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Africa Vera
Brian MacGarry
Gesuita dello Zimbabwe
Two kinds of chief
Here in Zimbabwe, and I believe it is true fairly widely elsewhere, there still exist two models of how African chieftaincy works. Here the origins of the discussion lie in colonial times.

Colonial administrators
found it more convenient to treat the king as absolute monarch in his area. If he could then be made into a channel for instructions from the colonial government to the people, that would be very convenient for the administrators.

During the 1950s and 60s,
when nationalist feeling was beginning to make itself felt, some chiefs did not behave according to this pattern. Independent-minded sociologists studying this phenomenon came to the conclusion that these “unco-operative” chiefs were not tools of nationalist agitators, but they were acting according to an older and more popularly accepted model of what a chief is.

Their model
could be summed up in the Shona saying “a chief is chief with the consent of his people”. That does not mean that anyone could become chief; the post is supposed to remain in the hands of the descendants of the founding cheif of the tribe. But the European principle that the eldest son succeeds his father does not apply. The next most senior member of the chiefly lineage is more likely to succeed, but, when chiefs were expected to have many wives, there could be considerable differences about who was most senior.

In practice,
popular opinion was widely consulted. That often was done by the traditional spirit mediums, who would say they were consulting the ancestors. That is a slow process, giving them time to sound out the opinions of the living.

Popular acceptability
was even more important because the chief does not rule alone. He has his counsellors and regularly holds court where at least every adult male has a right to be heard. If women did not speak in the dare, or chief's court (and some did), they always had an influence through their menfolk.

The result
was a system that expressed the people's will fairly effectively. If a chief proved dictatorial, he would most likely find that a large part of his people would secede and choose a new chief. He might even be removed from office.

It is clear
why colonial administrators were less willing to accept this model; it is much more difficult for outside powers to manipulate.

Not surprisingly
, Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-Pf party prefer the colonial model of chieftaincy.