With the Traditional Courts Bill (TCB) again being discussed in parliament, it is important to remember what it took for people from rural areas to raise their voices at the provincial public hearings on the bill that were held in 2012. Living in democratic South Africa means exercising the hard-won right to voice your position and demand accountability from public representatives about laws that will affect your life.
The importance of this right may dwindle if your life is comfortable and relatively easy. If this is not the case, then the right to freedom of expression is of even greater importance. The life of the majority of people living in the rural areas is by no means comfortable or easy. This makes democratic participation in law-making processes by rural people, especially women, imperative.
The hearings confirmed that, as important as democratic participation and freedom of expression are, these are not easy rights to claim. Attending a public hearing on a piece of draft legislation that may have massive implications for your claim to equality before the law and access to resources is a task fraught with difficulties. The practical difficulties of getting to the actual hearings on the TCB were combined with the difficulties of understanding the substance of the legislation, in order to engage with it meaningfully.
Further obstacles included arbitrary decisions by chairpersons at the hearings about what constituted “relevant comments”. Participants also had to deal with a hostile atmosphere and processes that frequently privileged elite voices and militated against open discussion and information gathering.
Viewed through this lens, taking a stand is a meaningful and empowering act. The hearings were an instance in which rural people have shown they are willing and able to overcome the obstacles to make their voices heard. Some people had to travel great distances and were confronted with the reality of unreliable and costly public transport. Many people were kept in the dark about the implications of the Bill and their inputs were subjected to restrictions. But they still managed to tell their stories and express their dissatisfaction with the Bill and its repercussions, as they understood them.
The public hearings presented a snapshot of the state of democracy in rural South Africa. That snapshot shows that South Africans living in rural areas are committed to preserving the democracy that was envisaged during the struggle against apartheid.
Rural citizens used their lived experiences and knowledge to make sense of the political and the legal. This often produced insightful analysis and a realistic understanding of how laws like the TCB fit with other customary law legislation and the bigger political picture.
This experiential knowledge has much to contribute to the development of policy and legislation and it is a great pity that some officials dismissed it during the hearings. The lengths to which rural community members went to share their knowledge and experiences highlight their commitment to protecting the citizenship rights that the new democratic dispensation guarantees them.
People spoke about the Constitution and how the TCB contradicts the democracy that they had fought for. They emphasised that the battle for liberation was one that they had already fought and won. Their referencing of the Constitution contradicts assertions by some leaders that the Constitution is a foreign, “Western” document that South Africans cannot relate to their lives. In fact, people in their oral submissions showed how deeply they relate to the Constitution.
This is an excerpt from Report on the provincial Traditional Courts Bill hearings: Exploring rural people’s democratic participation and freedom of expression. The full research report can be accessed here.