Traditional communities at risk

South Africa's traditional communities – their customs, cultures and perhaps even their languages are at risk. The threat comes from what at first glance seems an unexpected source: the government many of them voted into office. Yet closer examination reveals, significantly, that members of the South African Communist Party are at the forefront of the attempts to divide the communities and reduce their influence. Communists from the earliest days of the USSR have distrusted – and tried to stamp out – cultural autonomy because of their fear of contending loyalties. Of course, they have not revealed their real intentions; their excuse is that there is no place for traditional forms of decision-making in a modern democracy, and that the Constitution does not provide for people to be deprived of their voting rights. However, there is no form of government that is more democratic than the African tradition of consensus decision-making – and, indeed many senior members of the ANC have frequently made this point in the past.

Democracy means "government by the people" and is not necessarily confined to Western-style 50 per cent plus one majority rule. African tradition requires the people of a village, region or nation to gather together to discuss important issues until a consensus emerges. No leaders – whether chiefs or Kings – are allowed to be autocratic – they are bound by the will of their people. It is therefore not surprising that traditional African communities are generally peaceful. Western democratic systems of governance are not superior to this process, and tribal peoples have every right to be proud of their heritage.

In the debate that has been taking place recently over the demarcation of local authority boundaries, nothing whatsoever has been said about traditional communities themselves – the focus has been solely on the rights and powers of their leaders. It is almost as if these communities are invisible. No one in government has suggested that they should be allowed to gather together in their traditional manner, to listen to arguments about modernisation and Western-style democracy versus traditional African systems, and then in their own time, village by village, and region by region, to choose for themselves the kind of local government they prefer. Instead, they are to be dictated to, just as they were by the colonial powers and by the country's successive undemocratic governments

Planning for the detribalisation of South Africa was incorporated in the Constitution. Whereas all the other institutions of government were carefully described, Chapter 12 on traditional leaders did not set out the powers, functions or duties of the traditional community institutions. A seemingly innocuous “poison” section was then incorporated in Chapter 7 that said that local government would consist of municipalities, “which must be established for the whole of the territory of the Republic”. How were traditional communities to know that this section would be used to impose elected municipal councils on them?

The ANC could make itself a lot of friends in the traditional communities by adopting the following proposals, which will restore to traditional communities some measure of the autonomy they were deprived of in the colonial past:

  • Recognise and entrench the rights of the traditional communities in the Constitution.
  • Adopt legislation that gives recognition to the traditional decision-making mechanisms of tribal communities.
  • Convert all trust land and government-owned tribal land to tribal "owned land" by registering that land in the names of the respective communities in the Deeds Office.
  • Establish functioning mechanisms for the Provincial Houses of Traditional Leaders and the National House of Traditional Leaders to deal with all legislative, administrative and budgetary matters relating to areas under the jurisdiction of traditional authorities.
  • Establish fiscal measures based on population numbers, under the control of the traditional authorities, for the provision and maintenance of infrastructure and services, and for the general development of the tribal areas.
  • Transfer to the traditional authorities the responsibility for the proper functioning of local authorities, policing, schooling, and health and welfare services in the tribal areas.
  • Establish lines of authority that require traditional authorities to report ultimately to Parliament on the administration of their budgets and not to any lower level of administrative or political authority.
  • Establish mechanisms that will allow traditional communities to maintain land registers and grant freehold land ownership rights in their areas, with the power to confine such rights exclusively to members of their own tribes.
  • Recognise traditional justice and traditional courts in the tribal areas with safeguards to ensure compliance with the Constitution.
  • Vest decisions relating to the accession of their traditional leaders with the respective communities, including the question of the possible accession of women to leadership roles where this issue has not yet been dealt with.
  • Vest power with the respective communities to determine their own structures of leadership with no requirement for uniformity across communities.
  • Remove the colonial and apartheid legacy of government leaders being responsible for the appointment of leaders of traditional communities.

    These reforms will not deprive traditional communities of the vote, as some politicians contend, as they will vote in all elections except local government elections. They will also have a far greater say in local affairs than they would have under an elected local authority.

    The traditional communities are the custodians of their distinctive tribal cultures, languages, histories and traditions, and they will be able to do this more effectively if they are in control of local government. As matters now stand, traditional leaders are accused of doing nothing for their people, yet they have been given neither power nor resources with which to provide infrastructure or services of any kind.

    If the African renaissance is to have any real meaning at all, it must surely be rooted in venerable African traditions and promote their resurrection.

    FMF Feature Article/ 10 October 2000

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