves in the southwestern part of Zimbabwe.
At independence, President Robert Mugabe's Shona-based Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)) scored a landslide victory reflecting the numerical superiority of the Shona - almost 4 to 1.
Joshua Nkomo, the Ndebele head of the rival Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), was roundly defeated at the polls.
From 1983, President Mugabe used the North Korean-trained, exclusively Shona Fifth Brigade to put down an alleged uprising by the Ndebeles. Civilians were massacred in harsh campaigns during the mid-1980s.
In 1989, a unity deal installed Mr. Nkomo as a joint vice president and gave one or two other cabinet posts to Ndebeles. In the run-up to the pact, prominent Ndebele detainees - like Dumiso Dabengwa, who is now the minister of home affairs - were freed. The move achieved a superficial union.
Ndebele activists say they are still discriminated against in every walk of life - including education, development, and local political appointments.
"If an Ndebele is appointed to a position of authority there is always a Shona official at his side," Mr. Guduza says.
Some Ndebeles, who see little chance of the present political order in Zimbabwe changing through the ballot box, look to their Nguni allies in South Africa as their best route to becoming part of a majority voice.
"Culturally, we are very close to the Zulus and to Inkatha," says Jonathan Moyo, an Ndebele intellectual at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. "But politically, Ndebeles identify with the African National Congress rather than with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party."
A clear illustration of how ethnic affiliations transcend national boundaries in Africa is the ease with which Inkatha has succeeded in recruiting young unemployed Matabeles to its ranks.
"It's all a bit of a romantic idea, but there is no doubt that an autonomous Matabeleland [an Ndebele stronghold in southern Zimbabwe] would have closer ties with South Africa, and this could exert pressure on the Shona majority," Mr. Moyo says.