HARARE - Tendai Biti’s opposition PDP has accused traditional chiefs of being unwittingly and gradually drawn into the political fray by the State, becoming agents of coercion for President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF, contrary to their much-vaunted role as custodians of national culture and traditional values.
Gorden Moyo, the PDP secretary-general, said the traditional leadership institution was acting to support the governing Zanu PF, and this was imperilling free, fair and credible elections.
“... traditional authorities such as chiefs, headmen or women and village heads have been deployed to police villagers; campaign for Zanu PF candidates; shunt villagers to vote according to their village arrangements, thereby violating the sanctity of the ballot; cajole suspected opposition members to pretend to be illiterate so as to be assisted to vote for Zanu PF; and unleash terror to the defiant voters,” Moyo said.
“In this way, chiefs act as auxiliaries of the ruling elite.”
While president of the Chiefs’ Council Fortune Charumbira was unreachable for comment yesterday, Chief Musarurwa said: “It’s not true. Hatisi veZanu PF, MDC, Nda, tisu varidzi venyika, we guard it jealously. Mapolitical parties must not involve us in their political issues, hatimo zvachose. He must read the new Constitution.”
This comes after the State has awarded traditional leaders hefty monthly allowances — more than the minimum wage of an average worker — including farms, farm machinery, generators, houses, mobile phones, vehicles, fuel and electricity to retain their support. To further gratify the chiefs, national flags were hoisted in their homesteads and oversized gowns, which look-like judiciary apparels, were given to them as status symbols.
In return of these favours and privileges and as a quid pro quo, chiefs have rendered unconditional support for Mugabe and his lieutenants in Zanu PF.
In return, the traditional leaders have shepherded their subjects to polling stations where chiefs’ hirelings keep a register of voters as they arrive.
The former State Enterprises minister said while yesterday traditional leaders were agents of colonialism, today they are agents of electoral authoritarian regime of Mugabe.
Successive colonial administrations, particularly that of Ian Smith, connived with them, and the leaders proved an ideal medium of propaganda to discredit the nationalist struggle for independence. Smith pampered chiefs into believing that accepting sham independence under a “bantustan-type” alternative government, they would wield more power as free agents.
Musarurwa said there was no way the chiefs could have colluded with the white settlers.
“Varungu vakatora nyika kumadzimambo, nyika yakatorerwa madzimambo, we are the real custodians and we will ever allow anyone kuyidzorera kuvarungu,” he said.
Moyo said similarly, Zanu PF has used the chiefs.
He said chiefs were deployed as agents in the process of collecting the much-hated hut tax, dog tax, head tax and poll tax from the impoverished masses on behalf of the racist government of Smith.
And they were handsomely paid for this heinous work.
There are mounting concerns that chiefs are abrogating their traditional role of interceding with the ancestors on behalf of their subjects for more involvement in mainstream politics.
A number of post-independence nationalist governments across Africa sidelined the chieftaincy institution during the early years of their rule, with Mozambique, Tanzania and Burkina Faso actually outlawing the traditional leadership institution because it was viewed as a colonial vestige, gerontocratic, chauvinistic and patriarchal institution with no role in a modern democratic society.
At Zimbabwe’s independence, Mugabe stripped chiefs of their powers, including chiefly authority on extra-judicial and administrative matters accusing them of colluding and collaborating with the Smith regime for their personal survival at the expense of the people.
Subsequently, a raft of prime-ministerial decrees and a battery of legislation were enacted to subalternise and peripherise chieftaincy then. These included the District Councils Act of 1980; the Communal Lands Acts of 1981 and 1982; the Customary and Primary Courts Act of 1981; the Provincial Councils and Administration Act of 1985; the Rural Districts Act of 1988; the Chiefs and Headmen Act of 1988; and the Customary Law and Courts Act of 1990.
The legal instruments were part of the process of disempowerment of chiefs for their role as sell-outs and stooges of the colonial regime.
The Mugabe regime has since revived and valorised the traditional leadership institution for the reasons which are not dissimilar to the colonial strategies.
When Mugabe’s government began to lose legitimacy and relevance in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it solicited the services of chiefs to save it from imminent political demise, Moyo said.
The Traditional Leaders Act (1998) was rehashed in order to recreate, reproduce and re-imagine the colonial-like chief who would discipline the rural voters on behalf of the ruling elite.
The Traditional Leaders Act refashioned the chiefs and headmen or women as very powerful actors and vectors in the political sphere in Zimbabwe.
This happened against the backdrop of the challenge to State power mounted by the then strong opposition — the Movement for Democratic Change.
“Just as the colonial governments used patron-client strategy to corrupt the chiefs, the Mugabe regime bought the loyalty of chiefs through the provisioning of personal benefits,” Moyo said.
Moyo said his party would like to salute all those chiefs who have resisted co-option by Zanu PF and have adhered to the norms and values of traditional chiefly functions as custodians and guardians of traditional resources, culture, environment, conflict resolution, promotion of deliberative democracy, and protection of the poor in their communities.
“Some of these cultural giants have been punished, some de-stooled and some deprived of chiefly privileges while others have been humiliated for refusing to sell their souls,” he said.
“These are the chiefs with “pedigree required to take Zimbabwe back onto the track.”