Mr Mnangagwa: traditional chiefs must go

By Tafi Mhaka

I have always believed that traditional leaders should be done away with in their current form. So, when I was an Advanced Level student and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, accompanied by Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, happened to visit Prince Edward High School in Harare, I chose to remain at home and listen to music all day long; simply because I refused to fawn over Queen Elizabeth II and sing “God save the Queen”, the British national anthem.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa handing over Isuzu twin cabs to chiefs
President Emmerson Mnangagwa handing over Isuzu twin cabs to chiefs

I had studied the 1789 French Revolution in fascinating detail and loved the intellectual works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), two highly influential French thinkers who advanced progressive ideals that helped stimulate the turbulent achievement of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and a promising social order based on scientific reason, and not theoretical reliance on religion and tradition.

Subsequently, my respect for low-class workers and peasants increased by leaps and bounds, and I continually questioned the continued existence of seemingly special classes in a world where the need for classlessness was clearly reasonable, unequivocal and highly advantageous for social and economic progress.

I became so disillusioned with the institution of traditional chiefs and selection processes premised on relations and not clear know-how, eventually I shunned the endless, glowing media coverage, which accompanied chiefs, kings and queens all over the world, and certainly did not buy in to the holy fabric of tradition and culture.

But the unfortunate death of Princess Diana in a horrific car accident on a Paris highway in 1997 touched me. Then, I believed that her seemingly sad marriage of convenience, combined with the unreasonable expectations of millions of avid fans and royal watchers, annihilated her soul. She suffered a damning end to her shackled existence on this earth because of the punishing demands of fanciful, archaic beliefs.

Married into a rich, conservative and fantastical facade where millions of followers and “subjects” expected her to transform into an ever-smiling, meek princess, Diana surprised her fans and espoused common needs and values: she represented social progress and the need for fairness and adoption of less exclusionary practices rooted in so-called tradition. I felt her pain and agreed with her republican ideals.

Then, later on, a chance encounter with a chief in Honde Valley confirmed all of the suspicions I had held about blind faith in redundant customs since high school, and clarified the need to do away with the current institution of traditional chiefs.

I had driven to Manicaland for the weekend in 2002 when a few friends and I parked at a bar in Chisuko, a village located along the road that leads to Katiyo Tea Estates in Honde Valley. There I had an informative conversation with a chief.

Although he was as drunk as a skunk and incoherent in manner and speech, the chief explained how he had landed authority ahead of his siblings. However, his absolute blankness, inebriated demeanour and confident sense of entitlement shocked me. Besides the accidental circumstances of his birth, I wondered, what natural characteristic, scholarly qualification or trustworthy competency made him leadership material?

Subconsciously, I recalled the all-conquering chiefs and kings of the 1800s, traditional leaders such as King Mzilikazi, and wondered whether this man with whom I had been engaged in casual conversation with had ever enriched the lives of the disadvantaged villagers who lived in the relatively undeveloped valley; and I considered how a lack of development in rural communities has created confusing and unnecessary responsibilities for traditional chiefs.

According to the Constitution of Zimbabwe 2013, chiefs have a responsibility “to facilitate development”. However, in an age where representatives must earn a fresh political mandate every five years, and skilled workers have to receive constant training in specific trades and meet set targets – simply to stay competitive in an ever-changing economy – how do chiefs validate their positions and privileges in modern society and promote practical progress?

While the need to “promote and uphold cultural values of their communities and, in particular, to promote sound family values” remains essential, people cannot survive on culture alone. So the government should focus on essential service chiefs and workers instead, as the chiefs seem focused on promoting political positions through their sphere of influence.

And furthermore, an obligation to manage “communal land and to protect the environment” should be the duty of environmental experts. Yet strikingly, the traditional chiefs, who remain enthusiastically tied to the ruling party, retain a quasi-technical role in this realm.

And while thousands of communities lack access to safe roads, electricity, piped water, jobs, productive land and proper education, health and social facilities, traditional chiefs receive preferential treatment for praiseworthy but largely impractical and wishy-washy responsibilities.

I know people who grew up without a traditional chief to call on for cultural guidance and turned out fine. But regrettably, a sensitive, cultural matter is deflecting attention away from a desperate need to actually develop rural communities; and considering that approximately 67.72% of the population live in underdeveloped areas, surely this is where the best administrators, accountants, doctors, engineers, teachers and civil professionals should be deployed in place of the traditional chiefs that run the show there?

Needless to say, unscrupulous civil servants and traditional chiefs represent a powerful and regressive class of dodgy rulers. We read all about the well-known “chefs” in the papers and see how well their families live. Life tends to be simple and money seemingly grows on trees if you have the right DNA flowing in your blood and powerful acquaintances on speed dial.

So while traditional chiefs clamour for spanking-new Isuzu trucks and meaningful benefits, chief operating officers like Simba Chikore, husband to Bona Mugabe, want to own brand-new airlines named Zimbabwe Airways, and advantaged, chief-like characters, individuals like Patrick Zhuwao, nephew to Robert Mugabe, want to accumulate power.

So, yes, chiefs have an essential role to play in society, preferably only a ceremonial and voluntary function through which they can promote indigenous languages, cultural practices and family values; however, like in all of the major cities, highly paid professionals should be responsible for the all-inclusive development of rural communities, and all men and women should be born equal.