Chiefs victims of colonial injustice


IN November 1898, the Rhodesian High Commission, as part of efforts to impose and enforce white dominance, laid down a proclamation introducing Southern Rhodesia Native Regulations.
The regulations laid down structures of a Native Department, headed by the secretary for Native Affairs, whose aim was to ‘administer’ African affairs.
The secretary reported to the Administrator.
At that time, the country had been divided into two provinces, namely Mashonaland and Matabeleland.
Other structures put in place included that of chiefs of provinces who were under a chief native commissioner who in turn supervised native commissioners.
The native commissioner dealt with all administrative duties.
As Rhodesians were putting in place what they termed ‘effective regulatory bodies’, they were infringing on existing administrative systems that had governed Africans before their arrival.
This did not matter to them.
All they wanted was to dominate blacks, in every way.
And one way to do that was to destroy existing cultures and systems.
These systems defined the indigenes.
Without them in place, their way of life lost meaning.
Their heritage, sense of belonging and worth was stripped.
History shows Africans, before the coming of the whiteman, had an administrative system that promoted peace, democracy, human rights and cohesion.
At the helm of African societies were chiefs.
The term ‘chief’, ishe or vashe in Shona and induna in Ndebele, refers to an individual who, by virtue of ancestry, occupies a clearly defined leadership position in an area.
Sandra Dusing in Traditional Leadership and Democratisation in Southern Africa: A Comparative Study of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa highlights how the institution of traditional chieftaincy represents the pre-colonial prevailing indigenous form of local governance throughout southern Africa.
“This institution originally provided societal, political, economic and religious functions for local communities,” she writes.
As such, chiefs played a pivotal role in society.
It is this role Rhodesians deemed necessary to obliterate for them to fully control the locals.
In a research paper titled The Role of Traditional Leaders in Fostering Democracy, Justice and Human Rights in Zimbabwe by Tompson Makahamadze, Nesbeth Grand and Baxter Tavuyanago, the role of chiefs in fostering democracy, human rights and peace in Zimbabwe is examined.
“In the pre-colonial era, chiefs had knowledge of grassroots democracy as they made consultations with their council machinery before taking any decision,” reads the research paper.
“Pre-colonial chiefs were custodians of peace and human rights.”
Researcher and historian Aeneas Chigwedere in the book titled Shona Chieftainships: Principles of Succession explains the importance of chiefs in African cultures.
Chiefs were guardians of the land as well as other natural and mineral resources.
“The chief task of the chief was partly to promote and partly to protect the interests and welfare of his people,” writes Chigwedere.
“The chief did not only initiate the organisation of all community rituals but such rituals were organised in his name.
“It was believed that to maintain the political, economic and social equilibrium, certain rituals had to be organised annually.”
The creation of the post of Native Commissioner stripped traditional chiefs of their duties and roles.
Through repressive laws, the function of a chief was reduced to that of a Government officer.
Traditional leaders were only allowed to try petty cases like disputes among their subjects, while serious cases like murder, fights, thefts and witchcraft were all to be referred to the colonial authorities.
The duty to allocate land was taken away from chiefs.
Whites knew Africans had their own religion and in order for them to divide locals they had to discredit African religion.
Traditional chiefs were an integral part of local traditions and religions.
“The pertinent point is that every Bantu chief was a divine chief. This means that every African chief was more than a simple human being,” writes Chigwedere.
“This was so because he was the vicar of the founding father of the particular chiefdom.
He was ‘intertwined’ with that founding father to the extent of being one entity.”
Olufemi Vaughan in Chiefs, Power and Social Change: Chiefship and Modern Politics in Botswana saw chiefs as the link between the supernatural and the temporal existence of the present, they had extensive religious powers that generated respect and obeisance from their subjects.
The introduction of new laws meant chiefs were no longer answerable to ancestors in matters pertaining to the day-to-day happenings in their respective chiefdoms but to colonial administrators.
This meant the existing culture of consulting ancestors who were an integral part of local society was done away with.
During the pre-colonial era, spirit mediums used to play a part in electing and installing traditional leaders.
However, this was changed as the Native Commission introduced a ballot system in electing even new headmen or chiefs.
“The colonial electoral process watered down the religious significance previously attached to the institution of chieftainship in pre-colonial Zimbabwe,” write Makahamadze, Grand and Tavuyanago.
“The traditional leaders therefore became victims of the colonial injustice and dictatorial rule.
“They became powerless before their people.”
Blacks were forced to ‘lose faith’ in their traditional systems and adhere to that put in place by Rhodesians.
