‘Amandla with no Ngawethu’

2012-04-28 14:54

“You must go and tell Jeff Radebe that he must take his Traditional Courts Bill rules and give them to people who live in suburbs!” shouted an angry young man into the microphone at the Tonga hospital hall.

To cheers and whistling, another told the members of the Mpumalanga legislature presiding over the hearing: “This law is going to contradict our Constitution. Do you think Radebe knows what this bill will do to us? If Jeff wants us to defy, we will!”

Radebe’s justice and constitutional development department drafted this highly contentious bill four years ago in consultation with the National House of Traditional Leaders and the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa.

The bill will effectively revive apartheid tribal authority boundaries and give chiefs extraordinary powers.

Last week provincial governments began holding public hearings on the bill after pressure from, among others, the University of Cape Town’s Land, Race and Gender Unit, the Legal Resource Centre and Human Rights Commission.

This week, four hearings were held in the Eastern Cape. The bill is set to be tabled in Parliament later this year.

Last week in Tonga, near the Mozambique border, provincial MPL Fish Mahlalela held the microphone for more than two hours explaining the bill to a packed hall. When he finally allowed the 300-strong crowd to ask questions, a sea of hands flew up.

It wasn’t long before he began distancing himself from the proposed legislation. “This bill is highly contentious . . . we didn’t write this bill. It came to us from Cape Town.” he stuttered.

Residents of towns including Schoemansdal, Jeppe’s Reef and eight other villages descended on the hearings in taxis, bakkies and cars. It didn’t go well for the officials.

Petrus Khombisa struggled up on his crutches and waved the copy of the bill he had been given.

“I don’t understand the English language and I don’t understand what all these words mean. But I do understand that this law will take us back to apartheid because you want to give the chiefs too much power,” he said.

“This law will make us suffer because it wants to put HF Verwoerd’s regime back in place . . . by putting the indunas back in control of our lives.”

He handed back the microphone, but got up again, wiping his shining forehead.

“And on a point of order,” he told Mahlalela, “I see all you officials are drinking water in the front. Can I have some too, please?”

The bill, Mahlalela told the gathering, would restore the influence and power of the tribal authority.

“When the tribal authority says you must come and appear before the authority, then people refuse because they say they know their rights. ‘We have a Constitution and I don’t have to,’ they say. The (bill) will change that. Now people will have to listen to the tribal authority,” he said to jeers of derision.

The bill was first tabled in Parliament in 2008 but caused such an outcry that it was withdrawn, only to be re-tabled, unchanged, in December last year.

In Tonga, people with no education or legal training asked the chairperson the same question civil society groups have posed: “How can this bill be in line with our Constitution when I have no right to take a lawyer into a tribal court to defend me?”

A young woman angrily demanded the microphone and said women were “sick and tired of not being treated equally to men in traditional courts”.

In most traditional courts women were neither allowed to enter or speak for themselves out of respect for ancestors, and had to ask male relatives to represent them.

Schoemansdal resident Suzman Gama asked how government would justify creating “separate states for black rural people again”.

But Mahlalela allowed no discussion on the crucial issue of chiefs’ jurisdiction over land. “No, you don’t understand. The (bill) is not creating something new. We’re formalising what we have.”

The bill controversially awards chiefs judicial powers akin to those of magistrates, with powers to fine their subjects and sentence them to unpaid labour.

Khomiba said: “This bill is going to give us big problems. This is amandla (power) with no ngawethu (to the people) for us.”

Mahlalela said there would be no option but to obey.

“If you defy the traditional court, it means you are against the law . . . You must follow the rules and laws of this place – you must subject yourself to the traditional court. If somebody doesn’t want to stay here in the rural area, he must leave. If you don’t like South Africa’s law, you must leave the country.”

The chief had the last word. Tribal authority head Samuel Shongwe stood up and thanked the chair.

“I hear everything you say. The (bill) is going to give us power as traditional leaders and now I feel so great.”

» This article was made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa’s Media Fellowship programme

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