Of chieftainships in Zim and beyond

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By Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu

ZIMBABWE has had many chieftainship claims in its various administrative regions since its independence in 1980.
Some of the claims have been for the revival of chieftainships abolished by the colonial regime, either after the defeat of the last Ndebele monarch in 1893, or since the 1896-97 national uprising, now referred to as the First Chimurenga, but formerly called the Ndebele and the Shona rebellions by colonial historians.
Some chieftainships were abolished or downgraded by the colonial administrations after the First World War to honour an understanding between Cecil John Rhodes and some Nguni chiefs at the historic 1897 Matopo (Hills) Indaba that created a ceasefire between Ndebele nationalists and the British South Africa Company (BSAC)’s colonial forces.
That understanding was not immediately enforced in some Matabeleland areas, the region most affected, and was superceded by another made at the Plumtree Native Commissioner’s office shortly before the First World War.
That agreement was between a Chief Mpukane Ndiweni of Osabeni and the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department.
The chief was requested to recruit military personnel for the Rhodesian Army which was fighting on the British side against the Germans in the then German West Africa, now Namibia, and that if the British won the war, they would thank Chief Ndiweni by appointing two of his sons as chiefs in areas which were at that time headed by Kalanga chiefs.
That occurred in the 1920s when one of the chief’s sons, Bhidi, was appointed chief in a part of the Matobo District, then under the Plumtree Native Commissioner’s Office, but later under a native commissioner based at Kezi.
A part of Chief Malaba’s area and that of Headman Kwiyani Malaba were arbitrarily placed under Bhidi and was called by his name.
Later, in the early 1950s, Chief Bhidi’s brother, Ndabakayena, was literally taken from the Osabeni area and planted in the Nata Reserve, some 50-or-so kilometres to the north following the demotion of a number of Kalanga chiefs such as Chief Hikwa, Chief Hingwe, Chief Madlambudzi, Chief Masendu, and one or two others.
That was a development to fulfill the undertaking made to Chief Mpukane Ndiweni at Plumtree at the beginning of the Second World War.
That led to the replacement of some Kalanga chieftainships in the Bulilima, Matobo and Mangwe districts with Nguni chieftainships.
It is fortunate that some of those traditional leadership positions have recently been upgraded from headmen to their former senior rank.
Some need to be restored to their former status as a recognition of the constitutional and traditional tribal rights of the communities that were unfairly disadvantaged by the colonial Southern Rhodesian regime.
Meanwhile, concerted attempts to resuscitate the Ndebele Kingship need to take into serious consideration two very, very important facts: One is historical, and it is that most of what was later generally referred to as Matabeleland was, in fact, Mambo’s territory, and included a part of what is now a northern Botswana region, and was between Macloutsie (formerly Mntotsi) River right up to the Ramaquebane (formerly Mukwebana) River, a predominately BaKalanga area.
The other is a constitutional fact which is that the current Zimbabwe Constitution, which is the supreme national law, does not have a provision for kings but only for chiefs.
The legal difference between a traditional or hereditary king is that a traditional or hereditary chief is either a head and/or a ruler of a tribe or a clan, but a hereditary king is a traditional male sovereign ruler of an independent state.
A king cannot, strictly speaking, be found in a republic because a kingdom is, in effect, a king’s possession or a territory where supreme power is held by a king (or queen), whereas a republic is a state in which supreme power is held by the people or their elected representatives, or by an elected or nominated president, certainly not by a king or queen.
The word ‘republic’ is formed from two Latin words: ‘res’ which means ‘thing’, and ‘publicus’ which means ‘public’, thus republic means ‘thing of the public’.
If we look at the origins of the same word through French etymological spectacles, we see that the word ‘res’ means ‘concern’, and ‘publicus’ retains its original Latin meaning, ‘public’, thus ‘republic’ also means ‘thing of public concern’.
The Zimbabwe national liberation armed struggle’s aim was to restore land ownership to the people as a whole, and not to monarchs, hence the Lancaster House ‘republican’ Constitution.
