Should chieftainship be abolished?

From time immemorial (pasichigare) chieftaincy has been at the core of our being as an African society. From the halcyon days of the Mwene Mutapa kingdom, the Rozvi Empire of Mambo Changamire and even after the Ndebele invasion, chiefs played the central role in defining and keeping the people together.

They were the venerable repositories of our culture as stewards of our history, traditions, values and religion. They reflected in their persons who and what we as a people were. Their main goal in life was to be exalted by seeking the wellbeing and expansion of the tribe or kingdom.

Unfortunately, the majority of our chiefs today are totally ignorant of their very important role in society. They don’t know who or what they are supposed to be in society. In actual fact they are a very confused lot. How did this confusion come about? It started, like most of the confusion in African societies today, with the advent of colonialism.

Conquered chiefs became subservient to the British. Those who insisted on maintaining their independence were either killed or deposed and puppets installed in their places. Traditional ways of succession were abandoned and the role of selecting chiefs was delegated to foreign colonial officials who knew nothing about local tradition. Some relied on missionaries who knew something of the culture to advise them.

When Zanu (PF) came into power in 1980 nothing was done to address the issue of chieftainship. Instead of studying the situation, consulting with elders and coming up with legislation in keeping with our culture, our new government saw it fit to continue with what the colonialists had been doing. Instead of leaving the succession issue with the people (matare), the selection, enthronement and deposing of chiefs became the responsibility of the president of the country. Being no fool President Robert Mugabe, whose office is subject to election, makes sure that chiefs are solidly in his corner.

At independence we had plenty Shona and Ndebele traditional elders and experts such as Dr Solomon Mutsvairo, Isaac Mpofu, Peter Mahlangu, Father Fortune, Prof George Kahari, Bishop Patrick Chakaipa, Gibson Mandishona, Prof. Gelfand, Amos Munjanja, Dr Stanlake Samkange and many others. They would have given us good advice on enacting legislation compatible with our culture and at the same time fitting into a modern day democratic framework.

Instead of consulting real experts on traditional customs we have today foisted upon us in the state media, Zanu (PF) praise singers like Vimbai Chivaura, Tafataona Mahoso, Claude Mararike and Aeneas Chigwedere, who by the way, is now facing court allegations that he bribed former Acting Chief Svosve with a cow and a goat to facilitate his nomination as Headman Mubaiwa in Hwedza.

In a modern democracy the role of the chief, like that of monarchs in Western democracies, should be politically neutral and non-partisan. In Zimbabwe this is so on paper but the truth is that chiefs no longer represent their people but those with the power to install, depose and feed them – Mugabe and Zanu (PF).

This was clearly demonstrated at the recent annual conference of the Chiefs’ Council. They fell over each other in their endorsement of Mugabe as the party’s presidential candidate for the next elections. At the same conference they demanded so many goodies that Vice- President John Nkomo had to warn them against being greedy and corrupt.

Many are now fed up with the partisan and thuggish behaviour of chiefs. Some are even calling for the abolition of chieftainship altogether. This writer and others feel that it would be wrong to abolish the office of chief because it has so much meaning for our people. Rather, like other institutions in the GPA, chieftainship needs to be reformed to meet people’s real cultural needs. The new constitution being written by COPAC needs to clearly redefine the role of chiefs with the assistance of real experts in our traditions and culture who are also democrats.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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