By rendering chiefs useless, whites knew they could dominate blacks.
To turn people against traditional leaders, Rhodesians forced chiefs to advance their colonial agenda.
“Chiefs were also made to collect taxes for the government from the impoverished communities,” write Makahamadze, Grand and Tavuyanago.
“In 1913, the Government introduced the hut tax, poll tax and dog tax.
All had to be levied by the chief on his people on behalf of the colonial government.
Failure to comply with the Government instruction implied prosecution (Inyanga District Report 1912).
The colonial Government therefore disempowered the traditional chiefs and used them as agents to bolster their control of African territories.
They ceased to be champions of democracy as they used to be in pre-colonial times.”
Female traditional authorities who used to have a lot of influence in the Shona society began to sink into oblivion as colonial authorities had no respect for female chiefs and native chiefs in general.
Dr Elizabeth Schmidt in Peasants, Traders and Wives: Shona Women in the History of Zimbabwe, writes: “African women were ‘invisible’ to the colonial authorities.”
“Having accepted the idea that women were perpetual minors in society and presumably played no part in public life, administration officials assumed that they had no political function.”
Rhodesians knew locals attached value in traditions, hence they changed traditions surrounding the installation of chiefs.
According to Makahamadze, Grand and Tavuyanago, traditionally, chiefs were installed by the most senior headmen in the area in consultation with the spirit-mediums of the chiefdom.
“The medium acted as the voice of the ancestors in the whole process of the installation,” they write.
The involvement of the ancestors in the choice and appointment of the chief made him an important religious functionary.
Traditional chiefs could stay in office until death as long as they obeyed the precepts of the ancestors.
However, chiefs who despised the ancestors and did not rule according to the democratic guidelines given by the ancestors through the spirit mediums risked losing their positions.”
Installation processes, as Chigwedere writes, were done under the guidance of family elder members to ensure they were done properly.
On the day of installation, the chief-elect was carried to the installation site with mbira players and drummers in tow, playing traditional songs.
Attention was paid to the preparation of the dedication beer as it was to be handled by women beyond the child-bearing stages or by girls who had not yet reached the menstruation stage.
Chigwedere explains how sacred installation processes were conducted pre-colonial.
“In installing a new traditional chief, probably the most important ritual was the one that made the new chief the incarnation of the founding father,” he writes.
“This meant infusing the essence of the founding father into the new chief.”
Chigwedere highlights that in preparation for installation, the chief-elect was removed from his family home and taken to the royal cemetery hill as soon as the rapoko for the installation beer was about to be immersed in water (kunyika zviyo).
The incumbent chief was supposed to fast.
On the hill, a temporary shelter was constructed for him, his great muzukuru (nephew) and one or two uncles.
The purpose of the isolation period was to dedicate the new chief to his predecessors (kukumikidza).
“On the day of installation, he was carried from the Madzimbahwe to the installation site with mbira players and drummers in action and varoora singing, ululating and clearing the ground (the path) for the concourse,” writes Chigwedere.
“The chief-elect was then seated on the elephant foot stool placed in the centre of a lion skin.”
The installation itself has been heavily bastardised by the colonial administrator.
As such, even after independence, pre-colonial installation rites are not being followed.
Today, installation of chiefs is done under the guidance of the Ministry of Local Government.
“The Government, through its Local Government machinery, appoints the chief and proceeds to install him,” writes Chigwedere.
The responsible Minister does the installation, Chigwedere writes.
“The family producing the chief-elect brings with it to the installation site a reed mat which is spread out in front of or by the side of the podium from which the Minister or his representative will operate,” he writes.
“An officer of the Ministry of Local Government hands over to the Minister the red gown inherited from the colonial regime, whereupon the latter proceeds to wrap it around the chief-elect.”
The writer argues modern-day installation processes do not fully represent local cultures.
Chigwedere suggests the process has been ‘diluted’ as certain aspects of Western culture have been incorporated.
“The crime committed by our Majority Rule Government against the institution of chieftainship was the red gown from the colonial regime,” writes Chigwedere.
“The red gown presented to our chiefs as an emblem of royalty is the very opposite of what our chiefs should wear.
In addition, all the items used by our Government as elements of the Chief’s regalia are not meant to have any divine element around them.
Furthermore, it is not the responsibility of the Ministry of Local Government to dedicate them to any ancestor.”
By reverting to traditional rites on installing chiefs and giving them back their rights to fully execute their duties, social cohesion would be promoted.


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