Class and social status in Ndebele state: Part Two


THE prominent and powerful members of the Ndebele society tended to manipulate and abuse their power and positions in the umphakathi and izikhulu to eliminate competition by accusing each other of witchcraft and plots against the king.
The accusation of witchcraft was used as a political weapon in moves for favours. One of Mzilikazi’s closest confidants, Manxeba Khumalo (the son of Mkaliphi Khumalo) was executed in August 1862 on a charge of witchcraft elaborated by his rivals in the umphakathi.
In 1854, Mpondo, another of Mzilikazi’s confidants was executed because he was accused of witchcraft. 
The real issue, however, was that they were too close to Mzilikazi to the extent that they generated jealousy from their colleagues who also wanted to be nearer to the king.
During the crisis of 1870-1872 following Lobengula’s controversial accession to the throne, prominent men like Mtikana Mafu and Thunzi Ndiweni who were respected by Mzilikazi were eliminated after being accused of being witches and for plotting against the king.
Lotshe Hlabangana, a close confidant of Lobengula was in 1880 accused of witchcraft by his rivals.
He survived execution at that time only to be executed in September 1889 on a charge of having misleadingly commended the Rudd Concession of 1888 to Lobengula.
Despite all these executions, some of the early observers on the Ndebele history pointed that Mzilikazi criticised the use of Western Christian standards to evaluate the Ndebele justice system.
To him, Mzilikazi was influenced by public opinion to carry-out executions for witchcraft offences.
Some of the methods used to punish offenders, were piercing through the anus of an offender with a sharp stick and tying stones around the neck of an offender before being thrown into a river as mentioned by Robert Moffat, a London Missionary Society (LMS) agent and long time friend of Mzilikazi Khumalo.
Most changes in Ndebele politics were attributed to Moffat and his interventions and through the Christian God.
These reforms meant that those Ndebele men who were renowned for courage and prowess in warfare were permitted to marry and build villages for themselves.
The king allowed the right to marry and to establish a family to be accorded to many people during this phase of Ndebele history.
Renowned fighters found themselves settling down to carry out civilian oriented duties like administering the segments of the Ndebele state, since the state had expanded greatly.
The office of the king was transformed and ritualised leading to a rise of an ideological glorification of the person of the monarch. 
The king assumed the role of a successful rain-maker, administering a system of grain production, distributing cattle, and heading a cult of ancestor worship.
As put by some writers, Mzilikazi was no longer the absolute and arbitrary tyrant of ‘European travellers’ tales. 
The king became involved more in ivory trade and spiritual satisfaction of his people.
He also administered justice, maintained a monopoly over the important long-distance trade to the South, and distributed the proceeds of tribute and of raiding.
A strong aristocratic group emerged, quite different from that which had held power because of its military prowess in the 1820s and 1830s.
Achievement or meritocracy was increasingly replacing ascriptive status in the Ndebele state.
However, the king was no longer able to exercise absolute power with this new development.
Relatively strong subsidiary chiefs and headmen who maintained a great deal of independent wealth and power based on personal ownership of cattle and achievement had emerged.
‘Royalisation’ was taking new forms via marriages to women of royal blood.
As the power of this group increased, kingship vigorously ritualised itself to the level of ideological glorification through reverence of the king’s ancestors who were invoked and propitiated in national ceremonies as the state’s protectors.
Democratic spaces opened up in line with new social and political realities.
The Ndebele society became more tolerant, accommodative, and opened to the reality of the statistical dominance of non-Nguni groups.
These non-Nguni groups were gradually accorded more and more rights so as to appease them.
Raiding, which had been relied upon as an economic as well as a political ploy was changed, as it misplaced much of its attributes as an economic ploy and became largely a political ploy meant to weaken neighbours of the Ndebele and to punish the headstrong chiefs mainly from the western parts of Zimbabwe.
The Ndebele king’s legitimacy was also enhanced by judiciously distributing wealth to his people in consultation with other powerful men in the state.
Political power and economic wealth were interdependent.
Mzilikazi and Lobengula safeguarded their material power through the strategic redistribution of cattle and land to their followers. 
One traditional argument was that the Ndebele king owned all the cattle and all the land as his personal property. 
The right to own property as an individual as well as in association with others was entrenched in Ndebele society.
Cattle were owned at two levels, that is, individual level and communal level.
Inkomo zamathanga referred to privately owned cattle, whereas inkomo zebutho or inkomo zenkosi referred to communally owned cattle.
Among the Ndebele cattle (inkomo) constituted a vital branch of production as the ownership of cattle determined social status and their acquisition was the major long-term economic objective of all Ndebele males.
The Ndebele acquired cattle mainly through raiding and breeding.
The cattle, which were seized through raids, were first of all taken to the king for him to distribute to his people.
Cattle also expanded by natural growth.
It was through the distribution of cattle that the king was able to boost his popularity among his followers.
Cattle raided from Gutu arrived at Gibixhegu in 1870 and were fairly distributed following ‘tolerably equitable principles’.
The accountability of the Ndebele leaders was usually expressed during indlala (famine), where they had to provide food to the people.
The king and his chiefs usually distributed cattle and amabele (millet, sorghum and maize) to the starving people.
The king and the chiefs kept grain in secure places so as to distribute to their people during times of crisis.
Indlala among the Ndebele was not just considered as a natural occurrence.
Causes were to be sought for it.
Thus, besides distributing cattle and grain to the starving people, the king was also obliged to investigate the causes of famine.
If the famine was caused by isikhongwana/intethe (locusts), the king and his chiefs had to look for traditional herbs and if the famine was caused by lack of izulu (rain), the king would send people to the rain-shrines like Njelele so as to get an explanation.


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