Completing the destruction of South Africa’s traditional communities?

Will South Africa’s democratic government achieve what the colonial and apartheid powers failed to do: the complete destruction of our traditional communities? I certainly hope they will not. It will be a sad day for the country if the Communal Land Rights Bill and White Paper on Traditional Leadership and Governance are adopted in their present form because if their contents become legislation, it will mark the end of traditional African forms of governance in South Africa. And if the role and functions of traditional leadership disappear, the death of culture and tradition will swiftly follow. Would this not be a betrayal of our African heritage? Does the government really believe that traditional African governance has nothing to contribute to the government of this country? What then is the fundamental fabric of the African renaissance we hear so much about? The proposed legislation and policy represent a concerted initiative to destroy the institution of traditional leadership once and for all. One of the worst elements of this onslaught against the traditional communities and their leaders is that the architects remain anonymous, hidden behind the veil of legislation and bureaucracy.

A puzzling agenda
Two government departments are, however, the identifiable spearheads of the process. Land Affairs has drafted the legislation that will lead to the disintegration of the tribal communities through a clever process designed to atomise and politicise management of community land. Provincial and Local Government, in a complementary initiative, has used the demarcation of local authority boundaries to split communities and bring them under political control. Traditional leaders have been given, probably temporary, ex officio seats on municipal councils but the Draft White Paper on Traditional Leadership and Governance shows a clear intention to extinguish forever the right of traditional communities to govern their own affairs according to age-old custom.

What puzzles the observer is: Why? Why does South Africa’s black majority government appear to be intent on destroying the very essence of what it means to be African? Why does it appear to be following the same shortsighted policies that were adopted in so many other African countries? Are Africans so desperate to become “Westernised” that they are prepared to eviscerate themselves by destroying their languages and cultures and denying their histories? Hopefully, cooler and wiser heads will prevail in this saga and the government will decide to go back to square one on this issue and work out a dispensation that will allow South Africa to be simultaneously modern and truly African.

A just and equitable dispensation
A suitable solution has already been evolved by the Traditional Leaders. They have proposed to government that title to the traditional community land, which those communities rightfully regard as their own private land, should be transferred to and belong outright to the respective communities. This is a legitimate and fair claim. The Traditional Authority in each community then needs to be constituted as its local authority, with the same powers, functions and duties as all other local authorities, and this dispensation needs to be accommodated in the constitution. The leaders further propose that the Traditional Authorities should have the added power to open unique land registers for their communities, to recognise land rights in much the same way as is done in Sectional Title arrangements. The proposals appear to provide a sound foundation for the evolutionary development of traditional communities.

Traditional African rule is truly democratic
A matter that may concern the general public is the portrayal of traditional African leaders as autocrats that ride roughshod over the wishes of their people. Nothing could be further from the truth, except possibly for the odd aberrant behaviour that will be found in any form of governance. African democracy is a form of direct democracy that allows the people to be involved in all major decisions affecting their communities. Decisions are made by consensus with the chief or traditional leader acting as a facilitator and traditionally not allowed to influence the decisions of the community.

Representative democracy allows no such involvement. Elected leaders can do very much as they please as long as they abide by certain rules. They can even defy the majority of the electorate if they have no concern for re-election or believe they can sway opinion in their favour by the time of the next election.

Traditional authorities can never behave in such a manner. They are always accountable and always available to their people. African democracy is consequently superior to representative democracy at the local level and therefore more suitable for the governance of traditional communities.

An appeal or a threat?
A matter of grave concern is the charge that traditional leaders are threatening violence if government proceeds with the Communal Land Rights Bill and the Draft White Paper on Traditional Leadership and Governance. That the traditional leaders are implacably opposed to both documents is no secret. They would be failing in their duty to their people if they did not oppose plans that are designed to wreak havoc amongst their communities. As far as I can determine an appeal has been interpreted as a threat. If somebody says: “Please don’t proceed on this course, it could result in violence and even bloodshed,” is that a threat? I would liken it to someone coming upon a person who is foolishly poking a lion with a sharp stick. If the observer says: “Please don’t do that, the lion may attack you?” Is the culprit then entitled to respond, if the lion does attack, by shooting both the lion and the person who issued the warning? The ancient advice remains true: don’t shoot the messenger.

Peace and progress
Everyone wants to see the rural communities making peaceful and rapid economic progress. But they should not be the subjects of social engineering. They should rather be allowed to work matters out for themselves, with whatever assistance they request and can be made available to them. First, however, the traditional communities should, as far as possible, have the rights restored to them that were taken away by the colonial and apartheid governments. This includes the right to their land and the right to govern affairs on that land in their traditional manner. They have a just and moral right to such a dispensation. And surely, also, they have a right to expect an African government to refrain from withholding the space they need to nurture their languages, customs and cultures in an environment that is conducive to their survival.

May history relate that in the year 2003 a visionary dispensation was implemented that led to the flowering of tradition, culture and consensus community governance in South Africa, and that this served as an example for the rest of Africa. And may the history books also show that this was the beginning of South Africa’s true greatness.

Author: Temba A Nolutshungu is a Director of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not neessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Policy Bulletin / 23 June 2009
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