Government is eager to pass the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Bill into law before the end of this financial year, but its opponents in the ANC are afraid the new attempt to affirm the traditional leadership system might open the door to a form of “dictatorship”. The ANC is expected to craft a united position on the role of traditional leaders at its upcoming national general council next weekend. This will include addressing concerns that new land claims by kings, queens and chiefs could see government giving away ownership of state land around the country. The bill, which was made public in Parliament on September 18, seeks to recognise the roles and responsibilities of traditional leaders in the democratic system. For the first time, government will also extend the privileges enjoyed by other traditional leaders – such as the R56 million annual budget spent on Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini – to Khoisan tribes. Traditional leaders are upset about their limited rights to ownership and control of rural land and have accused the ANC government of trying to impose laws of managing community land by giving it to municipalities. The powers by municipalities to demarcate local settlements are seen to be “encroaching on their ground”. But traditional leaders were also emboldened by President Jacob Zuma’s proposal in February last year that they should lodge new land claims with the rural development and land reform department to reaffirm their historical ownership of parts of South Africa. Under the Ingonyama Trust, King Zwelithini and his amakhosi prepared a multibillion-rand land claim for huge parts of KwaZulu-Natal last year. In its current form, the bill is expected to boost this case and others similar to it. From the ANC’s perspective, and within the context of next year’s local government elections, traditional leaders are seen to be nearer to voters and enjoy significant trust among rural communities. This places them in a favourable position to become valuable partners in the campaign for next year’s elections. The head of the ANC’s traditional leadership forum in the national executive committee, Zoleka Capa-Langa, said the bill “will have to be weighed against recognising the role and existence of traditional leaders, but will avoid the element of dictatorship”. “There is no way we can go back to a dictatorship arrangement,” said Capa-Langa at a recent ANC breakfast briefing on discussion documents prepared for next weekend’s national general council. Capa-Langa said some members believed the issue of land ownership “will be difficult to manage once the bill has been approved and the traditional leaders put in their claims”. “The whole country might fall into their hands because they have been migrating through grazing by looking for better pastures [throughout the country].” She said “government will get into the trap of negotiating development all the time, [which] has proven to be difficult”. Nomaindia Mfeketo, outgoing chairperson of the legislature and governance subcommittee of the ANC’s national executive committee, said the national general council discussion document was “nearly finished”. Mfeketo said the main inputs were about the role of traditional leaders in a democratic local government system. “At the moment, they are more responsible for traditional issues. But there are issues like land where they are responsible. Are they responsible as individual leaders or do we need to put the land into a community trust?” she asked. Mfeketo said there were no concerns that the bill in its current form seemed to reinforce the old Bantustan borders – as some among its opponents in the ANC claimed. “We want to move away from that and democratise traditional leaders. Many provinces are a mirror of the past. The troubling issues are the relationships with municipalities, in particular where it relates to land,” she said. Deputy Minister for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Obed Bapela said the ANC discussion document was not expected to make any major policy shifts, as it would continue to recognise traditional leadership in line with South Africa’s Constitution. “We are saying we should modernise and embrace what works in a democracy,” he said. Bapela also rejected the criticism that the ANC government was entrenching Bantustan boundaries with the bill and in other proposed laws such as the Traditional Courts Bill. “This law doesn’t talk of governance; traditional leaders no longer govern, but have jurisdictions in which certain practices are allowed as long as people believe in them. “These things must be expressed somewhere, because there are jurisdictions of traditional leadership that were founded before the balkanisation of the Bantustan system. “This is what we are leaving people to continue to practise to ensure that group identities are not killed and are recognised – because we are building a nation,” said Bapela.