It would have been an extremely difficult task to revert to the pre-1890 administrative Zimbabwe in that, at that fairly distant past, Mashonaland had 32 chiefdoms.
Some historians would call them ‘kingdoms’ because each chief was sovereign and actually equal in status to his neighbour.
The Munhumutapa Empire had run its historic course and had become effete, its vitality having been exhausted with the passage of time.
It would have thus been impossible to redraw the geographical boundaries of each of those former kingdoms, for that is what they were to all intents and purposes.
In any case, it would have been utterly contrary to modern African nationalists’ aspirations to have tens of economically non-viable micro-states instead of a unitary macro-republic.
In Matabeleland, a region formerly ruled by Mambo, King Mzilikazi’s forces established military villages and either physically eliminated former Rozwi (Lozi) rulers such as Hwange and his paternal cousins and Kalanga chiefs such as Dalawundra, Gonde and others, or merely replaced them during his 28 years’ rule (1840 up to 1868) with Nguni rulers, a policy which was continued during Lobengula’s 23 year-long rule (1870 to 1893).
The former Mambo era was not at all highlighted in the formal history lessons of the country during the colonial period.
It was as if the country’s past began with the arrival of the Nguni people from across the Limpopo River.
This is an important fact to bear in mind whenever we are discussing the revival or restoration of traditional leadership positions in Matabeleland.
We should not simply gloss over it.
It is also most important to remember that traditional leadership is tribal-based, and that the Matabeleland region has many tribal communities: Suthus, Vendas, Nambyas, Tongas, BaKalanga, the San, Ngunis, Xhosa, Dombes and, of course, the Rozwi (Lozis).
If there has to be a king, each of those ethnic groups should have its own choice and certainly not be compelled by a past, that cannot be redeemed, to live under a leadership whose cultural practices are alien to them.
That is what Zimbabweans fought for and that is what we constitutionally deserve, in practice; nothing less.
Lest the reader misunderstands this position to mean that this article supports the restoration or revival of monarchies, the author hastens to state that it does not.
However, it recognises the fact that in Zimbabwe, the traditional and cultural installation of chieftainships is constitutionally protected and promoted.
While it is pragmatic about this, it most strongly maintains that chiefs must be identified or selected by the masses in truly free, fair and unfettered circumstances.
It is a deplorable and outdated practice for an individual to identity himself as a chief, and/or a king, then proceeds to campaign for himself to be king or chief and finally installs or crowns himself as chief or king.
If that is not a clear case of self-imposition, what else can it be called?
It is obviously undemocratic and should have no place in a democratic dispensation such as is currently obtaining in Zimbabwe, a country of republicans and not royalists.
Chieftainships and kingships have long been overtaken by modern socio-cultural and economic trends.
Not only that, both traditions are not economic or democratic assets to any community.
They are liabilities and burdens on taxpayers and, thus on the fiscus.
That is why, in the whole of Africa today, only three countries are headed by kings: Morocco, Swaziland and Lesotho.
Most African states abolished those institutions years ago.
However, those who feel very strongly that there should be a chief (or a king) in their area should be prepared to pay him or her themselves rather than burden those who do not benefit from the unimportant services offered by these hereditary leaders.
That is why Tanzania abolished the chieftainship institution and replaced it with a modern administrative system.
Today’s nations promote the freedom of choice and association.
Their leaders and people’s representatives are selected and elected in free and unfettered circumstances, without let or hindrance.
They are leaders not by accident of birth.
Be that as it may, those who would like to have hereditary rulers over them had better find a way of maintaining such an outdated leadership tradition.
As it is, the present duties of chiefs are to preside over petty civil cases and to settle some intra and inter-family disputes. In some countries, they act as political field agents of some oppressive ruling parties, and are protected by relevant statutes.
In Zimbabwe, they are promoted and protected by the 1959 Native Affairs Amendment Act, first passed in 1928 as the Native Affairs Act.
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through email: sgwakuba@gmail.com

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