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Enter the chief of chiefs: Nhlanhlayamangwe Ndiweni

mathabelazitha/the anvil BY ZIFISO MASIYE

He struck some chord inside of me and, like many, I too set out to meet the person Nhlanhlayamangwe Ndiweni. And nothing could provide a setting any better than iconic Dumiso Dabengwa’s rustic, dusty rural farewell.

There lies a perennial underdog in me that had been pleasantly awoken and inspired by the preceding week’s tumultuous events and utterances associated with the maverick chief. But it was the social researcher in me that was roundly intrigued by this refreshing counter-phenomenon of traditional leadership. Aren’t we all accustomed to the annoying breed of card-waving, pliant, spineless follow-fashion chiefs!

His charming persona, disarming humility, his poise genteel, his demeanour super-calm, effortless, his hospitality and his polished manner of speech all belie the militant defiance and courageous lion inside of the man. His composed candour, his basic knowledge and depth made me wonder, what would Zimbabwe be with 10 such chiefs inside that Council of Chiefs?

The sprawling crowds, amongst them city dwellers — spanking in their black suits and mourning paraphernalia (is it just me or funerals are increasingly out-dressing weddings?) they swarmed the bare, scantily dressed, dusty vlei of Manxeleni, hardly prepared to hit bare earth on their bottoms. But the chief, reminding them succinctly, both of the demands of the sombre occasion and of royal etiquette, swiftly cajoled the crowds standing akimbo to descend to the thorny, dusty ground, to sit and listen, as their subject-forebears would to royalty addressing them.

As if to an accomplished choir master’s rehearsed hand signal, we all fell down in unison squinting our dusty eyes up at him — all ears! [Njengamasi anyomulwe umunge!].

And so, he spoke.

“That His Excellency, the president of the Republic of Zimbabwe’s national identity card bears the name of the chief, from whose village he hails is no registration accident of identity. Neither too is it an error of the law of the land, nor an omission of history that none of your citizens’ registration documents, so much as acknowledges some political formation, or bears the name of the president or a politician from your neighbourhood ….’’

That basic indicator of the correct juxtaposition of political versus traditional leadership, the chief explained, must form the foundation of understanding that one’s citizenship, and every entitlement that flows from such citizenship, is a natural right — one that accrues from and is guaranteed — not by transient, elective political authority, but by that enduring connectedness and the divine power of cultural leadership bestowed kings, queens and chieftainships long before politics was first conceived.

In many respects, the death of Zipra supremo and the veteran stalwart, Dumiso Dabengwa was remarkable. Among other things, it beamed a fresh spotlight on the historical contestation around the clumsy dichotomy of political vs traditional authority as sources both of legitimacy and effective governance in Zimbabwe: an instructive case study for students of politics, leadership and governance.

Born in Ntabazinduna, a revered, historical centrepiece and final rendezvous of the proud tapestry of King Mzilikazi’s royal travels, married both unto the royal inner circle of the Nguni-Khumalos and unto a protracted liberation war, he so ingeniously executed a war whose political progeny remained a stunted down syndrome right up to his last breath, Dabengwa’s life, like his coffin, always seemed stuck at Nhlambabaloyi, a symbolic dust-to-tar crossroads between elective politics and traditional culture.

In Zanu PF myopia, state institutions must either belong, be swallowed, and be at the unapologetic service of the ruling party or they be deemed treasonous and forbidden. This government has always struggled to find that happy meeting point between its elective political creatures and the hereditary, traditional leadership system of society. From 1984, the brazen attempt in Mugabe’s prime minister’s directive to ignore, sideline and altogether elbow out traditional leaders from the governance matrix soon hit the development brickwall with a resounding thud.

The world view of significant Zimbabwean population is primarily informed by spiritually, the enduring primacy of an intricate network of culture, indigenous knowledge and symbolic value systems which resonate less with political election as it does with the indigenous rootedness of Amakhosi. The mushrooming of chaotic centres of power occasioned by demonstrable political disdain of traditional culture in the 1990s, brought Zanu PF back to its rare senses with the Rukuni Land Commission and the Traditional Leaders Act of 1998. The chiefs had bounced back.

Afrocentric theorists of socio-cultural essentialism keep arguing then and now, that underlying the litany of governance challenges faced by Zimbabwe has always been the invisible hand of culture. So eloquently, did Chief Ndiweni rebuke the naivety and the futility of traditional leaders reducing themselves to the authority of politicians, the stupidity of succumbing to the expedient, whimsical power of politics and politicians.

The chief, as if to educate his boss, Fortune Charumbira explained politely how traditional leaders who are the landlord-in-chief and primary shareholders of the lives and the futures of citizens should not and cannot answer to politicians who virtually rent a five year lease of space in the lives of the people!

Chief Ndiweni explained, rather succinctly, how his person and his position are so inherently intertwined with (imvelo), the natural ecosystem and the cultural being of Ntabazinduna as should any other chief in his respective area. As such chieftainship is attached to the very components of the ecosystem that it is expected to promote and defend against the vagaries of political expediency.

He outlines so clearly why it is every chief’s business to attend every political party conference and every development initiative as these are the primary cradles of human destruction, of patronage and ethnic and tribal conflict in society and also potential change agents of progress. He outlines how and why MDC, APA, Zanu, NDU and every little church in his area are his children and his subjects with equal space in the lives and livelihoods of his people. His remains an impartial, superintending and watchdog role that is informed by the greater good of all and posterity!

The chief explains how both in reality and in the enduring cognitive frames of the citizens, there is no contest, but a clear separation of roles and graduation of power in which it is both untenable and undesirable that the councillor, the MP, the minister or indeed the president purport to be higher than the chief and or the king.

After all the snubbing, the clumsy wrestle for the body and the battle for the funeral agenda, I pursue chief Mdladlas public declaration of elevating the heroic Dabengwa’s to fully fledged Ntabazinduna chieftainship in the next instalments. Bayethe!

Zii Masiye (ziimasiye@gmail.com) writes elsewhere on social media as Balancing Rocks.

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