The notorious Native or District Commissioners: Part One


DURING the colonial days of Rhodesia there was a prominent, but evil government officer who to begin with was called, ‘Native Commissioner’ (NC), but later given the name ‘District Commissioner’ (DC).
Rhodesian colonial governments down the years told the world that the Native or District Commissioners were employed to take care of African affairs.
Their job description above sounded very innocent.
However, in reality, the native or district commissioners were, from an African point of view and experience, the alpha and omega – yes, the beginning and end of the ultimate colonial master bad guy.
From their experience the Africans considered the Native or District Commissioners their worst cruel ‘headmasters’ in what were called African Tribal Trust lands where those colonial commissioners generously used the big stick against them putting the fear of the whiteman in all of them.
The Native or District Commissioner stood between the Africans and the colonial governments handing over blacks to the colonial government whenever the whites needed to use the African or dumping the Africans into the Tribal Trust lands whenever the whiteman did not want to see the African near him.
It is the aim of this article to go over the history of the Native or District Commissioners and highlight some of the evil practices that were committed by those colonial government officers.
The story starts after the Anglo-Ndebele war had come to an end in 1893.
The people of Matabeleland had lost their leader, King Lobengula and for all intents and purposes had become leaderless.
To fill the vacuum the colonial government decided to recruit an officer who would take the role of King that had been vacated by Lobengula.
And so into the empty seat was thrown the Native Commissioner who to complete the coronation exercise was also referred to as ‘Nkosi’.
It should therefore not surprise anyone today when you read that throughout colonial Rhodesia, Native or District Commissioners were referred as ‘Nkosi’. It was the title given to the first Native commissioners and later acquired a life of its own. “After the Anglo – Ndebele war Cecil John Rhodes was looking for native commissioners to take care of the disrupted people of Matabeleland.
“The result was that one Herbert John Taylor (was recruited) and left Natal and assumed duty as Native Commissioner with one Johan Colenbrander and posted to Bulawayo to start work on October 1 1894.
“On May 1 1895, at the age of 30 he was appointed the first official Chief Native Commissioner for Matabeleland.”
It is important to take note that the year in which Native Commissioner Taylor became commissioner, was also the very year when the terrible portions of rural areas called ‘Native Reserves’ into which Africans evicted from newly created ‘European areas’ were founded.
And so one of the major reasons why Native Commissioner Taylor, like all future native commissioners after him, was appointed native commissioner was to superintend over the newly created ‘Native Reserves’, keeping the Africans in check there.
Mind you the Native Commissioners were considered, ‘guardians and protectors of natives’ (in reality boss boys of the entire African population).
One of the evils in which native or district commissioners got themselves heavily involved in early on was racial land apportionment.
The Native or District Commissioners were the chief commissars during the cutting up of our country’s land into black and white areas.
For example, Native Commissioner Taylor when he eventually became the Chief Native Commissioner of the entire country was the Chief consultant during the crafting of the scandalous Land Apportionment Act of 1931, which became, the “most important law governing land distribution in Rhodesia” at the time.
And what did that Law do?
“It established the principle of possessory segregation between black and white.
“The Land Apportionment Act went on to keep the African population in a state of serfdom and poverty.
“It gave away most of its cultivable land to the European farmers who very often received more land than they could utilise.
“Africans evicted from alienated lands were resettled in unproductive areas where they experienced an increasing land shortage and a rapid deterioration of the soil.
“The Land Apportionment Act also affected the African area adversely by its prevention of the flow of development capital from the (newly established) European to the African area and vice versa.
“It was therefore easy to deny the African farmer many privileges which were extended to his European counterpart.”
The District Commissioners were also at the centre of the crafting of various Land Acts inimical to African interests throughout colonialism culminating in the terrible Land Tenure Act which was enacted under the Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smiths regime which established a ‘de facto’ Apartheid state in Zimbabwe until Rhodesia came to an end in 1980.
Native or District Commissioners were not just involved in land only.
They dabbled in administration as well.
Don’t forget they were considered the ‘guardians and protectors’ of the African.
And so under their watch they were responsible for the creation of what became known first as, ‘Native Councils’ and later ‘African or Chiefs Councils’.
What was very sad about the creation of this council was that they were meant to perpetuate white paternalism over Africans.
This was because every ‘African’ or ‘Chiefs’ council’ was headed by the District Commissioner who was styled the ‘President’ of the council.
This kind of paternalism reached ridiculous situations because a native commissioner automatically became president of every Chiefs council in his district.
This meant that in a district like Binga or Gutu for example, where there are many Chiefs, the District Commissioner became a monster with a multiplicity of presidential heads in that area.
The Native Councils were also created to suck out money from the African population through ‘Mutero’ without however these councils carrying out any meaningful development in the ‘Reserves’.
These councils also passed very bad by-laws where the African was required to dig the back breaking ‘Makandiwa’- storm drains and yet white farmers were never required to dig (Makandiwa).
How unjust this was!
The Native or District Commissioners as we have already said were also responsible for handling over to the colonial state Africans for the use of those poor Africans by the state. This brings us to issues such as ‘Chibharo’. “The compulsory Native Labour Act (Chibharo Law) which empowered the State to conscript African males between the ages of 18 and 45 for service with European employers came into effect on August 1 1942.”
The implementation of this act was thrust into the hands of the Native or District Commissioners.
Officers called ‘organising officers’
were sent out from central government offices to District offices out in the country.
“The organising officers were each supplied with a schedule of labour requirements which included dates and places of delivery. “They were to call upon the assistance of all Native Commissioners who were to impress upon (read force) natives in their districts who are physically fit that it is their duty to obtain work.
“Messengers, Chiefs and headmen would assist the Native Commissioners in the recruitment drives.”
In the end, Africans were driven to suffer during Chibharo under the evil hands of the native and district commissioners.
Next week, we look at the role played by District Commissioners during the First and Second Chimurenga.


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