In recent weeks, South African news reports have been filled with leaders announcing claims and counter-claims to land on behalf of their “people” and royal clans under the newly amended Restitution Act of 1994.
These royal claims are said to be justified by South Africa’s history of colonial dispossession, which was the most extreme on the African continent and waged through two centuries of warfare, and 50 years of legislated discrimination.
Notwithstanding the need for historical re-dress, something rings false about the political intentions behind these claims. Though small in number, the kinds of claims being announced by traditional leaders implicate large portions of our country’s landmass. With very clear explicit backing from the highest political office, the presidency under President Jacob Zuma, the impetus for the new process appears to be aimed at boosting the political status of traditional leaders who have been vociferously lobbying government to restore excessive powers curtailed by the 1996 Constitution.
While the re-opening land restitution process was supported by rural associations such as Ntinga Ntaba kaNdoda in the Eastern Cape, the very same organisation also warned Parliament to ensure that the process did not favour chiefs or lead to a “re-tribalisation” of rural residents.
Ntinga made these warnings in a context where for the past decade or so a number of bills and acts emanating from the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 have, in effect, re-inscribed the political geography of the much hated 1951 Bantu Authorities Act, which virtually turned rural residents into feudal subjects under the often despotic rule of unelected rulers.
The reproduction of apartheid “tribal” boundaries in our democracy was bad enough, but the tabling of legislation that gave chiefs unconstitutional powers was received as a bitter betrayal by rural citizens as was evident in the fierce opposition to the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004, which was defeated in the Constitutional Court, and the Traditional Courts Bill, which failed to pass in parliament earlier this year.
There is no doubt that the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development tried its damndest to get the Traditional Courts Bill passed even though it was patently undemocratic, unconstitutional and was fiercely opposed by many rural residents.
And the state is doing it again with this new restitution process that has the potential to stir up ethnically-charged conflicts between royals, their followers and those perceived as outsiders.
The question is: why is the government pushing ahead with these potentially explosive scenarios?
My speculation is that there must be some assumption amongst our elected leaders that siding with unelected traditional leaders will have some political benefits.
But what sort of benefit might this be? Presumably, the rural populace already votes the African National Congress without being compelled by chiefs, and indeed, in many areas, they vote for the ANC against the wishes of the chiefs.
Then why would the ANC risk the support of rural residents by courting traditional leaders in unprogressive ways?
One answer is simply that for a cohort of conservative leaders within the ANC, there are political gains to be made if the rural population can be made to accept that traditional leaders are their political and customary proxy.
Custom and tradition are perfect ideologies for curtailing democratic accountability because they make social hierarchies and male power appear natural and beyond question.
Conservative elites cleverly exploit custom in a way that positions them to enjoy the benefits of the modern state while using culture to silence or discredit citizens attempting to hold them accountable.
Without a doubt, the ANC is evermore succumbing to the enticements of patriarchal power and the seduction of neo-traditionalist politics. This cannot be separated from the way in which President Zuma himself has been protected and continues to evade culpability in key scandals, including the landing of his friends’ private plane on a national military base and the clear abuse of the fiscus in the security upgrades of his personal home in Nkandla.
One could not escape the sense that the President was being given the “royal” treatment himself, when the blame was placed on civil servants as though they are irresponsible subjects who have tarnished his reputation. What is relied upon is the image of the president as being wholly inerrant. This is a natural extension of the logic of monarchy, not of democracy.
The blurring of the image of the president with a type of ‘kingliness’, combined with the growing politics of entitlement by traditional leaders, explains why the ANC would find resonance with the culturalist politics of traditional leaders.
Yet the failure of the Traditional Courts Bill likely caught its strongest proponents by surprise and should have been a warning to our elected leaders that in South Africa, rural residents know that participating in living customs does not necessarily come at the expense of being full citizens of a democracy. In the long run, the ANC stands to lose more than it can gain if it keeps pushing the agenda of neo-traditionalists.