When the first settlers arrived in the country after 1890, they found a country occupied by two main ethnic groupings – the one dominated by the Shona people and the other dominated by the Ndebele. Both Ethnic Nations were governed by Tribal Chiefs who represented the interests of the people, resolved conflicts and determined policies to govern the communities they led.
Under Shona culture, the Chiefs were selected from specific families and clans and by a Tribal Council of elders called the Dare. These were managed along traditional lines and the majority of decisions were taken by consensus. In this respect Shona political culture was democratic in character.
While the Ndebele political culture was similar in many respects, Chiefs were selected by heredity and the title was passed down from father to son. Ndebele political culture included a Chiefs Council or Imbizo but was much more authoritarian in character. Decisions were most often taken on a top down basis with the Councils being an advisory body to the Chief and the King.
Following the imposition of a more modern system of government by the settlers after 1893, the Chiefs role was restricted and modified and by 1960 was relegated to the traditional leadership of the people living in the “tribal areas”. These were areas restricted to the occupation of indigenous black Zimbabweans and constituted 16 million hectares or just over 40 per cent of the total area of the country. Following Independence in 1980, 3,8 million hectares of land held by commercial farmers was purchased and transferred to tribal occupation raising the area under tribal dispensation to over 50 per cent.
During the era under the Rhodesian Government, the Chiefs position was abused and they were required to act as agents of central Government. This often brought them into conflict with their own subjects and demeaned their position and status as custodians of the people’s interests and concerns.
Chiefs who opposed the policies and views of the Central Government were often removed from their posts and replaced with someone who would be more accommodating. This situation was exacerbated during the liberation struggle when the Traditional leaders often found themselves in the middle.
Since Independence the situation has deteriorated still further. Chiefs and Headmen are expected to act as agents of the Zanu PF Party and have been put onto the payroll of Central Government as an incentive. Some Chiefs and Headmen – especially in the southern regions where the Ndebele are dominant - retain a measure of independence. In the Shona dominated areas this is not generally the case. The authority of Chiefs has been extended to cover resettlement areas where small holder activities predominate.
As a consequence of this process, the position of the traditional leadership has been eroded. In the debate over the new national Constitution, the role of the Chiefs and their position in society was hotly debated and in the end their role as custodians of culture and language was recognised, but little else.
The Present Position
The affairs and concerns of traditional leaders is taken up in the following structures:
The Chiefs Council
277 Chiefs throughout the Country
1300 Headmen – some recognised (400) and others informal
Up to 80 000 Village Heads
1 million farmers involving an estimated 6 million people
Administratively and politically these are organised into approximately 1600 wards and 53 Districts in 10 Provinces. As was the case in the Rhodesian era, they are linked to Central Government through District Administrators and Provincial Administrators to the Ministry of Local Government. They are closely monitored by the security services and a network of informers. Open support for the MDC can result in the withdrawal of privileges and benefits and even dismissal and replacement.
Policy Position towards the Traditional Leadership
As the country moves into the future, the MDC recognises not only the traditional role of the Chiefs and Headmen as custodians of our cultures and language and history but also as representatives of the people under their administration and their importance in maintaining our unique character as Africans. All of this is under threat, first by the abuse of the leadership by political parties in pursuit of their own agendas and by the process of modernization and development. If these threats are not resolved and dealt with they will threaten the very foundations of our society.
The cultural values and norms of Ubuntu are thought to be those that concur with the values and norms of the MDC :- solidarity in community, service to others, respect for the rights of others and loyalty to family and clan. Many features of African culture are superior to other cultures in that it teaches respect for elders, humility, strong family ties together with openness and acceptance and a readiness to help with each others essential needs. Our indigenous languages are unique and descriptive and our common heritage includes the vivid stories of our history, the past kingdoms of the Monomatapa and Mzilikazi.
These characteristics result in resilient communities that work closely together and support each other and communicate across the globe. They must not be lost as Zimbabwe, with the rest of Africa, modernizes and participates in the global economy and society. This will not be automatic and must be carefully nurtured and fostered to ensure that future generations do not lose their character as authentic Africans.
In many ways the key to this process is how we treat the institutions of traditional leadership and culture in our society. Japan, China and India have modernized their economies without sacrificing their culture and languages. We need to do the same; these goals and objectives are not in conflict.
I feel deeply sad when I come across young people who clearly have adopted a form of western, particularly US culture, and no longer have respect or time for their roots. Often they regard their rural relatives as “primitive” and treat them without respect. We are all to blame for this and the time for remedial action is now.
Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on his website www.eddiecross.africanherd.com