Traditional leadership bullying needs to stop

Rural communities bear the brunt of the abusive and discriminatory comportment of traditional chiefs who enjoy state support.

The land in communal areas, or formerly Bantustan areas, is owned by the state, largely the Department of Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform. However, the state trajectory of disposing and entrusting the responsibilities of land acquisition, governance, administration and land use to traditional leaders has resulted in unintended circumstances.

The traditional leaders abuse this “power” vested in them under the notion that the land in communal areas belongs to them. They interfere with service delivery projects and legislative processes under the pretext of non-consultation. On the other hand, the same fails to involve, consult and elicit the consent of the rural people affected by the large scale investment projects. The land acquisition, land invasion and land grabbing mostly take place with the approval of traditional leaders. The same applies to Communal Property Institutions which is private land.

This patriarchal, undemocratic and unconstitutional practice has elevated a lot of traditional leaders to become elites in rural communities. The rural poor especially women are living under unbearable conditions. There is no accountability of unlawful collected tribal levies collected from the poor, the widowed women are barred from participating in decision-making processes or speaking during kgoro meetings.

The state has neglected its responsibilities for rural communities. It has instead supported the traditional leaders to create unlawful parallel systems and practices.

I participated in two respective public hearings on the Communal Property Association Amendment Bill (CPAB) and the Limpopo Spatial Planning, Land Use and Management Bill (LSPLUMB) facilitated by the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture and Land and Co-operative Governance, Human Settlement and Traditional Affairs of Limpopo Legislature. The two hearings took place on 11 November 2018 and 4 October 2019 respectively in Polokwane, Limpopo.

The two hearings were predominately attended by traditional leaders. This raised serious concerns from some participants as the most relevant parties, over 190 out of the 200 Communal Property Associations in the province, were not represented. During the CPAB hearing, traditional leaders demanded to be consulted separately from the masses in the future – surprisingly the organisers heeded this call.

In the LSPLUMB hearing, Contralesa and the House of Traditional Leaders were allowed to hold the hearing ransom. The complaint was over “lack of consultation” before the hearing. They also demanded that the committee stop organising hearings until the Spatial Planning, land Use and Management Act (SPLUMA) was amended to incorporate the role of traditional leaders. The committee resolved to grant the traditional leaders an hour to caucus on the matter. Meanwhile, the rest of the participants who are not traditional leaders had to find space outside the conference room, waiting to be called to hear the fate of the hearing. The hearing was subsequently called off as demanded by the traditional leaders.

The MEC of Co-operative Governance, Human Settlement and Traditional Affairs in Limpopo, Baiskop Makamu announced that his department has set aside R62-million for construction of seven traditional “five-star” offices, procurement of furniture and employment of staff in the five districts of the province. This is an enabler for traditional leaders to exercise their “authority” and possibly exclude those deemed unruly and disrespectful.

The South African traditional leaders currently cost the taxpayers over R250-million yearly. The 844 senior traditional leaders are from across eight provinces, excluding Western Cape.

The injustices faced by the rural communities could be legitimised by the possible enactment of the two undesirable bills. The Traditional Court Bill and Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill seek to subject rural people to traditional courts and the exclusion of the rural masses from decision-making processes and community development projects. The bills further push to entrust traditional councils/leaders with the authority to take decisions without soliciting consent from the communities affected.

None of the two bills seeks to address the injustices that rural communities are faced with daily. Instead, the bills propose the creation of different laws for rural people in contrast to urban communities. The bills are promoting a complete opposite to constitutional requirements which promote freedom and non-violence among other key things.

We observe with dismay that the state serves the elites and politically connected few instead of protecting the rights of the most vulnerable rural people.

The bullying by traditional leaders puts democracy under threat. The alleged instigation of violence, killings and land-grabbing in the rural areas are a common conundrum in rural communities. If the government is serious about resolving such unlawful practices, traditional leaders need to be trained to be accountable and adjust to the principles of democracy.

The notion of mistaking chieftaincy for the right to land needs to be done away with. The complexity of the land question requires rare skills and certain expertise. Many traditional leaders do not possess these. The traditional leadership system needs to be revised to be democratic and aligned with the supreme law of the country, the Constitution.

This article first appeared in Daily Maverick on 6 November 2019.

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