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Opinion - Succession battles for chieftainship: A blessing or curse

2021-08-13  Staff Reporter

Opinion - Succession battles for chieftainship: A blessing or curse

The recent years have seen a number of succession battles for chieftainship being fought among the different ethnic communities throughout Namibia – the two Kavango regions in particular. Worst of all, many of these battles have ended up in the courts. What appears to be the driving force behind these fights – material wellbeing or pure madness? In this article, nonetheless, I mostly confine myself to the succession battles in our two Kavango regions – more particularly among the Vagciriku.

In the past, succession for the Vagciriku chieftainship mainly occurred through the notion of “survival of the fittest”. That is how Hompa (King) Muhera, for example, ascended to the throne. He even invited foreigners to assist him in his fight to topple his maternal uncle, Hompa Muduva, to enable him to ascend to the throne. This led to Hompa Mudva’s ultimate demise by capsising the canoe (wato), where he died with a number of royal family members. Additionally, Hompa Nyangana had to shoot his maternal aunt, Kunyima, the sister to Hompa Muhera, to eventually ascend to the throne.

Succession through naming

Succession through naming appears to be a more recent phenomenon, especially among the Vagciriku. For various reasons, which I will not dwell on here, it was a taboo among the Vagciriku to announce a successor while a hompa was still alive. I would like to state without fear of contradiction that in the case of the Vagciriku, this practice started with Hompa Nyangana, who, under the influence of missionaries, known as varuti in Rumanyo, was forced to name a successor. 

This is aptly demonstrated by Hompa Kamwanga, who noted that before Hompa Nyangana’s death, the whites asked him that since he was too old and about to die, he should announce his successor, i.e. the person who should succeed his chieftainship after his death. 

As Hompa Kamwanga puts it, “Near to his death, the whites asked him: “Look, King Nyangana, you are now old, who will be capable to succeed to your office?” Hompa Nyangana replied: “My sister’s son Linyando (Tjimi)” (Fleisch & Mohlig, 2002: 98). It is worth mentioning that Hompa Nyangana mentioned his nephew Linyando Tjimi to succeed him because he was favoured by the missionaries, since he was practicing monogamy – that is to say, he has only married one wife. Unfortunately, Linyando Tjimi predeceased Hompa Nyangana. It is, therefore, clear that Hompa Nyangana was forced by the missionaries to mention a successor.

The involvement of “whites” did not stop there. After Linyando Tjimi’s death, Hompa Nyangana was once more coerced to mention a successor. Under the influence of varuti, he was pressurised to mention his grandson Weka Shamate, who was also known as Kamutuva because he was baptised as Josef Shamate – even though Hompa Nyangana had a mature nephew, Shampapi Haingura, the son of his younger sister, Katiku, who was the next in line for succession. 

Unfortunately, Kamutuva eventually fell into disfavour among the varuti, as he went on to marry the wife of his maternal uncle, Tjimi. It is a well-known fact that the missionaries despised polygamy. This facilitated Shampapi Haingura to succeed his maternal uncle, Hompa Nyangana, since the varuti no longer deemed it necessary to push for the ‘wicked’ Josef Shamate (Kamutuva) because he was practicing polygamy.

It is particularly worth mentioning that apart from the varuti, the erstwhile colonial apartheid regime also had a very big influence in the selection of successor. It is noteworthy that if a hompa, favoured by the inhabitants, was not in a position to follow the European way of life, he or she was replaced by a more “influential” candidate (Haingura, 2017). As far as the Vagciriku succession is concerned, this happened with the replacement of Hompa Shampapi Haingura (Kuworoma) by his younger brother Linus Shashipapo under the influence of the native commissioner. This occurred while he was still alive – another taboo among the Vagciriku. As Fleisch and Möhlig (2002: 109) so aptly put it, “At that period, the white commissioner at Rundu had to give his formal consent to the election of a new king”.

Moreover, Hompa Shashipapo’s purported naming of his grandson, Hompa Shiyambi, to succeed him did not materialise because Hompa Kamwanga, who had some political muscle, outclassed him to the throne – and could only ascend to the throne after Kamwanga’s death. I would, thus, make it categorically clear that the notion of mentioning a successor came to the Vagciriku through the influence of missionaries, and subsequently via the white native commissioner(s) and/or other high ranking colonial officials who had other agendas and vested interests. It was, thus, not a cultural practice among the Vagciriku of yesteryear. The key question, therefore, is: What is the way forward?

The way forward

As Africans, we must convene a serious “indaba” to interrogate this rising “syndrome”. I cannot see us going back to the way things were done in the olden days. In our current democratic dispensation, for example, it would be difficult for us [Vagciriku] to go back to the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’. Likewise, the Eurocentric and/or colonial legacy of naming a successor is a non-starter because it was designed with a different agenda in mind. 

In my view, it is not in sync with the African milieu, and highly untenable in the African setup, because it was designed with the purpose of destroying our culture and social organisation as observed by Van Tonder (1966: 26), who aptly points out that:

It must be said, that some Christian Missions have failed miserably in South West Africa to produce a social structure in which a better life for the African is to be found. It seems to me as if the primary aim of the Roman Catholic mission is to produce Roman Catholics with all other things equal and secondary. To teach a man not to steal or commit adultery is irrelevant if the social structure in which his values find expression is broken down. These missions have failed because they started breaking down and humiliating the symbol of that structure, the chieftainship. By doing this they undermined the sacred and spiritual unity of the tribe which no administration, not with the best will can ever hope to regain.

Lastly, we must find an African solution to this developing problem, a solution embedded in our (own) experiences, principles and values. The overriding criteria that should determine the appropriateness of a person to be chosen as a hompa should be that of servant leadership.

 In the Vagciriku culture, it is nicely expressed using the following expression: “Muuhompa mwa wapera kutura mo murwana wakurera shirongo”. Roughly translated, the person to be installed as a hompa among the Vagciriku should lead them with humility towards a prosperous future. The crucial question is, is this attainable in our generation, as we are faced with the current debacle? Yes, I am quite optimistic that this can be realised in our lifetime. 

2021-08-13  Staff Reporter

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