Parallel law

2008-05-24 00:00

IT may surprise many South Africans to hear that 22 million fellow citizens answer to another legal system. The Traditional Courts Bill, which updates colonial and apartheid-era law, is currently before Parliament’s justice committee. In its present form it will entrench the power of chiefs over both civil and criminal matters in rural areas.

Can a modern state justify a parallel legal system that turns some citizens into tribal subjects on the simple basis of geography? Among the sanctions at the disposal of traditional courts is non-compensatory service, seen by critics as potential forced labour at the disposal of autocratic chiefs.

Such archaism is hardly the logical outcome of a long, hard struggle for democracy. Among the bill’s fiercest critics are rural women, for whom the underlying patriarchy of traditional authority holds many drawbacks. Cosatu has called for the bill to be scrapped. It is a demand that seems more than justified.

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