Chief Chinamhora 's Claim To Harare: A Symptom Of Historical Contradictions In Local Government

By Takura Zhangazha

After reading renowned Ugandan academic, Mahmood Mamdani’s recently published book, Define and Rule, Native as Political Identity,  I coincidentally came across a news item about a land claim to Africa Unity Square in Harare. This specific claim to a significant and symbolic portion of Harare’s central business district was made  by Chief Chinamora, a traditional leader who also sits in Senate. On the face of it, the claim appears to be borderline ridiculous. The reality is that it is both an historical and ‘citizen and subject’ one.  Even though sometimes we might not like to be reminded of our colonial history and how it meets with the present on a day to day basis. 

I mention reading Mamdani’s latest book primarily because it seeks to explain further the interaction of our colonial past with our assumedly modern day ‘enlightened’ existence.  It does this  by outlining the genesis of colonial theory around defining ‘tradition’ and political identity of those that were considered ‘natives, by the British empire of yesteryear.  And how both processes led to not only the invention of ‘indirect rule’ as well as what he outlines in another of his seminal works as ‘citizens and subjects’.  

The coincidental aspect of Chief Chinamora’s statement and my reading the aforementioned book while being mine alone gives latitude for some reflection on both the history and present day basis (theoretical and political) of local government structures in Zimbabwe. 

To begin with, our local government is premised on what Mamdani correctly refers to as ‘bifurcation’.  And this is a direct legacy of colonialism. We have both the civil and the customary aspects of local government or alternatively ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’ frameworks.  This sort of system has obtained in most South of the Sahara African countries that are former British colonies except Tanzania, an example that I will return to.  

Many former history students will remember Lord Lugard particularly for his administration of Nigeria, but also for the phrase and system of ‘indirect rule’ and the book, Dual Mandate.  This system outlined in the latter book unfortunately remains a reality in Zimbabwe 33 years after our national independence.  Perhaps for different reasons and even after the new constitution has become the law of the land. 

Chief Chinamhora’s statements are therefore reflective of both the contradictions of his traditional authority as well as its relegation to convenient political peripheries. Chiefs in Zimbabwe unfortunately remain caught up in the realm of the traditional while being over lorded by a modern and centrist central government.   

As in the colonial era, Chiefs remain as though their primary task is to mind the ‘natives’ or keep ‘tradition’ intact while the central government presides over ‘citizens’ and the ‘modern’.  

This political problem is further compounded by the dual legal system that still exists in Zimbabwe in the form of civil and customary law. Though the former takes precedence over the latter in terms of our jurisprudence.  Again, the similarities are all to abundant with colonial era circumstances, except that we have a majority government implementing this dual legal system.

Furthermore, the distinction in the rules of how the local is governed in the urban and the rural while talking to traditions and specific ways of life, demonstrates continued preference for the ‘urban’ than the rural.  The ‘urban’ can continue to be modernized while the’rural is treated like a backwater that either has no urgent need of service delivery or integrated democratic governance. That is why there is rare talk of ensuring that there is running water in any rural area without wanting to change it first into a growth point.   So perhaps Chief Chinamhora wants to lay claim to the modern not just because of history but also because Harare is a metropole and not a backwater. (His chieftancy would stand to benefit a lot from taxing the Harare city Council.)

A penultimate point in considering this state of affairs further is that there is limited reason to assume that government will act seriously to bring both local government systems at par. The political preference has been to hog the ‘traditional’ for expedient purposes without seeking its integrated transformation. 

For example, what we have referred to as devolution in the constitution has turned out to be a mere expansion of the central state’s representatives (including chiefs) at local level.  This is neither democratization nor transformation of local government.  Where they exist, these institutions (such as provincial councils) remain vague in their intentions, both in relation to statute or to politically stated agendas.

Earlier on I mentioned that Tanzania is the only state this side of Africa that does not have a dual local government system. And that, according to Mamdani, was due to Nyerere’s stubborn (and at times dictatorial) insistence that all Tanzanians are equal citizens.  And that government must not be a variance with itself.  We might not need to follow the Tanzanian example but we must begin to plan for integrated local government where we merge the traditional with the modern/contemporary best democratic practices and deconstruct the legacy of ‘late colonialism’. 

For now, Chief Chinamhora is historically correct in his claim. Its just a belated and somewhat suspiciously ambitious one.  As of old, however, we still have ‘citizens and subjects’ in Zimbabwe.  


Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity.