Zimbabwean chiefs have always looked like caricatures in their colonial regalia that included funny-coloured gowns and bronze or copper crescents that hung from their necks like talismans.
The Ministry of Local Government is right to call for change describing the old regalia as outdated and detached from the country’s history, culture and traditions.
According to the ministry, it is therefore, “imperative to customise their regalia so that it speaks to our history, ethos, values and our aspirations as a people”.
Interestingly, outdated regalia is not peculiar to chiefs; our judges also wear colonial attire which looks funny especially to people born after independence. Those wigs would have been appropriate perhaps on the heads of white judges, but on black ones they look ridiculous.
But it will be very interesting to figure out what the expression “our history, ethos, values and our aspirations as a people” means.
The role played by Zimbabwean chiefs has been controversial recently. They are supposed, according to the Constitution, to be traditional leaders and custodians of indigenous belief systems.
Most importantly, they have are supposed to be apolitical. But we have seen how they been turned into political animals used by the ruling party to keep their subjects in line.
They are often used to intimidate subjects deemed to be supporting opposition parties. This they have done openly by denying such people food hand-outs in times of drought and farming inputs during planting seasons. They have also been reported campaigning publicly for the ruling party during election times.
As a result they have reneged on their duty of being father figures to everyone falling under their reign.
Now the ministry that runs the affairs of these chiefs has called on Zimbabwean designers to participate in a competition to design new regalia for the chiefs. It wouldn’t be surprising if the winning design has the Zanu PF flag on it, or worse the portrait of President Robert Mugabe, because the chiefs serve the interests only of the ruling party and its president.
For any re-design of the chiefs’ clothing to be meaningful a robust debate has to be initiated during which the country’s true ethos and aspirations are defined. These should be timeless and should not be determined by the current political situation.
The temptation of any designer is to try to please the current political leaders of the country, but these chiefs will continue to subsist even when the fortunes of the country fall into the hands of other leaders who are not Zanu PF.
The chiefs’ regalia should speak to those traditions of the country that define us as Zimbabweans. They should speak to our love for peace and our country’s flora and fauna. This ethos cannot be trapped into any designs if our chiefs remain partisan and continue to serve narrow political interests.
And while this debate is on, the attire of our judges should also go through similar public scrutiny. We want our judges to look Zimbabwean and behave Zimbabwean. At the moment they look alienated from the people they are meant to serve by looking so alien.