BY SILAS NKALA
The late Robert Mugabe’s nearly four decades in power became possible because of a tight grip on the rural electorate where traditional leaders were a vital cog in mobilising votes for the ruling party.
Mugabe regularly dished out trinkets to chiefs, who in return ensured that their subjects remained loyal to Zanu PF, but there are indications that the traditional leaders, especially in Matabeleland, are breaking ranks.
The incarceration of outspoken Ntabazinduna Chief Nhlanhlayamangwe Felix Ndiweni last month for punishing one of his subjects exposed the fault lines.
At least four chiefs from Matabeleland openly showed solidarity with Ndiweni when he successfully sought bail at the Bulawayo High Court on August 28, a rare sight under Mugabe.
Ndiweni’s lead lawyer was MDC vice-president Welshman Ncube and the party’s treasurer-general David Coltart was among high-profile opposition figures that rallied to the chief’s lawyer.
Another outspoken tradition leader, Chief Mathema from Gwanda, criticised Ndiweni’s incarceration, which he described as persecution.
Ndiweni, Mathema and Chief Vezi Maduna from Filabusi have also become vocal demanding justice for victims of the Gukurahundi massacres.
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The chiefs earlier this year angered President Emmerson Mnangagwa after they allegedly barred some traditional leaders from attending a meeting he addressed in Bulawayo on the atrocities.
Ndiweni later said Mnangagwa was not the right person to address issues arising from the post-independence killings because he was a key figure in Mugabe’s government at the time.
Effie Ncube, CEO of the Royal Crown Trust, which is spearheading the revival of the Ndebele monarch said Zimbabwe’s new constitution makes it possible for traditional leaders to free themselves from control by the ruling party.
“For as long as they don’t delve into partisan politics, speaking out against human rights violations, oppression, erosion of the rule of law, corruption, poverty, hunger and unemployment, among other things, they are perfectly within their legal and constitutional limits,” Ncube said.
“While some chiefs are still stuck in the past, where Zanu PF was the constitution and the law, more enlightened ones are choosing to stick to the law and reject unconstitutional conduct. This is good for the country.
“Chiefs in Matabeleland have chosen to read the constitution and live and work according to its guidelines. Only a few are offside.”
Ncube said if more chiefs became independent, it would help Zimbabwe’s democracy to mature.
Observers during last year’s controversial elections cited the involvement of chiefs in partisan Zanu PF politics during the campaigns as one of the things that affected the credibility of the polls.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission was also scathing in its condemnation of chiefs that dabbled in politics.
In the run-up to the polls, Chiefs Council president Fortune Charumbira was sanctioned by the High Court for openly campaigning for Zanu PF.
Ncube said Zanu PF’s ability to mobilse voters would be severely crippled if more chiefs turned against the ruling party.
“This will help level the electoral playing field in rural areas and free masses of rural voters from fear of victimisation,” he added.
“With chiefs sticking to the constitution, chances of electoral irregularities are likely to decline and with this will create an environment where free and fair elections, to a degree, can be realised.”
Ncube said the outspoken Matabeleland chiefs were refusing to be used as political tools because they were more “enlightened”.
“They have consciously chosen to be people’s chiefs and not commissars of political parties,” he said. “The constitution and the law are on their side.”
Bulawayo Progressive Residents’ Association official Thembelani Dube said chiefs would become effective leaders if they disassociated themselves from partisan politics.
“If they now distance themselves from such assumptions, then they will lead their subjects effectively,” he said.
His sentiments were echoed by Bulawayo Vendors’ Association director Michael Ndiweni who said the stance by Matabeleland chiefs reflected sentiments in the region where people feel let down by the government.
“Many people continue to point to marginalisation and the deafening silence from government,” he said,
“So far nothing meaningful has been done or even just lip service, thus traditional leaders are fed up.
“It remains to be seen whether this stance will have a bearing on the outcomes in the coming elections in 2023, but Zanu PF is treading on a slippery road if it continues to ignore fundamental issues being raised by traditional leaders.”
Ambrose Sibindi, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions Western Region chairman, said Zanu PF can ignore the chiefs at its own peril.
“This is a wake-up call to Zanu PF that it should leave chiefs alone and not interfere with their duties,” he said.
“For the support Ndiweni got from other chiefs, it was good for them to unite for one cause and not allow the government to divide them or interfere with their duties.”
Fortune Mlalazi, an activist based in South Africa, said traditional leaders must work with their subjects and avoid being used by politicians.
“Unfortunately, what happened under Mugabe is that they were used as political tools,” he said. “Now as they stand together as chiefs in defence of our ubuntu, it is what they must continue to do and try to desist from political engagements which were wrong.”
Rural Community Empowerment Trust coordinator Vumani Ndlovu, however, believes that Ndiweni’s incarceration will instil fear among traditional leaders that are against Mnangagwa’s government.
“By arresting Chief Ndiweni the government has instilled fear in the chiefs and made it easier to control them, hence it will continue manipulating traditional leaders for political gains,” Ndlovu said.
Habakkuk Trust CEO Dumisani Nkomo said the chiefs were demonstrating that they were independent “from state manipulation”.
In Chiredzi, Chief Tshovani continues to fire salvos at Mnangagwa accusing him of tribalism after the government allegedly created a Karanga chieftainship in an area dominated by Shanganis.