The Voice Of The Tribes: Rhodesia’s Traditional Chiefs
Although Britain instigated the establishment of the Council of Chiefs, it was Britain who then rejected their views... Rhodesia preserved the status and qualities of Chieftainship while creating a pathway to increase their numbers in Parliament.
Via Colin Weyers’ magnificent website: Window On Rhodesia, The Jewel Of Africa
In addition to the Chiefs who sat in the Senate, the 1969 Constitution provided for 16 African Members of Parliament to be elected to the House of Assembly. Of these, eight were elected by Africans on the voters roll for four constituencies in Matabeleland and four in Mashonaland and a further eight elected by electoral colleges consisting of all Chiefs, headmen and elected councillors of the African Councils in the Tribal Trust Lands one for each of four electoral colleges in Matabeleland and four in Mashonaland. Provision was also made for an increase in these 16 seats in line with the proportion of Income Tax paid by Africans.
THE VOICE OF THE TRIBES
RHODESIA’S CHIEFS (1968)
THE hereditary leaders of the African tribes of Rhodesia have been slighted by the British Government. As a result these leaders and their people are offended and puzzled because, for the first time in history, the traditional methods of testing tribal opinion have been spurned.
Since the earliest days of the Administration, both British and Rhodesian Governments have always consulted the tribal Chiefs and Headmen on national matters. Now Britain has turned its back and demands that the wishes of the tribesmen be expressed by means of an exotic system of voting which they neither understand nor recognize. Britain has heeded the parrot cry of the communist inspired African Nationalists of “one man-one vote”, notwithstanding the fact that she has seen this system bring misery, bloodshed, graft and dictatorship to other parts of Africa; and notwithstanding the fact that because of tribalism many tribes, small in numbers, reject it.
The Ndebele people have condemned without hesitation the doctrine of “one man-one vote”. They have clearly stated their intention of demanding the division of Rhodesia into two separate countries should it ever be imposed upon them.
The British Prime Minister, Mr. Wilson, after meeting the Rhodesian Council of Chiefs in Salisbury on 28th October, 1965, said:-
“I have seen the Chiefs. They cannot, by the widest stretch of the imagination, be said to be capable of representing the African population as a whole.”
Yet, as will be shown, this Council of Chiefs was set up at Britain’s instigation to voice the views of the people.
Mr. Wilson’s rejection of the voice of Rhodesia’s African tribes was a tragic mistake brought about by a misunderstanding of the true position. He was presumably advised by his Colonial Office experts, who no doubt argued that the position of the Chiefs in Rhodesia was no different from that of the Chiefs in Colonial territories formerly administered by Britain.
This is a cardinal error, as anyone who has studied the question will readily understand. The former Colonial Office territories were administered under the policy of indirect rule whereby the Administration created local government institutions, known as Native Authorities and then, through and in the name of such authorities used them as a cog in the government machine to introduce all sorts of legislative changes. As an example, the Administration induced Native Authorities in certain territories to pass by-laws requiring the provision of latrines in villages strange and foreign contraptions that remain unused.
Rhodesia on the other hand followed a policy of direct rule.
Believing that when necessary, but sometimes unpopular, measures had to be taken it was Government’s responsibility to legislate in the interests of all and to accept any disapproval.
Thus Colonial Office policy built up a façade about the Chiefs who came to be regarded as “stooges of the white man” and were quickly ignored in the face of the rising tide of African Nationalism.
Conversely, successive Rhodesian Governments at no time subverted the Chiefs but tended to use them as a catalyst, appreciating the immense importance – indeed the absolute necessity – of this aim in achieving changes without collapsing the whole African sociological structure. And in the process, Rhodesia preserved the status and qualities of Chieftainship.
Chiefs derive their position not from election or appointment but from hereditary right, in accordance with the laws and customs of their particular tribe, which dictates the rules of succession.
The succession rule, depending on the tribe, may be one of primogeniture, matrilineal or collateral. In all three cases, various spiritual ceremonies must precede consideration of the selection of a Chief, and tribal traditional leaders have duties to perform and procedures to follow before claims can be investigated and considered.
