What kind of leader?

People tend to interpret traditions in ways that justify what they want to do next. A good example is found in the theories about the role and powers of a chief in colonial times.

Cecil Rhodes and company chose to regard chiefs as absolute rulers, like old-fashioned kings in Europe. It is true nobody held elections for a new chief and succession is, even now, limited to members of the royal family, which makes your local chief a king. Treating every chief they met as if they believed he was king of his territory suited the settlers and looters of that time very well. It meant they only had to get the chief to sign a treaty and they then had a “legal” excuse to use all their guns to get what they wanted if the terms of the treaty were not observed.

The history of the Rudd Concession shows how much trickery there could be in that, and Lobengula was a bigger and more absolute ruler than any other in the country.

In the next stage, the “absolute” chief became a channel for commands to his people – whether from the Great White Queen over the seas or merely the local district commissioner. If he passed on orders and they weren’t obeyed, there were troops and police to enforce the command. If he refused, he could be replaced by someone more co-operative.

In short the chief with absolute power over his people became the lowest level in the colonial administration. Colonial administrators found that very neat and convenient in theory, but a bit more difficult to operate in practice.

But absolute monarchs were rare even in Rhodes’ time; the czar of Russia was one, the infant Chinese emperor was another – in theory, as was the Japanese emperor. There weren’t many of them here, so, if the traditional system wasn’t an absolute monarchy or a parliamentary democracy, what was it?

Those who were not committed to supporting colonial rule, including professional anthropologists and sociologists, as well as your grandfather, could tell you that a system where a number of candidates of mature age are available to replace a deceased chief, rather than automatically appointing the old chief’s eldest son, increases the chances that the new chief will be a wise ruler. Bringing in an element of consultation further increases those chances.

One writer on the nature of chiefdom, in the wake of the deposition of Chief Mangwende in the 1960s, pointed out that svikiros consult the ancestors on which candidate should succeed. We all know that they don’t only consult the ancestors. The traditional ways of choosing a chief are designed to produce a consensus among the living and the ancestors.

A chief chosen by such wide consultation can hardly start acting as a dictator. The dare is not his court in the sense of a gathering of his guards, flunkeys and officials. It is the people’s forum in which everyone has a voice, and a good chief must be a good chairman, able to find the ground on which everyone can agree. If agreement is not possible for any reason, and especially if the chief shows himself a dictator who isn’t interested in the compromises everyone must make to get a consensus, then people could break away, often to set up their own separate chiefdom.

Unfortunately, we have seen over the past 20 years a revival among our administrators of the colonial interpretation of the chief as an absolute ruler over his people and, on the other side, as a tool of whoever controls the national government.

Of course, those in control nationally see themselves in the same role – absolute over the people, but bereft of ideas on how to use the positions they have struggled so hard for to serve the community; hence they look east, west, north and south for outside powers to direct and protect them.

Is it any wonder that so many people have migrated out of this national chiefdom?

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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