Journey to rural Utopia

2008-06-16 00:00

It is an elementary fact that the countryside of the South African landscape is a vista of peace and tranquillity, compared with what can be found in our urban areas. Respect for life, limb and property is guaranteed by the prevailing communal spirit which ensures the enforcement of law and order. Poverty and prosperity are shared in equal measure.

We share human and material resources in a manner that negates the proliferation of the Western and urban phenomenon of haves and have-nots. Those who are endowed with material goods such as motor vehicles, farm implements, livestock or farm produce are obliged to avail them to the less fortunate, in exchange for the latter’s labour and provision of safety and security. We live in homesteads, as opposed to houses, a situation which frowns upon electrified fences and high walls. We move freely in and out of each others homes with no suspicions for each others motives.

African customs, traditions and culture are the glue that keeps rural communities together and united. Familial, clan and tribal ties ensure that each person is his brother’s keeper. Each level of social organisation has a system and procedures that are meant to promote co-operation and resolution of disputes.

The traditional leader, of whatever rank, is the upper guardian of the people living in his or her sphere of jurisdiction. He or she is one of the features by which an African identifies him or herself.

It is obviously easy, and more than tempting, to dismiss all of what I have just outlined as Utopian drivel that bears no resemblance to reality — the world, even the rural one, has moved on. It has indeed moved on. But has it moved on to a better or worse state than my communal traditional one? Has it become a more caring, sharing and moral world? Or has it become selfish, greedy, immoral and in-humane? I leave the answer to you.

So, what has prompted me to undertake a sentimental journey to my rural Utopia? It is recent commentary in the media that accuses the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development of inciting rural South Africans to commit riots of the same magnitude as the black-on-black violence that rages in the shacklands of our major urban areas. This these rural citizens, who are poor and illiterate, will resort to because this government seeks to restore my Utopia by introducing the Traditional Courts Bill, which gives official and political recognition to the holders of African royal authority, the traditional leaders, as administrators of justice.

To these commentators — black and white — anything that is not informed by Western values has to be castigated as backward, paternalistic, sexist and undemocratic.

Our government is under siege from all sorts of corners because of people who are never prepared to give credit where it is due. Rural communities continue to lag behind the rest of the country in the acquisition of services and benefits which their urban counterparts take for granted. Yet, they do not murder, loot, destroy or riot in order to enforce the enjoyment of the fruits of freedom.

In introducing the Traditional Courts Bill the government ought to be commended for seeking to entrench the African cultural values and mores which promote the treatment of human beings by other human beings as human beings.

Having been exposed to the re-ceived Western system of justice administration and our indigenous courts, I maintain that the latter are head and shoulders above the former. Under the Western system justice is for sale. Litigants are required to hire lawyers to represent their interests, and the more expensive the lawyer the greater the chances of winning, and vice versa. In African courts justice is not for sale. The former are more courts of procedure and technicalities, while ours are courts of justice, driven more by the desire to get at the truth, without regard for the niceties of procedural correctness.

In African courts cases are tried by the peers of the litigants, in the open, somewhat informally and in a democratic manner. The Western counterparts are at the mercy of the wisdom of one person or a few more of his colleagues. The rest of the community has no say. The proceedings are rigid and alienating, the environment austere and the atmosphere intimidating.

There is also the matter of the tiresome accusation of African culture being anti-women. This accusation is often accepted as fact, without investigation, by people who are supposed to be wise, as they are educated. When people break Western law they are taken to court. Yet when people pervert customary law the conclusion is that it is so bad it warrants abolition. The critics don’t bother to study African courts to understand how they interpret customary law in a manner that protects the interests of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.

The traditional councils, through which these newly-recognised traditional courts will, of necessity operate, have, under this government, been transformed, democratised and made gender-sensitive. Women have to constitute no less than one third of the council. The aged, the young and the disabled are represented. The critics cannot be bothered to acquaint themselves with these developments. They are content with rehashing the colonial drivel which presumes that African culture is inferior to Western culture.

Xenophobia is not an African phenomenon. Had it been African, Europeans could not have been welcomed on our shores as they were when they landed either as missionaries, colonialists or ship-wreck survivors. Let us learn to respect each other.

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