“Here I stand; I am my own chief”

Delegates at the Land Divided conference heard powerful pleas – and indictments – from rural representatives, which illuminated the implications of the re-entrenchment of apartheid-era traditional leadership arrangements.

The delegates heard about two communities that successfully resisted the apartheid authorities’ attempts to declare them “black spots” subject to forcible removal, just to be confronted with the Traditional Courts Bill almost two decades into democracy.

The conference, taking place on 24-27 March 2013, looks at the 1913 Land Act a century later and is hosted at the University of Cape Town, in collaboration with the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University.

The community that Beauty Mkhize hails from bought their land in Mpumalanga in 1912 on the advice of Pixley ka Seme, a founding member of the ANC (then the South African Native National Congress). People made immense sacrifices to raise the necessary money to purchase land at Driefontein farm between the towns of Wakkerstroom and Piet Retief.

Mkhize’s community consists of people from different ethnic groups – Swati, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa – all living together peacefully.

Then came the 1970s: “You should know when there’s a ‘black spot’ in a white area, they think about how to get you out day and night,” she told delegates. The Sotho speakers were to go to Qwa Qwa, the Swazi to KaNgwane and the Zulus to Babanango.

The community resisted, with her husband Saul Mkhize playing a leading role. He called a mass meeting at which he was shot dead in cold blood by a white police officer, a loss that still weighs heavily on Mkhize’s mind.

“Something that makes my insides boil is that, in Driefontein, we never had chiefs. Here I stand; I am my own chief. The chiefs supported us being moved because then they get land.”

According to Mkhize, Chief Samuel Yende was responsible for the deaths of two youth leaders who rejected his claims to chieftainship.

The community battled against both the apartheid regime and its collaborators among the chieftaincy to become the first community to win reprieve from forced removals in 1986. This community was also active in smuggling ANC activists across the border to Swaziland.

Great was their shock when they found out that the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 disestablished their elected community authority and that they had been placed under Yende.

Prisca Shabalala, a member of the Rural Women’s Movement who spoke at the opening of the conference, recounted how her community at Matiwaneskop near Ladysmith, KwaZulu Natal, was declared a “black spot” in 1980 by apartheid authorities.

Their forebears purchased the land many decades ago. Shabalala described how the community made decisions together about how best to use the land. The duct they built became a river; the church hall they built doubled as a school, which became known as the Matiwaneskop Primary School.

Community members formed a committee to resist the forced removal. Their iNkosi passed away and the committee continued as his son was too young to take over. Under the leadership of the committee, the community built a bridge and roads.

When the iNkosi came of age he took over. The community had high hopes for him, as he was the first chief with an education: “We expected many things to happen, like under his father and his grandfather,” said Shabalala.

However, development has been placed in reverse gear. Access to water has become a problem; electricity isn’t working; infrastructure is decaying. When some of the older community members wanted to have boreholes drilled, the chief’s headmen put a stop to it. His promises of water have come to nought.

Shabalala is angry that the Traditional Courts Bill amplifies traditional leaders’ powers. “Traditional leaders just want to be heard by themselves. These are people who, once they have spoken, no one else will speak.”

She demanded answers from government: “What is government saying about this Bill?” Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti, who was part of the same panel of speakers, did not respond directly to Shabalala’s questions.

Nkwinti did, however, say: “What we need is a good governance mix because our Constitution does allow for the existence of traditional institutions. We cannot avoid that. It’s there.

“But we need to politically manage relations in such a way that we tilt the scale… you have to find a way of curtailing the power of traditional institutions in favour of not just the people living in these communities but also to ensure that the wall-to-wall local government system we have takes effect, which is not the case now.”

Permanent link to this article: https://www.customcontested.co.za/here-i-stand-i-am-my-own-chief/

Custom Contested