Lovemore Ranga Mataire Senior Writer
President Mnangagwa last week presented vehicles to 52 chiefs in Gweru at an indaba where the two parties exchanged views on various issues, including the new political dispensation in the country.
As was expected, there were shrieks of disapproval from opposition political parties regarding the provision of vehicles to chiefs. Much of the disapproval bordered on parochial political interests, with no attempt to appreciate the role of chiefs in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Traditional leaders, particularly chiefs, have since time immemorial played a critical role in the sustenance of African societies.
Before the advent of colonialism, chiefs were the ultimate authority that ensured societal cohesion, peace and order in their areas of jurisdiction. Most chieftainships were spiritually bestowed and owed their claim to the throne through a deity. It is the perceived spiritual powers largely associated with chieftainships that made them respectable – almost godly.
One overriding fact that any government ought to acknowledge is that traditional leaders still wield considerable power and influence among their subjects and remain the natural and legitimate leaders of their people.
Realising the attachment that ordinary people had to their traditional leaders, colonialism sought to desecrate most venerated traditional institutions as a way of dis-empowering and disconnecting indigenes from their sense of belonging.
Colonial administrators installed pliable chiefs, while rebellious ones were either sent to the gallows, maligned or hounded off their ancestral lands like Chief Rekayi Tangwena. Like African griots, traditional leaders are the custodians of a community’s history, its lineage and are essentially the moral and cultural compass of society.
Through spirit mediums, traditional leaders foretold the coming of the “people without knees” and it is them that inspired hordes of communities to rise against white colonial rule. Of course, there were other chiefs who collaborated with the colonial regime, but they remained a minority.
Chief Mapondera is one typical example of a man who was a spirit medium, a warrior and chief, who spearheaded colonial resistance until his capture. Spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda, Sekuru Kaguvi and Mkwati remain inspirational symbols of resistance in the First and Second Chimurenga. One scantily documented aspect of the Second Chimurenga is the role played by spirit mediums in giving direction and impetus to combatants.
Most ex-freedom fighters testify to the critical role played by spirit mediums in the liberation war, a development that remained incomprehensible to colonial administration, which failed to grasp how scantly equipped guerillas could hold their own against the mighty Rhodesian military.
Come 1980, history was not lost on the part of the governing ZANU-PF party, whose first task was to restore the dignity of chiefs by restoring those that had been dethroned and giving them back jurisdiction over communal lands and to resolve conflicts.
In pursuance of safeguarding the chiefs’ role in post-colonial Zimbabwe, the governing ZANU-PF, which has a special relationship with traditional leaders dating back to the liberation struggle, has made several interventions to restore their dignity. The missing ingredient that has always been a perennial grievance of chiefs has been the issue of mobility.
Most chiefs reside in rural communities with underdeveloped infrastructure and yet the areas under their jurisdiction are far and wide. Provision of all-terrain vehicles becomes a necessity for chiefs, who besides overseeing large domains, should also be given the due respect they deserve in their communities. It must also be noted that the Constitution of Zimbabwe acknowledges the need for the Government to provide some form of remuneration to traditional leaders.
It requires the remuneration and benefits of chiefs to be determined by the minister responsible for finance after consultation with the minister responsible for traditional affairs.
Headmen and village heads also receive monthly allowances, but these are insignificant compared to those accorded to chiefs. While respective ministers of finance and traditional affairs determine the nature of allowances and benefits for traditional leaders, the President has the final say in relation to the nature and extent of the remuneration for traditional authorities.
There is also a cultural practice whereby chiefs are allowed to keep fines imposed on offenders who are brought before traditional courts, including court appearance fees. The proceeds from the fines and court appearance fees are utilised at the discretion of the chief to support the activities of the institution of traditional leadership.
The creation of arms such as the Chiefs Council and the setting aside of seats in the Senate for traditional leaders show Government’s recognition of the esteemed office of chiefs in building a cohesive nation-state.
Indeed, other countries like Japan, China and India have modernised their economies, but like Zimbabwe, they have not sacrificed their cultural practices. In the eyes of ordinary people, Zimbabwean chiefs are said to have a connection to the land and are often seen as custodians of the land, customs and societal values.
It is therefore fallacious for the MDC-T and all other opposition political parties opposed to the provision of vehicles for chiefs because without traditional leaders, Zimbabwe risks being a dysfunctional society.
The 2013 Constitution, a product of all Zimbabweans and political parties, recognises the important role played by the institution of traditional leadership, especially when it comes to rural governance. Traditional leaders are generally regarded and accepted as the custodians of customs and traditions. They are a repository of a diversity of functions ranging from administrative functions to more extensive judicial and development duties.
One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that 67 percent of the Zimbabwean population reside in rural areas. It is in rural areas that the chief’s legitimacy, control and influence remain widespread, demonstrating remarkable resilience despite threats from some quarters seeking to undermine them. The provision of vehicles is thus a small gesture that any government is mandated to extend to ensure that the institution of traditional leadership remains functional and respected and is preserved for posterity.