The matter is investigated and considered in public and the aim is to achieve, as far as possible, unanimity and agreement because it is extremely important to get the support of the people and to satisfy the spirits.
THE CHIEFS’ ROLE
The following is an account of the social system of the African people of Rhodesia which will facilitate a proper understanding of the role of Chiefs in their society. It will also enable appreciation of the reasons why the Rhodesian Government, seeking to harmonize tradition with emerging trends, and to preserve the familiar bonds of the past and make them part of the fabric of the future, has urged and continues to urge the recognition of the place held by Chiefs in African society, by drawing them into a second Chamber or Senate where wisdom, experience and detachment can play their full part.
The Indabas of the 1890s were conducted with the Chiefs.
In 1923 when Rhodesia became a self-governing colony it was the Chiefs and Headmen who were consulted on behalf of their tribes, and the Chief Native Commissioner’s Report for 1924 had this to say:-
“The year has been a most eventful one. The natives were somewhat agitated in mind as to the extent to which they would be affected by the change of Government. As a matter of policy it was considered desirable to take them into our confidence before the change took place. With this object in view, the opportunity was taken by His Honour, the Administrator, Sir Drummond Chaplin, upon his retirement from office, to address them on the subject. In Mashonaland this was done through the medium of the Native Commissioners who explained at meetings of Chiefs and Headmen held in their respective district the terms of His Honour’s farewell address. In Matabeleland the Chiefs and Headmen met His Honour at Fort Usher in the Matobo District on 10th August, last. At this meeting Sir Charles Coghlan, (Prime Minister), now Minister of Native Affairs, the Chief Native Commissioner and the Superintendent of Natives were present.”
At the time of Federation, a British Secretary of State, Mr. Gordon Walker, sought the views of Rhodesia’s African people through meetings of Chiefs and Headmen throughout the country.
When the 1961 Constitution was being negotiated with Britain it was another British Secretary of State, Mr. Duncan Sandys and the then Prime Minister of Rhodesia, Sir Edgar Whitehead, who insisted upon the establishment of a Council of Chiefs which, together with Provincial Assemblies of Chiefs, would give expression to the opinion of the African tribesmen. These requirements of the British Government were introduced and are still recognized by the people and the Government of Rhodesia as sound measures which give effect to the traditional methods of sounding the voice of the people.
THE TRIBAL STRUCTURE
The fundamental beliefs of any people cannot be ignored, and to appreciate more fully the desire for their voice to be heard through the traditional tribal leaders rather than through the individualistic system of “one man-one vote”, it is necessary to delve more deeply into their sociological and tribal structures.
Amongst the Africans there is, in social terms, no such person as an “individual”, isolated and alone. Everyone belongs to a group and he derives from his group certain rights; at the same time, he owes to the group certain obligations. Let us consider for instance the tribes collectively known as the Mashona, to which two-thirds of the African people of Rhodesia belong and whose customs and laws are basically the same.
The foundation of any tribal group is the ordinary family, a group known as the mana related by blood or affinity, made up of two or more married brothers and their families, possibly the aged parents, widowed aunt with her minor children, or invalid uncles and the like. By mere consensus of opinion one of these people is regarded by the others as head of the family and, as such, he automatically assumes responsibilities. He is the one consulted in regard to bickering or quarrels within the family group and it is he who calls together the group to discuss the matter in dispute, and thrash out a solution. He carefully notes the attitude of the majority of the members of the family and finds out what the consensus of opinion is. He also carries certain spiritual responsibilities such as calling his family group together in order to find out whether or not a diviner should be consulted in relation to any family calamity, illness or other unfortunate happening. It is he too, who is approached by the emissary of a suitor seeking the hand of a girl within the family group and it is he who is consulted if the divorce of a member of the group arises. This is because extremely complicating factors are involved arising out of the institution of the lobola or dowry cattle which the family group may have acquired from the husband of one of their womenfolk.
