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News & Events State Politics & the Customary Power of Chiefs in Zimbabwe
State Politics & the Customary Power of Chiefs in Zimbabwe
State Politics & the Customary Power of Chiefs in Zimbabwe
Food Garden, photo by DFAT 2011
Food Garden, photo by DFAT 2011

By Phillan Zamchiya, Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

* This article was originally published as part of the online discussion on customary law in Southern Africa

Chieftaincy in Africa is shaped by developmental visions of the State, the political interests of the ruling elites and contested versions of customary law. This makes it difficult to analyse Chieftaincy as a static institution that is either independently acting to undermine decentralised democracy or progressive in preserving authentic customary role of representation. It is therefore imperative to analyse the actual functioning of States and Chiefs for appropriate policy positioning. I substantiate my argument with the case of Zimbabwe focusing on the colonial and post-colonial era.

The colonial history spans from 1890 when the British South Africa Company (BSAC) invaded the territory called Zimbabwe today and confined Africans into native reserves (later known as Tribal Trust Lands). For the large part, the British governed former native reserves through the Native Affairs Department established in 1894 which largely relied on customary law and local expertise. However, after the second world war the colonial state designed a range of high modernist interventions underpinned by the Native Land Husbandry Act (NLHA), promulgated in 1951. The idea was to displace the ‘backward’ and unproductive rule based on native customs. However, Africans rejected the type of modernization on offer amidst growing voices for African nationalism. 

The State blamed Africans’ traditional and ‘irrational’ custom which was said to be ‘unready for the strict discipline and rationality of high modernism’. Within this matrix, Chiefs were given back customary authority over land and local courts and some new powers and perks. Others agreed but some resisted as they clamoured for the return of colonised lands. When the Rhodesian Front came into power in 1962, it intensified efforts to co-opt Chiefs in order to convince the British Government that it had support to declare independence from British rule. It also wanted Chiefs to shield ‘peasants’ from supporting the liberation war fighters. By the 1970s, the Chiefs were in trouble as the armed struggle intensified. Some were considered sell-outs by nationalists and were killed whilst others were detained by the Rhodesian security for supporting the nationalists. At the dawn of independence in 1980, Chieftaincy was an institution in disarray and there were competing views about their role. 

Nationalists who believed that the Chiefs were too ‘backward’ to implement modern development carried the day. This view was bolstered by the deep mistrust of Chiefs owing to their former co-option by the Rhodesian State. In 1984 Robert Mugabe gave a Prime Ministerial directive to restructure rural rule through Village Development Committees (VIDCOs) and Ward Development Committees (WADCOs). 

VIDCO was the basic unit of organisation and comprised of six elected adults and its duty was to plan and coordinate development at village level and report to the next level in the hierarchy, the WADCO, whose role was to coordinate the work of six VIDCOS and report to the next structure, the Rural District Council (RDC). The Chiefs whose authority was derived from a set of customary practices had to be side-lined, at least in theory, by the VIDCOs, WADCOs and RDCs whose authority was derived from democratic elections. In this era, the state even set aside the Chiefs’ vision for land reform as, “nationalism was not to be about the popularly controlled restitution of the lost lands but about productivity, delivered through a technocratic bureaucracy”. On the resettlement farms, government resettlement officers had authority over land. 

However, some nationalist were still not happy with the side-lining of Chiefs and they thought that would spell political disaster. The view to radically depart from the modernising agenda to radical versions of nationalism with land as a central signifier started to gain resonance in the 1990s. This was because of the growing opposition to the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front. It is within this context that Chiefs ‘returned’ to the centre stage with their powers restored through the Traditional Leaders Act [Chapter 29:17] in 1998.  The VIDCOS were now to be chaired by the village head and the headmen sat in the WADCOs. 

The ‘return’ of Chiefs did not stop the growing discontent which contributed to the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in 1999. It was within this context that war veterans led a series of violent ‘invasions’ of largely white-owned commercial farms from 2000 dubbed Fast Track. During Fast Track, the Chief’s representatives became part of the District Land Committee (DLC). DLC was in charge of allocating land to new beneficiaries, formalising occupations and dealing with boundary disputes. It relied on custom, political power and coercive authority. On resettlement farms, the war veterans established a ‘committee of seven’ to govern the farms. Some evolved into VIDCOs. Some Chiefs appointed village heads to represent them in the farm committees. This was not always welcome by beneficiaries and led to violent clashes between Chiefs and the occupiers. 

Be that as it may, ZANU PF intensified the use of patronage to win the support of Chiefs. They were given prebends and power to distribute patronage in the form of farming inputs and food aid. In return, President of the Chiefs’ Council, Fortune Charumbira, publicly ordered traditional leaders to support ZANU PF and was clear that: ‘ZANU-PF is the party of Chiefs’. Those who opposed could be dethroned by the President. Chiefs ‘returned’ not just on customary terms but were subordinated to a partisan State. The 2013 constitution also bolstered Chiefs’ powers by recognising their institution under customary law. Chiefs were given ‘jurisdiction and control over the communal land’. They can allocate residential and agricultural land but with the consent of RDCs and in line with customary law.

In the contemporary era, some village heads living in communal areas near towns now illegally sell land to elites. This has led to enclosure of common property resources and miniaturisation of farms with women suffering the most. It is also evident that consultations and decision-making about big capital investments on customary land have become highly centralised at the apex of the traditional leadership with the Chief seen as the bastion of rural power. VIDCOs and WADCOs are being sidelined in consultations. Again, it is difficult to find one model of Chieftaincy. A few still favour an accountable system in line with customary practices. In such particular contexts, some women still prefer the customary system because it is cheap, accessible, flexible and supports wider land-based livelihoods despite some patriarchal practices.

Any policy efforts to democratise Chieftaincy, preserve its authentic customary role of representation or gradually modify it will need to face the reality that it is shaped by the developmental visions of the State, the political interests of the ruling elites and contested versions of customary practices. The resilience of Chieftaincy calls for incremental reforms of existing flexible customary arrangements rather than a radical departure that will hardly capture the lived realities.