Who Ruled by the Spear? Rethinking the Form of Governance in the Ndebele State

by Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni


The current intellectual stampede over issues of governance in Africa has given birth to ahistorical evaluations of the crises bedeviling the African continent. Pre-colonial traditions and cultures have been unduly blamed for bequeathing politics of disorder on the post-colonial state without being carefully studied separately. This article offers a rebuttal to the emerging ‘African exceptionalism’ thesis that blames pre-colonial traditions and cultures for the bad governance systems being witnessed in Africa. It is a nuanced and systematic interrogation and rethinking of the Ndebele system of governance in the nineteenth century. The article arrives at the conclusion that one cannot generalize about pre-colonial African systems of governance as they were not only diverse but also complex, allowing for good governance and bad governance to co-exist uneasily and tendentiously across space and time. As such the single-despot model preferred by many Eurocentric scholars is too simplistic to explain the complexities and diversities of African political systems. Even post-colonial despotic rulers cannot justify dictatorship and violation of their people’s rights on the basis of pre-colonial African traditions, cultures and histories because human rights and democracy were organically built into pre-colonial African systems of governance as this case study of the Ndebele demonstrates.

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Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni is a Lecturer in African Studies at the Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies at the Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. Before joining the Open University, Ndlovu-Gatsheni was Senior Lecturer and Head of Department of International Studies at Monash University’s South Africa Campus in Johannesburg. He has published articles on history and politics in Southern Africa in journals such as Journal of Southern African Studies and Eastern Africa Social Science Research Review. His book entitled The Ndebele Nation: Reflections of Hegemony, Memory and Historiography is in press in the Netherlands. He is currently researching on nationalism, memory and transitional justice in Zimbabwe.