How ANC and traditional leaders are holding the people to ransom

King Goodwill Zwelithini (Siyabonga Masonkutu, The Witness)
King Goodwill Zwelithini (Siyabonga Masonkutu, The Witness)

Kgalema Motlanthe's tirade against traditional leadership authorities is bound to further escalate an already tense relationship between the former president and traditional authorities.

Motlanthe referred to traditional leadership authorities as "village tin pot dictators" who are holding communities and government to ransom. His target has been the Ingonyama Trust controlled by the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Motlanthe simply sees the trust as an extortion machine with communities forced to pay money into the trust without being consulted about how the money is being used, for example.

The first research I ever conducted – funded by the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal – was on traditional leadership structures and how they relate to a democratic dispensation in South Africa. I published on the subject as far back as 2002 and have also dealt with it in my forthcoming book, Ramaphosa's Turn.

In addition to researching the subject, I grew up under a traditional leadership authority and continue to observe it to date. I have news for Motlanthe. He is right in his view that traditional leadership authorities are at times arbitrary in the manner they govern villages. However, the problem exists due to the failure of the ANC-dominated local government structures.

Traditional leadership authorities have regained legitimacy as champions of development and governance amidst an increasingly corrupt local government system in rural areas. If you think local government is corrupt in urban areas, imagine what the situation is in rural areas where communities are largely dormant!  

In this scenario, traditional leadership structures filled an institutional vacuum left behind by an ailing democratic local government structure. Dictatorship and extortion ensued by some traditional leadership councils with villagers being left to choose between the ANC dominated corrupt local government on one hand, and the authoritative and yet disciplined traditional leadership authorities on the other hand.

Realising that a democratic local government structure has lost legitimacy due to ineffective and corrupt councillors, villagers had to defer to the devil they know: traditional authorities.

The twist in all of this is that a democratic government is actually not being held to ransom by traditional leadership authorities: government went into partnership with traditional authorities because the latter still retains legitimacy in the eyes of the villagers while government lost its legitimacy due to corruption and other challenges confronted in post-apartheid South Africa.

This is where the story becomes even more interesting. In some areas in Limpopo, for example, a political party utilises traditional leadership authority as an access point to village constituents who have lost hope when it comes to effective and functioning local government structures. This is the very same political party that has rampaged and undermined the legitimacy of the local government system.

To regain access to the people and at times attain votes, the party has actually empowered traditional authorities at the expense of the villagers. There is therefore a symbiotic relationship between political power brokers who have rampaged the democratic local government system and traditional authorities, who at times unleash their dictatorial tendencies on communities as communities turn away from local government barons.

At the end of the day, villagers have become a (voting) commodity traded between traditional authorities and political power barons. 

In the current dispensation, government has no motivation whatsoever to reform legislation with the aim to empower villagers because that would ultimately disempower traditional authorities. If traditional authorities are disempowered and villagers are empowered – like if they can hold title deeds to their properties, for example – then the villagers will be able to demand fair treatment from government. When government comes under pressure from the villagers, it will no longer be able to turn to traditional authorities to mediate an ailing relationship that the villagers have with a democratic government.

This lead me to the uncomfortable conclusion that some traditional authorities continue to do the same job they carried out under apartheid, namely to pacify village communities in the interest of propping up government that is struggling with its legitimacy. I say "some" because not all traditional leadership authorities are in on this.

Therefore, Motlanthe's hypothesis should be reformulated to say: village communities are held ransom by some tin-pot traditional authorities and a corrupt government that is struggling with its legitimacy.

It is not government that is held to ransom, it is rather some of the village communities under traditional leadership authorities.

Ralph Mathekga is a Fellow at the SARChI Chair: African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy at the University of Johannesburg and author of When Zuma Goes.

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