Similarly, and in accordance with custom, he is the person responsible for allocating arable land to meet the needs of the family. He has no right to the land but is responsible for his allocation ultimately to his village headman (samusha).
Thus it will be realized that the head of the family (samana) has considerable obligations and in dealing with any of the problems of his group in relation to land, marriage, divorce, illness and so on, he does not make any decisions on his own but consults the family group and ascertains the consensus of opinion before intimating to them what, in fact, their final decision is.
The mana or family group is part of a larger group known as the musha or village, which consists of a number of mana. Within this group, which has a defined geographical area of land, there is an acknowledged leader (samusha) who holds his position only because he is regarded by the people within his musha as their leader. Like the samana, he has responsibilities for his people in regard to spiritual matters, the divining of witchcraft and evil spells, family law involving marriage and divorce; he also allocates to the samana its particular area of arable and grazing land for the use of the family group. His judicial position is considerably higher than that of the samana and the people within his area look to to him to settle disputes of greater magnitude than those handled by the samana. In so doing, he consults the village as a whole – whether or not everybody attends his court (dare), is, in African opinion, of little importance. But everybody is permitted to have his say, whether or not his evidence is merely hearsay or opinion, and the samusha, possibly, with the assistance of one or two counsellors will ascertain the consensus of opinion. In other words, in announcing a decision, he proclaims public opinion. In effect it is a “trial by jury” where all concerned constitute the jury.
The tribal sociological structure extends even further and the next group entity is known as the area of the dunhu. This area, with clearly defined boundaries, contains a number of villages and it is controlled by a sadunhu who traditionally was appointed by his Chief but for a considerable period now this office has been usually entered into on a basis of hereditary succession. For this purpose, the tribal spirits not only have to be consulted but also have to indicate that they are favourably disposed towards the person who is next in line of succession. From the beginning then, the sadunhu assumes special significance within his community owing to his relationship with the tribal spirits. Like the samusha and the samana, but within his superior sphere of influence, he is responsible for allocating the arable and pastoral lands to the villagers; but his greatest sphere of influence lies in the judicial field, for he is responsible for trying the more serious cases and generally is answerable for the welfare of his area and good conduct of his people to the Chief.
From the foregoing it will be appreciated that he holds a position of considerable power and responsibility in relation to all his people and it is to him they look concerning the various matters which affect their lives. He will always consult his people on matters which may have general application or which may otherwise affect them and together with his counsellors, he will seek the consensus of opinion of his people; not on the basis of “one man-one vote”, but in the manner described above-which must be as democratic a method as could be found anywhere.
CHIEFS AND THE PEOPLE
The ultimate and overall tribal entity is that of the nyika (country) which is the sphere of influence of the Chief (ishe). His entry to office, as in the case of the sadunhu, is dependent upon the favourable attitude of the tribal spirits, who express themselves through the medium of the swikiro, who is known and respected throughout the tribe as the medium and mouthpiece of the tribal spirits. The Chief’s functions in regard to land, the dispensation of justice and so on, are similar to, but much greater than, those appertaining to the leaders of the smaller groups, viz., sadunhu, samusha and samana. He is the ultimate court of appeal.
Faced with a problem of overall tribal importance, the Chief will consult his counsellors (wachinda) and all his sadunhu who will in turn pass the problem on right down to the smallest groups.
In due course, when the problem has been thoroughly discussed and digested, the consensus of opinion in regard to it will reach the Chief through the samana by the way of the samusha and the sadunhu. From discussions within the Chief’s dare emerges the consensus of opinion within the tribe; it is handed to the Chief “to cut” and the decision which the Chief then conveys to his people, reflects that opinion. If it concerns the Government of the time, then it is conveyed to that Government.
The roles of particular positions in the tribal structure have been described but in the performance of those roles no occupant acts as a “one man show”. In every case the Chief or Headman or Kraalhead acts in consultation with, and conceives his greatest obligation to be to express the feelings of, a representative council of his people. The overriding objective from top to bottom of the structure is to hold the group together in harmonious relationships.
