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


  • 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.