Traditional leaders in Zimbabwe must toe the ruling party line — or else

Harare — Chief Nhlanhlayemangwe Ndiweni of Ntabazinduna in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South province says being apolitical has led to his persecution by powerful elements within the country’s ruling party, Zanu-PF.

The chief returned to the country after living in the United Kingdom for four decades to succeed his father, Chief Khayisa Ndiweni, a revered traditional figure who died in 2010, aged 97. Ndiweni was a strong critic of former president Robert Mugabe.

When the younger chief took over from his father, he was viewed with suspicion by Mugabe’s regime, especially given his background in Britain — a country that Mugabe blamed for many of Zimbabwe’s ills.

But Chief Ndiweni’s problems did not end with Mugabe’s fall last year in November, even though the chief tries his best to stay out of politics.

In an interview, the chief said this has created serious problems for him as some in the ruling party now want to politicise his position. They view his refusal to support new president Emmerson Mnangagwa as an endorsement of the opposition.

Minister of Home Affairs and Culture Dr Obert Mpofu has called him a “political and traditional tyrant”, while others have supported a bid from a sibling to challenge his authority. Ndiweni is also fighting court charges relating to arson and violence — charges that he claims have been trumped up to make his life difficult.

READ MORE: Even before the vote, Zimbabwe’s election is not credible

In Zimbabwe, the choices have always been very clear to traditional leaders: they either must push the ruling Zanu-PF’s agenda and benefit from the entrenched patronage system, or refuse to cooperate and be victimised.

For Zanu-PF — and indeed for the colonial administrations which preceded the party — traditional leaders exert influence over a crucial constituency. “Traditional leaders remain the most accessible and immediate form of local governance in rural areas,” wrote academic Tinashe Chigwata in the Law, Development and Democracy journal.

The pressure to toe the ruling party line always mounts ahead of elections, and this year is no different. The president of the Zimbabwe Council of Chiefs, Fortune Charumbira, was especially blunt: he told the Council’s 2017 annual conference that traditional leaders have been supporting and must continue to support Zanu-PF and its presidential candidate in the forthcoming 2018 elections.

For this the Election Resource Centre dragged him court, where a judge ruled that traditional leaders should not participate in partisan politics as it was in contravention of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Section 281 of the constitution states that: “Traditional leaders must not (a) be members of any political party or in any way participate in partisan politics; (b) act in a partisan manner; (c) further the interests of any political party or cause; or (d) violate the fundamental rights and freedoms of any person.”

But chiefs don’t always consider themselves bound by the Constitution. “The problem is that traditional chiefs do not perceive their role as derived from the constitution, they see it as part of historical traditional authority governed by rules embedded in community practices of authority. Unfortunately, these practices were politically corrupted by the colonial regime on one end and Zanu-PF on the other,” said Gideon Chitanga, a researcher at Political Economy Southern Africa, a think tank.

Political analyst Ricky Mukonza said that support for Zanu-PF comes with material rewards for traditional leaders, often in the form of new vehicles and free agricultural inputs. These rewards can feed in to local patronage systems, further increasing the influence of compliant chiefs – and, ultimately, support for the ruling party.

In January this year, ZanuPF purchased 52 brand-new double-cab bakkies to distribute to traditional leaders, over the protests of opposition groups who claimed the cars were nothing more than “bribes”.

Needless to say, Chief Ndiweni did not get one.

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Kudzai Mashininga
Kudzai Mashininga

Mashininga is an experienced Zimbabwean journalist.

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