The ancient in the modern

2009-11-02 00:00

YOUR editorial piece on “Monarchy and democracy” dated October 5, is not only flawed, it is way off the mark. You suggest that there is a “need for the institution of traditional leadership in a modern democracy to play a purely ceremonial role”. To my mind, the implication that the institution is undemocratic because it is incompatible with modern forms of governance, is far from the truth.

I want to argue that traditional leaders can make a significant impact if they are able to augment the respect they enjoy with a modern contribution to economic development. In his celebrated lecture, “In defence of monarchy in an age of democracy”, Dr Eskandari Qajar puts it aptly when he states: “An argument for monarchy, is not argument against democracy”. His Majesty Kgosi Molotlegi of the Bafokeng nation points out that traditional forms of governance are not elitist, autocratic or unchanging by definition, nor are they so in practice. Perhaps the thinking of the views expressed in the article is best explained and rebutted by Foucault’s observation that traditional leaders represent an African discourse, which is competing for psychological space with the state, representing the Western discourse.

It is interesting to note that many post-independence African governments saw traditional leaders as impediments to modernisation and nation building, and tried to curtail their role in local government and national politics. However, the nineties saw the resurgence of interest with regard to the institution of traditional leadership. A large number of African countries began to enhance or formalise the position of their traditional leaders, including Mozambique, Uganda and South Africa. To crown it all, even international institutions and donor countries display renewed interest in the institution of traditional leadership. Traditional authorities now feature high on the agendas of international organisations and forums.

The question that comes to mind is: why this renewed interest in the institution of traditional leadership? It is seen as a channel that can articulate the needs and priorities of communities, which it represents, and this can lead to genuine democratisation and development and the assertion of local autonomy against the globalising and modernising power of the state. Donor and aid agencies often look upon traditional authorities as the missing link between rural citizens and the state. They are also seen as having the capacity to mobilise their people behind development initiatives and as a means of gaining and using the authority and respect of their people for community education and awareness creation.

It is therefore important for our political system to assign traditional leadership a place and function that will make it useful for social development rather than simply allowing it to stagnate and languish in the museum of traditional idylls and artefacts. Traditional leaders have so much to offer society and should thus be accorded the status they rightly deserve, while of course remaining mindful of the fact that they function within a democratic society. Although South Africa is now a modern society, it still needs to be supported by a strong traditional rulership that will encourage the propagation of positive cultural values and a strong sense of communal belonging and identity.

In their envisaged role, especially in this new political dispensation, traditional leaders must deal with pressing problems that affect communities, such as unemployment, poverty and disease. Traditional leaders could be used to take stock of people in need of assistance. They could also help with identification of job seekers. Without raising unrealistic expectations, they could become employment agencies that could be used by the private sector to access people who might be looking for employment and who now vainly seek information in the wrong places.

Our communities face many challenges. Traditional leaders, being close to people, can sense the needs of their people and establish mechanisms for social development. This could make it possible for traditional leaders to invite external agencies to help build society in whatever way. Traditional leaders could also facilitate welfare services.

The crime rate we are experiencing occurs because the communities have not taken it upon themselves to organise and assist organs of state in dealing with such problems. Crime becomes rampant because communities are not adequately sensitised to fight it. Traditional leaders, because they are close to the communities, could play a role by organising, sensitising and energising communities to deal with crime in its initial stages. In this regard, traditional authorities could also perform tasks involving law enforcement and dispute resolution. An interesting observation is that customary courts are said to be easily accessible, cheap, fast and comprehensible.

Traditional leaders could also bridge the gap between government and civil society by integrating the sphere of tradition into the space of governmental power as a symbolic, legitimising resource. Traditional leaders also have a role to play in the field of natural resource management. They are thought to be able to ensure nature conservation and environmental equilibrium, and to manage customary land in such a way as to ensure general and equitable access to land and to guarantee the social security function of land. Another role is that of protecting local culture, tradition, identity and religion.

The most critical point is that for traditional leaders to see themselves as significant agents of change in the community, their positions have to be defined on different rungs of the ladder. In other words, it might be viewed as demeaning and belittling for traditional leaders to be regarded purely as regional or local entities without provincial and national mechanisms that recognise their leadership. In this particular sense, it is important for the houses of traditional leaders to be retained for what they are worth and for ideas to be generated from those bodies to assist the process of development, policy decision and policy formulation at various levels.

In a nutshell, His Majesty Kgosi Molotlegi poignantly observes that, “for some reason, traditional leaders like myself are often perceived to be exclusively concerned with issues of ethnic politics and cultural heritage — rainmakers who sit under trees talking to other old men — when in fact we represent a great deal more than that. Maybe the term ‘traditional leader’ is misleading. We are rooted in — but not bound by — tradition.” It is my hope that the argument that I have raised in this article, namely that traditional leaders should be seen as significant agents of change, will help to dispel the perception that they are only good for performing ceremonial functions and for promoting cultural heritage. They are agents of development.

I couldn’t agree more with His Majesty Kgosi Molotlegi when he argues that “if we want to be true to Africa, we should be eclectic, embracing the tenets of democracy and weaving them together with the indigenous institutions that Africans respect and believe in. I am not opposed to modernising and democratising and equalising our societies, but if we ignore our traditional institutions in the process, we do so at our own peril.”

I also dare say that traditional leaders are not an anomaly in the democratisation process. In the traditional African hierarchy, the traditional leader represents everyone and is the embodiment of a way of life, governance and stability.

Emile A. B. van Rouveroy van Nieuwal, one of the authorities on traditional leadership, expresses these sentiments eloquently and concisely. “Traditional leadership is an institution in which the African … places his trust. His legal and constitutional horizon … reaches as far as his traditional leader, but not to his capital. For many Africans, the traditional leader is still the personification of the moral and political order, protection against injustice, evil and calamity.”


• Dr Vusi Shongwe works in the Office of the Premier. He writes in his personal capacity.

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