Chief Matenge's primary goal as chief is to obstruct the plans of Gilbert, a British agriculturalist. Gilbert hopes to introduce western practices of industrial farming and fencing land, calling his business a cooperative. These laborers are mostly young people that he recruits based on their disinterest in tribalism. He presents himself as a bringer of progress, scientific advancement, and a transition away from authoritarian structures.
Chief Matenge was sent to the village in order to stop Gilbert, and he fights against the man tenaciously. This is how he comes to be seen as "standing in the way of progress". Matenge represents old, tribalist, and authoritarian ways of thinking, which Head hopes to contrast with the progress that the western world can provide.
Chief Matenge is the tyrant of Golema Mmidi. He stands in the way of progress in the sense that he wants to preserve the status quo. The old order hierarchy keeps Matenge in power; it is this powers structure he fights to preserve. To that end, his 'cream-painted' mansion, the 'slaves, and a huge cream Chevrolet' represent the dividing of society into the two classes he is most comfortable with: that of 'royalty and commoner.' Ironically, Matenge's traditional beliefs mirror that of colonialists who believe this discrepancy in equality is the only system which can keep the 'fearful, unwieldy, incomprehensible population of 'natives' in its place.'
However, with the colonialists withdrawing, Matenge becomes the one person who stands in the way of change in Golema Mmidi. Matenge was originally banished to Golema Mmidi by his brother, the Paramount Chief Sekoto, because of Matenge's assassination attempt on Sekoto's life. In Matenge's eyes, one of Sekoto's sins seems to be his blatant fraternization with the locals, the commoners. Threatened by this blurring of social distinctions and jealous of Sekoto's position, Matenge is implicated in the assassination attempt. In Golema Mmdi, Matenge buys cattle from the villagers for six pounds when
he knows he will get sixteen or twenty pounds for the same beast at the abattoir...On this business [Matenge] became very rich, then along came Gilbert with a new idea: the cattle co-operative belongs to the people and each member is to get a fair price.
Effectively, Gilbert Balfour destroys Matenge's 'lucrative cattle-speculating business overnight.' Both Gilbert and Makhaya's work on setting up the cattle co-operative for the villagers raises the ire of Matenge. Why? The cattle speculating monopoly used to belong to a privileged group of white traders. However, with a new self-government voted in, this monopoly was eventually transferred to local leaders like Matenge.
To bring this change about, political agitators such as Joas Tsepe worked hand in hand with corrupt local leaders such as Matenge to set up their own brand of co-operatives to ensure that power remained in the hands of the few. In this way, colonial tyranny was effectively replaced with African style oppression. This new status quo of Africans oppressing Africans is anathema to men like Makhaya; for him, it is an unthinkable atrocity. It is also the main reason why Makhaya works with Gilbert to topple this new power structure by setting up co-operatives owned by the people themselves.
Chief Matenge is seen as standing in the way of progress because he wants to preserve power in the hands of a few. He is not so much concerned about the presence of any power monopoly as he is about being able to carve out a place for himself among the few power-brokers of his newly independent country. To this end, Matenge is willing to engage in dishonest tactics and even violence to destroy anyone who stands in his way. No where is this more evident than in his treatment of Makhaya and Gilbert.
In the end, Matenge commits suicide, unable to reconcile his vision for his brand of tyranny with the sort of single-minded determinism and independence desired by his people. With his death, Gilbert and Makhaya's co-operatives continue uniting the people in agricultural and economic progress.