Zimbabwe Breaks New Ground in Traditional Institutions

Sibongile Mpofu

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – Nov 2007

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Zimbabwe is transcending the gender imbalance in the traditional set-up that many African countries are still grappling with by installing female chiefs.

Chieftainship in Africa can be controversial, sensitive and at times dangerous, especially between rival families where there is no clear line of succession. Generally in Zimbabwe the eldest son succeeds his father and if there are no sons, the chieftainship moves to uncles. Girls were overlooked, as it was considered taboo for a woman to rule over men. However, this stance seems to have changed in some parts of the country as more women have been installed as traditional leaders.

Zimbabwe has five substantive female chiefs, three of them from Matabeleland and two from Mashonaland. There are Chief Sinqobile Mabhena of Umzingwane, Chief Ketso Mathe of Gwanda and Chief Nonhlanhla Sibanda of Insiza, all from Matabeleland South province. In Mashonaland region there are two female chiefs, Charehwa and Chimukoko, both of Mutoko.

When news broke out that Miss Sinqobile Mabhena would be appointed Chief there was a hullabaloo with some conservative traditional leaders saying the Ndebele culture strictly forbids women from presiding over men in any capacity. The controversy even attracted the attention of Ndebele historians who argued at the time that custom did not permit women to become traditional leaders.

So what has now changed? Gender activists feel their lobbying for equality between men and women, be it in traditional institutions or the political arena is slowly bearing fruit. “What we are seeing is a break with the past. Women are finally being regarded in the same manner as men and this is a really positive development,” said Ms Ropafadzo Mapimhidze, programmes manager for local non-governmental organisation, Girl Child Network.

She also said “while women have managed to break the glass ceiling in politics and business, in general, traditional African institutions were still entrenched in the belief that women should not rule over men. By installing female chiefs communities are slowly acknowledging that women are as good as men and have the required leadership skills that can enable them develop their areas of jurisdiction.”

The installation of Sinqobile Mabhena as Chief Mabhena did not only break new ground, but it also changed the succession system. Now the eldest child succeeds his or her father, it does not matter whether the woman is married or not, she can still take over the chieftainship. However, if married, she must revert to her father’s surname.

Sinqobile Mabhena is a teacher by profession, prior to securing the chieftaincy she had to fight against the notion she was not eligible because she is a woman; citing gender equality and democratic principles in a modern Zimbabwean society, she was able to overcome resistance. Her success appears to have paved the way for other women. The gender sensitive Zimbabwean government stood by Miss Mabhena and the then Minister of Local Government, John Nkomo, installed her as Chief in 1996.

Nkomo noted during the installation; “that she is a woman is irrelevant because the Nswazi people themselves, after thorough consultations chose her to succeed her father. This is inline with Government policy towards equal opportunities and the advancement of women”. Since then not only has the government installed more female chiefs, but other women have taken up what was previously thought of as a man’s role where traditional leadership is concerned.

Such developments as this support the view that culture and tradition are dynamic and not static, and that they can be adapted to suit socio-economic change for the benefit of that same culture. Although there is still much to do, Zimbabwe appears to be making positive strides in terms of gender equality. In mainstream society women now occupy several positions previously considered to be the domain of men. Some notable examples include second Vice-President ‘Joice Mujuru’, President of the Senate ‘Edna Madzongwe’, Judge President ‘Rita Makarau’ and Zimbabwe Open University Chancellor ‘Primrose Kurasha’.