The chiefs are losing SA’s vote

2015-03-31 15:00

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On the eve of South Africa’s first local government elections in 1995, traditional leaders throughout the country threatened to bar voting in areas under their control.

Mostly operating under the banner of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA, they were demanding their powers be protected when national and provincial democracy was extended to the local sphere.

They were unsure what their status would be once democratic councillors were installed.

They protested loudly and waxed on about their status as the custodians of African traditions and customary laws.

Seeing that the rural Eastern Cape was a hotbed of the resistance by traditional leaders, a colleague and I headed there in search of chiefs who would explain their stance to us first-hand.

We were directed to a few articulate traditional leaders, including one from a village near the small town of Tsolo.

When we arrived at the village and found his homestead, family members told us he had gone to Mthatha to cash his salary cheque.

They advised us not to wait, because the chief’s payday routine was to stop at his favourite tavern to start spending the fruits of his labour. They directed us to the tavern, where we were told he had been earlier, but had moved on to another one.

Off we went to the next tavern, where we were informed he had left for a popular shebeen.

At the shebeen, we were told he and a friend had gone to the bottle store to buy liquor to drink at the friend’s house. We eventually caught up with the chief at his friend’s house, but he was no longer interview material. He would have been very articulate, but...

We did find other articulate traditional leaders who did their best to convince us why their institution was so important. They took care to explain that the sky would come crashing down if electoral democracy were to triumph over this form of governance in local communities.

Elaborate arguments were given about why this was real democracy – while this thing of people going to vote for their leaders was a terrible foreign import, which should be secondary. We listened intently to reflect their views to our readers – but it was mostly poppycock.

To avoid the disruption of the elections, which would have deprived rural communities of their right to vote and possibly resulted in violence, government made tactical concessions, but it was playing for time. The elections went ahead and the new Constitution that was adopted gave traditional leaders a few powers.

Over the past 20 years, communities have become so used to being governed democratically that the institution of traditional leadership has become largely irrelevant. Rural people would rather turn to the local councillor for help than the local chief. They know the councillor belongs to a political system that can make things happen. In theory, at any rate.

They know the councillor is part of the general governance system that stretches from local municipality to national government, while the chief is just a guy who happens to have had the right father.

To be fair, there are a few traditional leaders who work hard to bring development to their communities and resolve disputes.

Over time, the institution is withering away and, over coming decades, will exist only because the Constitution recognises it.

South Africans are already grudgingly paying for the institution, and there is a growing clamour for it to be scrapped. The common refrain is: What do they do and why should we be fattening people who add no value?

Traditional leaders are helping this perception by constantly claiming more from the public purse.

Their latest demand for government to provide them with such luxuries as washing machines, Mercedes-Benzes and dishwashers has angered South Africans even more.

Read: Oh government, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz

Such avarice is not winning them any allies in their fight to preserve the system.

In future, the clamour will grow for a constitutional change to strip the institution of importance or scrap it.

These moves are unlikely to find support among some mainstream political parties that contend the chiefs are an important constituency and should not be alienated before elections.

But in time, even they will find it hard to justify pouring public money into something that cannot justify its existence.

This will be a great pity, because the institution has much to offer to help South Africans preserve and enrich their cultures and help communities find unique solutions to their problems. But South Africa cannot hold on to traditional leaders for sentimental reasons.

The chiefs have to pull their weight and prove that we need them.

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