Moves to empower chiefs bad for democracy*

Does the African National Congress (ANC) now feel more comfortable with chiefs and princes than with the people?

After losing 10 percentage points in Gauteng in May’s election, the ANC vowed to reconnect with the black middle class. But there are signs that it may feel that traditional leaders are a better bet.

Campaigners for rural people’s rights have been arguing for a while that the ANC is eager to cosy up to traditional leaders: this has been largely ignored by a debate that seems to assume that South Africans count only if they live in cities. The ANC tried to steer through Parliament the Traditional Courts Bill, which would have given traditional leaders enormous power over their “subjects”. Public pressure and divisions within the governing party stopped the bill, but the ANC leadership’s enthusiasm for traditional leaders continued. After Parliament passed a land restitution law this year, President Jacob Zuma urged traditional leaders to take the lead in claiming land — campaigners believe the law aims to ensure that these leaders decide who gets land.

More muscle for traditional leaders gives great power over the lives of rural people to leaders they have not chosen. Supporters claim that beefing up traditional leaders’ power allows people to express their culture — opponents, they insist, are urban elitists who don’t recognise how important tradition is to many people. But empowering chiefs doesn’t strengthen the right of people to freely live out their cultural traditions — it gives unelected leaders the right to impose themselves on rural people. It doesn’t allow people to express themselves — it tries to stop them doing this.

But, as serious as these attempts to erode democracy in rural areas are, it has been — until recently — possible to dismiss them as a one-off repayment of a political favour. The ANC’s present success in KwaZulu-Natal is usually explained as an ethnic vote — many Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters, it is said, switched to the ANC because the president is a Zulu speaker. A likelier explanation is that Zuma knew that traditional leaders were the IFP’s power base and that winning them over would win the ANC the rural areas. The ANC largely succeeded in winning over the chiefs. Greater powers for them could be their reward for switching sides.

But some straws in the wind suggest that the ANC’s attraction to traditional leaders goes beyond passing a law to thank them for support. At a recent conference, a senior ANC politician with a political history in urban township politics was meant to talk on local government, but he devoted his presentation to a praise song to traditional authorities instead. He claimed they had huge support and needed to be taken more seriously.

More ominously, at a meeting to discuss the annual 16 days of activism to oppose violence against women and children, Minister for Women in the Presidency Susan Shabangu invited two guests to speak, one of whom was a Mpumalanga traditional leader who lectured women on the need to submit themselves to their husbands. The second was a princess from the North West who reportedly denounced feminism and urged an end to government funding for shelters for abused women and children because abuse should be dealt with in the home.

Activists at the second meeting were predictably horrified at the minister’s apparent enthusiasm for treating women like second-class citizens. Their worry seems justified as both examples suggest a governing party willing to backtrack on core democratic principles to seek an alliance with traditional leaders. But why would it want to do this?

One explanation is that Zuma is a conservative who is committed to traditional authority and the values that are said to go with it. This may be part of the story. But the ANC could also be wondering whether traditional leaders are a far surer source of support than a new black middle class, which its leaders are struggling to understand.

If it is, it is hard to see this strategy working. This is a rapidly urbanising country and experience in, ironically, KwaZulu-Natal suggests that the more people take root in the cities, the less are they likely to vote the way traditional leaders want them to. Even before the province’s ANC reached out to these leaders, people who settled permanently in the cities tended to move from the IFP. The more power traditional leaders get, the more people may flee to the cities to avoid their control.

But that may not prevent the ANC from flirting with empowering traditional leaders in the hope that this can secure rural support. If it continues on this path, democracy will lose out. Rural people’s needs should receive more attention. Recognising people’s rights to remain loyal to traditional culture is essential in a democracy. But neither is achieved by giving traditional leaders more powers to impose themselves on people. The more the government empowers the chiefs, the more rural people will lose.

*First published in Business Day on 19 November 2014

Permanent link to this article:

Custom Contested