HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsOf puppets and stooge chieftainship — a case of tragic déjà vu

Of puppets and stooge chieftainship — a case of tragic déjà vu


While going through my old history school books over the weekend, I came across readings that jerked me rather brutally into the present unenviable position that our traditional leaders find themselves in.

Like their pre-independence peers, most of our chiefs and headmen have knowingly and willingly or enticed and threatened to throw away their dignity, to go against their own people and to become puppets of the establishment.

Those of our traditional healers who were around during the Ian Smith era must view their current position with a sense of frightful déjà vu.

No sooner had the chiefs thought their power, respect and dignity had been restored, did the new government of the people return, carrot before them, to transform them once again into totally and utterly submissive puppets.

It is clear as day the historical pattern of Rhodesian settler response to black resistance has been adopted in exact format by the latter-day black establishment fighting resistance and imminent removal from power by their own people. It is a matter of “when all else fails, turn to the chiefs!”

Just as the Ian Smith regime made the institution of chieftaincy an entrenched organ of settler control in the rural areas, President Robert Mugabe too turned to the chiefs when he faced a real threat to the throne in the form of the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai in the early 2000.

The modus operandi is exactly the same. Other than the few who refused to give up their dignity and resisted literal castration, the rest were reduced to mere puppets of the establishment, sellouts, according to their own subjects and the liberation war fighters that had risen to fight for democracy.

Before the Rhodesian Front party declared its illegal rebellion against Britain in 1965, it turned to its only source of black support, its puppets, the chiefs.

The colonial government sent a group of chiefs to argue its case for independence in London, but the British Prime Minister refused to meet them and proceeded to spite them by choosing to meet with nationalist leaders of the time, Joshua Nkomo and Ndabaningi Sithole.

The chiefs (on instruction, of course) were quite livid about it.

They claimed they were the true representatives of the people and that they (as chiefs) did not recognise Nkomo and Sithole. Sounds familiar?

The Smith regime, in declaring UDI, advanced the chiefs as the sole arbiters of black opinion and, as expected of the pampered stooges, they supported a stance that had been overwhelmingly rejected by the black majority.

What the chiefs received from government those days was equivalent to today’s electrified houses, vehicles, salaries and assurances of undisputed and sometimes illegitimate chieftainship longevity.

It is no wonder today that cases of chieftainship rows, like the Svosve, Vapfumbi and the Charumbira chieftainships (just to mention a few) have been heavily politicised.

Clearly legitimate chiefs have had their thrones stolen in broad daylight because they are deemed politically incorrect and the final decision comes from a government minister who himself is a political animal with obvious vested interests.

Celebrated Chief Rekayi Tangwena is one of the few that refused to be made puppets. He said then:

“I am not a politician. There are many chiefs who think they can play the role of a double agent by going into politics and at the same time being chiefs. This is impossible. I cannot be bought. Government agents offered me £300 plus full title of a chief, but that I rejected and will reject. I and money do not mix.”

Tangwena had just been selected as the new chief and this coincided with a dispute over land and labour in Nyanga where the District Commissioner (DC) refused to accept the chosen chief until he signed a labour agreement with a local white farmer who wanted to have the Tangwena people removed from the area.

When he refused to sign, the DC took away from Tangwena the red robe, the white pith helmet and the half-moon neck chain with which the Rhodesian regime invested approved chiefs.

Tangwena was later to say of the disrobing: “. . . They took from me that chain that made one look like a donkey, that Smith used to indicate which of the chiefs were his donkeys, so they would not go astray. I didn’t mind because I didn’t like to appear like a donkey.”

There are Tangwenas among our chiefs today who value democracy and have refused to be made political tools, to be made to look like donkeys.

For them, life will be made difficult. They will be vilified and even dethroned, but they will remain with the support of their subjects and, like Tangwena, they will one day emerge the true heroes of their people and nation, not the sugar-loving stooges of corrupt governments and dictatorships.

While Chief Tangwena became a symbol of resistance, there were many other chiefs who also suffered for their refusal to support government policy.

In the early 1960s the nationally famous Chief Mangwende became one of the first in a long line of chiefs to be deposed for “insubordination”.

But a leader who agrees to be used by a regime and acts like a politician at the expense of his own people will never be a chief worth his name.

His frightened subjects will call him names behind his back and they will never know the meaning of respect.

Feedback: tangaic@newsday.co.zw

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