Democracy for rural people under threat

2017-01-15 06:03
The paramount chief of the Khoisan, Hendrik ‘Hennie’ van Wyk. (Jaco Marais, Netwerk24)

The paramount chief of the Khoisan, Hendrik ‘Hennie’ van Wyk. (Jaco Marais, Netwerk24)

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The new year has ushered in a dangerous time for millions of rural dwellers in South Africa as they face the prospect of losing precious democratic rights enjoyed by their urban fellow citizens.

The government is contemplating revising a law that imposes two systems of governance in one country.

The Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill is meant to recognise Khoisan communities and provide structures and leadership, while at the same time revising the existing Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act.

In the process, however, democracy will be whittled away from some 22 million rural South Africans as the proposed law will in effect retribalise the countryside; reintroduce tribal boundaries in the former homelands; extend governmental powers to chiefs; and allow for unaccountable partnerships between traditional councils and private entities.

Public hearings on the bill began in December and will continue until March, but already rural communities are complaining about the lack of public consultation that is occurring.

In one instance, at the Mthatha hearings held last month, the hearing lasted only three hours with many people not having had a chance to speak, while members of Parliament held a separate meeting with traditional leaders at a separate venue.

There was no public feedback on what transpired in this private meeting. This conduct is an ill omen for this deeply flawed legislation.

Similar to the Native Administration Act and Homeland Administration Acts of yore, the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill turns chiefs into servants of the state instead of democratically accountable representatives of the people.

This means that people in former homeland villages (all black) will be treated by law as subjects, whereas people in urban areas (black and white) will have full rights as citizens. Sections 9(7) and 12(11) of the bill turn headmen into unelected royal family appointees.

These provisions go against a common and long-established customary practice in hundreds of villages around the country where communities elect their own headmen. Similarly, Section 16 of the bill promotes the creation of unaccountable traditional councils that are dominated by unelected members.

What makes the bill even more problematic are its provisions in section 25, where government departments may delegate their powers to these unaccountable traditional councils without clear criteria when there is abuse or misuse of such power.

Section 24 perpetuates this problem further by giving traditional councils the power to enter into partnerships with the private sector in ways that may undermine the customary rights of rural citizens.

Some of the largest known mineral deposits in the country are located in the former homelands. Communities around the country are struggling to retain their homes and agricultural land as mining companies negotiate with traditional councils, in most cases without adequate consultation with local communities.

The ongoing struggles in rural mining communities such as Xolobeni in Mbizana, Eastern Cape, are due to the unwarranted powers given to traditional leaders and their councils.

Section 24 clears the way for traditional councils to strike deals that could have massive communal ramifications for local communities, without consulting them.

These could include mining deals, private land developments, infrastructure projects, road building and so on.

It should be remembered that traditional councils are undemocratic as the majority of their members (60%) are unelected chiefs’ appointees. It is only 40% of members that are elected.

The bill represents a massive and dangerous assault on our democracy. Opposition to the bill does not amount to rejection of traditional and customary leadership.

Instead, we reject the reintroduction of a separate and undemocratic governance system that reduces only black people to tribal subjects based purely on where they find themselves geographically.

This was an integral part of colonial and apartheid rule.

As it stands now, Parliament must withdraw this bill as it is an affront to our Constitution, which promotes democracy and people-centred decision making.

Ncapayi is the director of the Cala University Students’ Association and the national coordinator of the Rural Democratisation Campaign of the Inyanda National Land Movement

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