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Key findings
  • About two-thirds of Zimbabweans say traditional leaders wield “some influence” or “a lot of influence” in in resolving local disputes (68%), governing local communities (67%), and allocating land (62%).
  • Almost half (47%) say traditional leaders have significant influence on how people in their communities vote.
  • Half (49%) of Zimbabweans are happy with the level of influence that traditional leaders exert; far fewer wish it would increase (24%) or decrease (13%).
  • Zimbabweans are divided in their views on whose interests traditional leaders serve – those of people in their communities (38%), politicians and government officials (31%), or their own (18%).
  • A majority (60%) of citizens say they trust traditional leaders “somewhat” or “a lot.”
  • About one-fifth (19%) say “most” or “all” traditional leaders are involved in corrupt activities.
  • 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.

The functions of traditional leaders in Zimbabwe’s rural areas are outlined in the Constitution and the 1988 Traditional Leaders Act. They include promoting and upholding the cultural values of their communities, facilitating development, and administering communal lands. They are also charged with protecting the environment, resolving disputes in their communities, and exercising any other functions conferred or imposed on them by an act of Parliament.

Importantly, the Constitution bars traditional leaders from being members of any political party, participating in partisan politics, and furthering the interests of any political party or cause. Despite this constitutional provision, some traditional leaders in Zimbabwe have been accused of dabbling in politics, typically in support of the ruling ZANU-PF party. Critics say the party acquires allegiance through measures such as subsidized vehicle-purchase schemes and electrification of traditional leaders’ homes, and in exchange some traditional leaders openly support ZANU-PF and restrict mobilization by opposition political parties (Chigwata, 2016). In May 2018, in response to a complaint by an opposition leader, the High Court of Zimbabwe issued a ruling banning all traditional leaders from engaging in politics (Kurebwa, 2020; Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, 2018).

How do Zimbabweans see the role of their traditional leaders?

In the most recent Afrobarometer survey, a majority of citizens describe traditional leaders as wielding influence in the governance of local communities, the allocation of land, and the resolution of local disputes. About half say they are also influential in how people in their communities vote.

While Zimbabweans hold mixed views of traditional leaders’ motives and impact on democracy, a majority trust them. Both perceived influence and trust are considerably higher in rural areas than in cities.

One key message on which rural and urban residents agree is that they want their traditional leaders to stay out of politics.

Stephen Ndoma

Stephen is the assistant project manager for Southern Africa