The role of traditional leaders in governance processes has always followed the dictates of the ruling regimes since colonial Zimbabwe. Traditional leaders are always willing enablers to the government in all aspects, by design, default and coercion. While the Constitution of Zimbabwe (2013) made a distinct departure in making clear provisions as to their role, practice has continued to be opposite and defiant. Are the constitutional provisions utopian? The roles of traditional leaders in communities continue to be important as it has been argued that they reduce transaction costs on behalf of government, facilitate faster and grounded decision making and access to justice while maintaining their cultural functions and superintending land access and use. Their role in electoral processes in Zimbabwe is increasingly attracted interest of stakeholders including civil society, citizens and political parties. It can be argued, from the onset, that electoral malpractice and fraud has long shifted from the ballot box and polling day to the political environment. It is this arena, that traditional leaders seem to superintend with unfettered power. Criticism is that their role has the effect on diverting the will of the people and free choice through intimidation. This brief seeks to contribute to an understanding on what the traditional leaders’ role ought to be, what it is and what can be done to ensure uncontested intervention of the indigenous authorities.
What ought to be?
The 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe recognizes and formalizes the authority and legitimacy of the traditional institutions. The Constitution explicitly lists a variety of powers and responsibilities of traditional leaders. The Constitution requires traditional leaders in their areas of jurisdiction:
- To promote and uphold cultural values of their communities and, in particular, to promote sound family values.
- To take measures to preserve the culture, traditions, history and heritage of their communities, including sacred shrines.
- To facilitate development.
- In accordance with an Act of Parliament, to administer Communal Land and to protect the environment.
- To resolve disputes amongst people in their communities in accordance with customary law; and
to exercise any other functions conferred or imposed on them by Act of Parliament.”“traditional leaders play very critical roles in the process of good governance. These roles can be categorized into three: advisory role to government and participation in the administrations of rural areas; developmental role, complementing government’s efforts in mobilizing rural communities in implementing developmental projects, sensitizing them on health issues such as HIV/AIDS, promoting education, encouraging economic enterprises, inspiring respect for the law and urging participation in the electoral process and conflict resolution.” Kurebwa depicts the role of traditional leaders in a more practical manner particularly where he states that traditional leaders are utilized in urging citizen participation in electoral processes. This apparently nascent role is questioned relating to its “ought to be” status. It is the current conundrum of political process and traditional leaders.
In principle, traditional leaders must not,
(2) Traditional leaders must not—
(a) be members of any political party or in any way participate in partisan
(b) act in a partisan manner;
(c) further the interests of any political party or cause; or
(d) violate the fundamental rights and freedoms of any person.
The Constitution of Zimbabwe is very clear in terms of what traditional leaders ought to do and ought not to do in respect of politics and elections. However, traditional leaders often wantonly disregard the law, often with impunity. This impunity was evident when the Election Resource Centre sued Chief Charumbira over unconstitutional utterances pledging support to the ruling ZANU PF. The court found the Chief President to be out of order and ordered him to withdraw the statement, an order he did not abide by. Instead, he has gone on to make more statements to the same effect with no consequence. Prior, Masvingo High Court judge, Garainesu Mawadze in 2015 made a ruling prohibiting traditional leaders from making political statements and declaring allegiance to any political party.
What is the role of traditional leaders?
Conduct of traditional leaders in Zimbabwe is such that they influence both electoral outcomes and processes by not only sealing off space for opposition political players, but also subverting the will of the people under their jurisdiction through intimidation, making public pronouncements to the effect that they support ZANUPF and partisan distribution of food aid and farming inputs. The reality on the ground is that traditional leaders are fully engaged with electoral and political processes in their communities. Their role goes far beyond what is provided for in the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The leaders are clearly an appendage of the ruling ZANU PF without shame nor apology. “A study undertaken by Rukuni and others in the Bikita District established that 94 per cent of traditional leaders in the district are politically aligned to the ruling ZANU-PF and have used their positions to “punish those who belong to opposition political parties”. The fact that traditional leaders are openly partisan, working towards furthering the interests of a political party goes against the principles set out in Chapter 15 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. The gatekeeping role of traditional leaders was evident when Sabhuku Nhamoinesu Nemanwa of Chivanhu Village in Masvingo mobilized citizens under the Zanu PF banner to participate in pre-emptive attacks against members of the MDC Alliance on Monday October 11, 2021. To enable traditional leaders to perform this gatekeeping role with relative ease, the ZANU PF government has made the institution of traditional leadership very strong, with traditional leaders receiving hefty perks such as top of the range vehicles, hefty salaries, electrification of their homes, upliftment of the roads that lead to their homes, among other goodies. They also participate in the partisan distribution of farming inputs and food aid.
In their brief on a similar topic, ZESN gave a regional context where in South Africa, for example, traditional leaders openly support their parties and even contest for positions. They, however, do not stop their subjects from supporting parties of their choice nor do they ban political activities of other parties. To this end, one would argue that our legal prescriptions as provided for in the constitution are impractical and or utopian.
