Respect our traditional leadership

2016-09-18 06:09
Livhuwani Matsila

Livhuwani Matsila

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Many South Africans were born and bred in the rural areas, where incentives have always been offered – particularly to young people – to promote good behaviour to ensure that peace, stability and prosperity continues to reign in their respective communities.

If boys reach adulthood without a history of having impregnated young girls or indulged in alcohol and drugs, they will be rewarded.

At times their gains will include livestock.

Likewise, traditional ornaments and artefacts of royal and intrinsic value to communities will be offered to girls who maintain their virginity and display exemplary behaviour.

Hence, I was not surprised when, in January, young women in KwaZulu-Natal were offered an incentive – in the form of bursaries – by the uThukela district council to preserve their virginity, which is their dignity and a cultural right enshrined in the Constitution.

This Heritage Month marks an opportune time to reflect on key shortcomings regarding the agenda of social cohesion and nation-building that characterises our beloved country.

It is in this important month when the traditional leadership would expect to feel appreciated for their contribution to such an agenda. But here they are, feeling that they are not being taken seriously.

Who can blame such leaders for defending their traditions, which are aimed not at destroying or undermining anyone’s constitutional rights, but at building society?

Recent remarks by His Majesty, King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu nation, regarding the apparent lack of respect and recognition of our indigenous cultural practices shown by the Commission for Gender Equality begs reflection.

It requires that we place the role of traditional leadership in the context of a modern, democratic society.

The commission’s approach to dealing with the sensitive issue of virginity testing by slamming it as “discrimination against women” undermines the importance of cultural and traditional practices in promoting decorum within society.

Since time immemorial – certainly before colonialism – the promotion of self-discipline and respect through cultural practices such as initiations and celebrations of manhood and womanhood have played a major role in ensuring healthy communities which were materially and spiritually prosperous.

The myth that our cultures and traditions are oppressive towards women must be dispelled.

The truth is that our traditional leadership system is based on a hierarchy that recognises separate but interconnected roles of the elderly, adults and youngsters in society.

This is a tried-and-tested system of community governance with differentiated but complementary roles organised according to age, gender and leadership status in society.

Despite the diversity of cultures and traditions that exist, one rule is paramount: that there is mutual respect among boys and girls, men and women, and young and old people.

Those heading the commission clearly have no respect for our cultural rights, which nobody is coerced into practising.

They should be called to order and encouraged to work closely with traditional leaders and cultural practitioners to understand and contextualise the role of culture and tradition in promoting social cohesion and nation-building.

A subjective assessment of complex and sensitive issues such as the promotion of virginity through testing and social support is inappropriate.

The traditional leadership system suffered during apartheid.

It was subjected to major disruptions such as dislocation, dethroning and the killing of traditional leaders by the colonial machinery and its institutions.

It is only thanks to our cultural tenacity that our leadership system survived and continues to thrive under democratic rule.

However, traditional leaders countrywide are concerned about the increasing hostility displayed towards them by democratic institutions.

Why celebrate Heritage Month when our leadership system is under attack and being undermined by those who seem bent on discrediting it?

How do we celebrate this month with pride when we are told that some of our traditions are unconstitutional?

When the organs of state charged with strengthening democracy become ignorant of the traditional values of certain communities, our people become misguided and have little regard for the respect and responsibility that are part and parcel of a successful democracy.

Schools and public property have been burnt and ransacked countrywide as some community leaders and individuals believe they can do whatever they like in a democracy.

Since the dawn of our democracy in 1994, government in particular has gradually come to neglect, and in some cases abandon, the projects it adopted to promote and preserve the culture, heritage and traditions of all communities.

As a result, social cohesion and nation-building are nonexistent.

We are now suffering the negative consequences of less actively engaged parties to these projects.

Traditional leaders are equally to blame since few of us take the initiative and responsibility to kick-start social cohesion programmes in our own villages.

The corollary to this is that the few programmes that are started by traditional leaders collapse before making any meaningful inroads because of a lack of resources and support, which are reasonably expected to be provided by government.

The competition for power among politicians, traditional leaders and civil society heads must end if we are to successfully resuscitate social cohesion and nation-building.

The collapse of this agenda has led to the sporadic eruption of tribal hatred and violence in many of our communities.

The only time that some form of intervention occurs – albeit through lip service – is when incidents of tribal violence, as well as xenophobic attacks and racial confrontation, surface.

These are never followed up by consistent, integrated and sustainable programmes taking root within communities.

It is therefore prudent that leaders in government, communities, academic institutions and civil society work together to unite people from all walks of life, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, religion or creed.

Chief Matsila is the spokesperson of King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana of the Venda nation


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