Let the amaMpondo people decide who’s their king

South Africa has lost a king. Media reports tell of how 71-year-old King Mpondombini Sigcau, leader of the amaMpondo aseQaukeni, suffered a stroke and died in hospital less than a week later. His funeral was an official provincial event in the Eastern Cape and he was lauded by members of government, including President Jacob Zuma and Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Richard Baloyi, for his service to the country.

Sigcau had been king since 1978. What many reports have failed to mention is that he was involved in a battle for his throne at the time of his death. Mpondombini’s opponent, Zanozuko Sigcau, lodged a claim with the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims, arguing that he should be king of the amaMpondo. The Commission decided in Zanozuko’s favour and President Zuma subsequently recognised Zanozuko as king in 2010, handing an official recognition certificate to him last year.

Mpondombini challenged these actions in court and the case escalated to the Constitutional Court earlier this year. The Constitutional Court’s decision is still pending, meaning that at the time of his death Mpondombini was, officially speaking, actually deposed.

Although the present clash is between Mpondombini and Zanozuko and their supporters, it is rooted in a dispute between their forebears and tainted with the interference of colonial and apartheid authorities.

It is well known that the colonial and apartheid governments selected and appointed traditional leaders who complied with their political agendas. Legitimate chiefs were deposed and replaced with unaccountable ones to lord over tribes that had been strategically split or fused at the whim of government officials.

Hierarchies of traditional leadership were created (with paramount chiefs at the very top) and existing authority processes and structures were re-sculpted to fit into the hierarchical frame. The government’s emphasis on hereditary succession meant that royal lineages could be constructed and manipulated so that cooperative traditional leaders would “automatically” be appointed to their positions. Former ANC President and Nobel Laureate Albert Luthuli wrote about this distortion of the fundamental nature of traditional governance in 1962:

“The whites have made a mockery of the type of rule we knew. Their attempts to substitute dictatorship for what they have efficiently destroyed do not deceive us.”

The onset of constitutional democracy in South Africa should have brought these distortions to an end. Yet, the 2003 Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act officially recognises precisely those traditional institutions constructed by the colonial and apartheid governments.

The Framework Act empowers the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims to address claims and disputes arising from this recognition. In nine years, it has only finalised a fraction of an estimated 1,400 claims and disputes and many of its findings are now being challenged in court. The Sigcau case is only one example. This is unsurprising, considering the Commission’s inability to see beyond the distorted version of traditional institutions that is controversially incorporated into the Framework Act.

One also cannot help but notice parallels between today’s Commission under the Framework Act and a Commission of Inquiry set up by the colonial government in 1938 to deal with the dispute between Mpondombini and Zanozuko’s forebears. Both resulted in government officials appointing a king for the amaMpondo people, whereas the government’s role should be limited to recognising whichever leader the amaMpondo people have chosen for themselves. In present-day democratic South Africa it means the amaMpondo people using their traditional processes as informed by the Constitution.

The issue of how and according to which criteria traditional leaders should be appointed is at the heart of the pending Constitutional Court case. The Centre for Law and Society, which intervened in the case as a friend of the court, argues that appointment processes were historically deeply influenced by the support enjoyed by potential successors within the royal family. Furthermore, history has taught us that where government chooses traditional leaders they are likely to be accountable to government rather than to their people. Luthuli made this observation about chiefs appointed by H.F. Verwoerd’s government during apartheid:

“The [Bantu Authorities Act of 1951] makes our chiefs, quite straightforwardly and simply, into minor puppets and agents of the Big Dictator. They are answerable to him and to him only, never to their people.”

Now, as then, the stakes are high. Increasingly, attempts are made to hand far-reaching governance powers to traditional leaders in terms of legislation such as the Traditional Courts Bill. President Zuma declared last year that officially recognised kings would receive an annual salary of R978,321 from government.

The power of traditional leaders in relation to development and control over natural resources in the former Bantustans is continuously being strengthened by government and other stakeholders. In the amaMpondo case there has been strong community opposition, supported by Mpondombini Sigcau, to the construction of a toll road along the unspoiled Wild Coast and to titanium mining in the area. Thus far the community has managed to stave off this potentially harmful development but it is uncertain whether a new king would be as concerned with the interests of his followers.

Mpondombini’s death thus leaves the area vulnerable to exploitation. Now, more than ever, the question of the “rightful” incumbent is thrown wide open. Let the question be answered in terms of locally relevant processes by those who are part of the local context. After all, they are the ones who will benefit or be prejudiced by the actions and decisions of the new king.

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