The Traditional Leaders Act has been proposed for amendment and or alignment since adoption of the current constitution in 2013 with no success. This means that what obtains in the constitution is yet to appear in the enabling legislation. Whereas it is given that the constitution is supreme law and anything ultra vires should be regarded as illegal, the Zimbabwe case has differed particularly where implementation is concerned.
Role of civil actors
Civil society in Zimbabwe has played an important role in exposing the unconstitutional practices of traditional leaders, vis a vis electoral process. This has largely included capacity building of traditional leaders to understand their roles, documentation, and litigation on behalf of citizens. The Election Resource Centre and COTRAD recently wrote to the Minister of Local Government demanding that he reins in on errant traditional leadership fanning violence and dabbling in partisan politics. As noted above, very little has been yielded by these efforts in terms of change in practice but has gone a long way in highlighting and amplifying the voices of dissent against the partisan practices of traditional leaders.
But what more can be done?
- Advocacy for alignment of Traditional Leaders Act of 1998- there is need for alignment of the traditional leaders act and all other ancillary statutory instruments to the Constitution of Zimbabwe.
- Monitoring and documentation of traditional leaders- civil society must continue to monitor and document activities of traditional leaders for evidence-based advocacy, litigation and future reference in reform advocacy.
- Capacity building and sensitization of traditional leaders to understand their roles – more effort should be put in capacity training of traditional leaders to understand their roles, provisions of the Constitution and the aligned enabling legislation.
- More litigation – civil society must continue to facilitate evidence-based litigation to push traditional leaders, the ruling party and government to implement provisions of the constitution.
- Strengthen citizen awareness of the provisions of the constitution on traditional leaders – civil society must institute robust programming around making citizens understand the role of traditional leaders, their political limitations and what they can do in the event of infringement.
Role of Parliament of Zimbabwe
Parliament of Zimbabwe is responsible for making laws in support of the constitution of Zimbabwe and by extension playing an oversight role to the executive and other statutory bodies. The fact that a new Traditional Leaders Act is yet to be established shows the lack of seriousness the issue is handled with at Parliament level.
Section 287 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe directs Parliament to enact a law providing for the establishment and role of an Integrity and Ethics Committee of Chiefs to ensure that traditional leaders abide by the required code of conduct and take corrective action, if necessary.
Alignment and or making of new traditional leaders’ law consistent with constitutional provisions
Going against the grain? What citizens want
The fact that 67% of the Zimbabwean population is rural and under the control of traditional leadership makes the issue of the conduct of traditional leaders a delicate matter. This is so because the rural population is not capacitated to understand the provisions of the supreme law and its importance. According to the Afrobarometer, about half (49%) of Zimbabweans are satisfied with the level of influence wielded by traditional leaders, while one-fourth (24%) want it to increase “somewhat” or “a lot” and 13% would prefer to see it decrease.
As established in the Afrobarometer findings of 2021. “Overall, public opinion is split on the impact of traditional leaders on democracy: 28% believe they make democracy stronger, 28% say they weaken it, and 26% say they don’t make a difference. But almost three-quarters (72%) want traditional leaders to stay out of politics and let people decide for themselves how to vote.”
“While they are split in their assessments of traditional leaders’ impact on democracy, Zimbabweans are much more unified in their view that traditional leaders should stay out of politics and leave people to make their own decisions about how to vote (72%). Only one fiftth(19%) say traditional leaders have a better grasp of political issues than ordinary citizens and should give them advice about how to vote”
The role of traditional leaders in electoral processes requires concerted effort in both understanding and regulation. While the constitution is clear on their functions and principles of engagement, the enabling legislation is yet to be aligned thereby making implementation ad-hoc, haphazard and manipulated. Traditional leaders can indeed assist in building a democracy but have been a hinderance owing to unclear legislation, manipulation by government and the ruling party and unclear proposals as to how they can facilitate democratic electoral processes going forward. This brief proposed several interventions to this effect particularly regarding what civil society, citizens and the Parliament of Zimbabwe can do.
 Kurebwa J, 2020, The Capture of Traditional Leaders by Political Parties in Zimbabwe for Political Experience, https://www.igi-global.com/chapter/the-capture-of-traditional-leaders-by-political-parties-in-zimbabwe-for-political-expediency/247632
 Chigwata T, 2016, The role of traditional leaders in Zimbabwe: are they still relevant? http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2077-49072016000100003
 Ndoma S, 2021, Zimbabweans see traditional leaders as influential but want them to stay out of politics, Afrobarometer Dispatch No. 469, https://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Dispatches/ad469 zimbabweans_see_traditional_leaders_as_influential_but_want_them_out_of_politics-afrobarometer-3aug21.pdf
 Ndoma S, 2021