What is a chief?

The colonialists who settled here were sure they knew that answer.

To them, the chief was an absolute monarch, the only jongwe on the village dungheap, whose word was absolute law – unless you had more guns than he did. That suited their plans very well.

With their motto “We have got the Maxim gun (an early machine gun) and they have not”, they knew they had the upper hand. The District Commissioner only had to give the Chief orders and he would obey. He would pass the orders on to his subjects and they obeyed.

The DC might be only a beardless youth who was sent to the colonies because he failed to qualify as an officer at Sandhurst, but he was still the voice of The Great White Queen, or, more important, of Cecil Rhodes, who held the purse strings.

Positive inducements existed to encourage the chief to co-operate; a few small bribes if The Queen (or Rhodes) was feeling generous, or a couple of heavily-armed policemen (provided by the Queen and paid by Rhodes) if she wasn’t.

Either way, the chief bowed deeply, said “Baas, your every word is my command”. Or so the DC’s little handbook said.

It didn’t always work like that. If it didn’t, the full wrath of The Queen (and Rhodes) fell on the unfortunate chief.

The young DC came with his maJoni to arrest the chief, assuming that a few days away from his vast collection of wives and inexhaustible supply of beer would reduce him to servility. Sometimes that didn’t work either. It sometimes made the chief less, not more, co-operative and usually made the chief’s subjects more, not less, rebellious. What had gone wrong?

The DCs took the simple idea that “the chief is the father of his people” and read that as a Victorian English father. Children were there to be beaten when they got bad school reports, when their father came home drunk, or for a list of reasons too long to spell out here.

But the African chief was a different kind of “father”. This father listened to his family and cared for them. At his dare anyone could speak their opinion.

The chief made the final decision, but he knew that the ultimate sanction was not the DC’s lockup, but the people’s ability to walk away and select another chief if he offended too many of them. We have seen some marvellous examples of this second kind of chief. RekayiTangwena lies among strange company in Warren Hills because he refused Ian Smith’s offer to be trained to be a “proper chief” and accept a big house and a car if he would let his people be moved from their ancestral land at Gaerezi in Nyanga.

Instead, he lived in hiding with the people in their ancestral hills, took them over the river to Mozambique when things got too difficult and brought them back in triumph at independence. He was offered one of the 10 seats reserved for chiefs in parliament, but he preferred to stand for election like anyone else.

He was elected and some of his ways, such as his insisting on his right to speak Shona in Parliament, embarrassed some of his colleagues, who were already training their children to be the “nose brigades” of the next generation.

I have known a number of other chiefs who understood their role as Tangwena did. So how is it that our great liberating Leader prefers the colonial model of chief? Perhaps he thinks he’s a reincarnation of The Great White Queen and Cecil Rhodes in one.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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