Hence the terms “ears” and “eyes” and “feet” of the Chief or Headman, applied to their functionaries who act for them, and the manner in which the administration of their law always subordinates “the rule of law” to the overwhelming consideration of restoring good relationships between litigants, in order to preserve or restore the cohesion of the group. The European institution of Matrimonial Courts, where preservation of a marriage group takes precedence over strict law is perhaps the closest approach we have to African concepts of the importance of repairing broken ties on a much wider scale than family unit of husband, wife and children.
At every level of the tribal structure, similar processes and procedures of discussion and decision operate. The Kraalhead has his elders and certain kinsmen gathered at his dare before he raises the subject to his Headman. The Headman in turn gathers together his Kraalheads, advisers and special kinsmen at his dare before raising the matter to the Chief. So, by the time a Chief hears, sums it all up and announces the decision of his advisers, there has been a process of grass-roots democracy that is as close to being an accurate barometer of the temper and views of his people as human nature, fallible and frail as it is, could find.
The foregoing is a description of the indigenous tribal system of relationships which exists in Rhodesia today. On to this has been grafted legislation which gives effect to the recognition and appointment of the hereditary rulers selected by the tribes, and for these rulers to be paid allowances from Government funds as paltry compensation for, and in recognition of, their services.
They are no more paid servants of Government than the elected members on both sides of the House of Commons are-even though, like members of Parliament, they can be removed from office for certain misdemeanours.
There are some who claim that while the voice of the tribes may be expressed through the Chiefs, these tribal leaders cannot speak for those who have left their tribal areas to seek a living in the towns and cities. This is partially true and the provision of special seats in Parliament adequately caters for them. But the extent of detribalization tends to be exaggerated, for experience has shown that the vast majority of even the sophisticated still maintain their ties with those in the tribal trust lands. When old age overtakes them they expect and plan to return to their original homes and the land where their fathers lie buried. So much do the townsfolk keep in touch with their fellow tribesmen, that the elders will delay discussion on matters of importance until weekends or public holidays when many thousands of their people return to their villages.
To sum up we quote from the Report on the Public Service written by Dr. T. T. Paterson, of the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, in 1962:-
“A Chief cannot be fitted into any European political or administrative arrangement without great difficulty, for he is a figure unknown to European conceptions. He is a compound of “father” in a widespread kinship system of remarkable endurance; of “priest” as a focus, on occasions of deep feeling of ritual or mystical nature; of “judge” responsible for articulating the norms and standards of the tribe as well as holding its members together in harmonious relations; of “figurehead” personifying the tribe, its sense of wellbeing, unity and security; and of “emblem” of the ancient past. Yet no Chief is all of this and each is different from the other.”
Conscious of this knowledge, the Rhodesian Government respects them, encourages them to play their traditionally vital part and accepts “the voice of the tribes” to achieve peace and progress under stable government.
Critics of Rhodesia, especially in Britain, and including British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, often alleged that consulting Rhodesia’s traditional chiefs and headmen held no validity as they were “in the pay of the Rhodesian government”. The hypocrisy of this argument will be realised when it is appreciated that the upper house of the British Parliament, the House of Lords, even today more than 50 years later and well into the 21st century still consists entirely of hereditary and appointed members not one of whom is elected and all of whom are “in the pay of the British government”! CW
On April 28, 1970, in terms of the 1969 Constitution adopted by referendum that year, the 26-man Council of Chiefs met in Seke Tribal Trust Land outside Salisbury to elect 10 of their number – five from Mashonaland and five from Matabeleland – to the new, but long anticipated, upper house of the Rhodesian parliament: the Senate.
Upon election, the ten Chiefs chosen to go forward as Senators were all noted as men of wide experience and ability, several of them having travelled extensively overseas.
The following were elected to represent Matabeleland
The following were elected to represent Mashonaland
All the chiefs interviewed expressed satisfaction and pleasure at being elected and said they looked forward to serving the people of Rhodesia.