‘Extraordinary’ powers’ for chiefs

2012-01-21 16:35

If Parliament adopts the controversial Traditional Courts Bill, tribal chiefs will have more power than they did under apartheid.

The bill aims to replace the repealed Black Administration Act of 1927 that made all black South Africans subjects of a chief.

The bill will give tribal chiefs ­extraordinary powers to punish, tax, enforce unpaid labour and ­allocate land (or not). Their decisions will have the same status as those of magistrates’ court rulings.

These drastic measures were ­severely criticised at a conference on the bill in Johannesburg this week attended by about 130 village representatives and land activists from some of South Africa’s most far-flung rural areas.

Chiefs, would-be-chiefs, spies-for-chiefs, academics and deeply alarmed rural women and men also attended the conference.

Judging from the opposition to the chiefs and the bill’s intent to re-establish apartheid’s tribal homelands and resurrect chiefs’ power, the bill will be seriously unpopular.

Michael O’Donovan from Quanta Analytics estimates there are 896 chiefs in South Africa – excluding the so-called landless chiefs.

These men – about 99% of chiefs are male – will in effect lord it over 32% of voters and cost ­millions of rands of taxpayers’ money in salaries alone.

An estimated 60% of rural South Africans living in the former homelands, where the bill would apply, are female.

An Eastern Cape delegate said: “The Traditional Courts Bill will cause civil war between people. This bill brings the notion that there are real people who have rights to courts and private land, and then there’s us, who are ­subjects of a chief.

“I’m even scared if I raise my voice against the chief here, I will get expelled when I go back to my village. Don’t write my name in the newspaper.”

Tribal chiefs – the title is hereditary – will receive immense powers, in effect reinstating a tribal identity on every rural person ­living in the former homelands ­regardless of whether they are ­independent landowners or restitution beneficiaries and regardless of whether they support the chief or even speak the same language.

On December 15 last year, Parliament announced that the public had 60 days to make submissions on the bill.

This week’s conference was called by various rural ­communities in a last-ditch bid to mobilise opposition to the bill.

The bill was drafted in conjunction with the House of Traditional Leaders – there was no consultation with ordinary people and no consultation with women as a ­separate interest group.

Speaker after speaker told of the discrimination rural women face at most traditional courts if they express their opposition to the bill.

Thozana Qayi from the Eastern Cape said: “Women have noticed that the traditional courts are ­oppressive to us. You can’t represent yourself in the court; you must bring a man to talk on your behalf. There’s no democracy in how women are handled in traditional courts. We are against traditional leaders because they oppress us.”

Monica Mkhize told the conference: “I’m from Waschbank in KwaZulu-Natal. I was in Durban visiting my sister after my husband died. When I came home, the chief told me that I had no home any more because I’m a woman. The chief said I can’t own property ­because I’m a woman. I want to see the end of traditional leaders because they look down on women.”

KwaZulu-Natal alone has more than 300 chiefs.

Hosi Mahatlani, a headman from Limpopo who is not formally recognised as chief because of a three-generation-long dispute after an apartheid-era chief was imposed on the area, told the conference the bill was a “cut and paste job” of the 1927 Native Act. 

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