The chieftancy system is rooted in


Lungisile Ntsebeza and Fred Hendricks


Patekile Holomisa’s article “Ubukhosi the bedrock of African democracy” (February 11 to 17) raised a number of critical issues about the nature of democracy and the future of traditional authorities in South Africa. We feel it is necessary to correct some of the distortions, half-truths and sweeping statements made without any supportive evidence.

Holomisa says that the chiefs have “somehow managed to survive the colonial onslaught”. The manner in which they have survived is well-documented.
They were transformed from independent representatives of various people to government officials, appointed by their colonial masters and paid a salary. They actively collaborated in colonial and apartheid rule as junior partners, as the chief agents of social control in the reserve areas and as local government functionaries accountable to those above rather than to the mass of the population.

Two statements made by Victor Poto, paramount chief in Western Pondoland, who apparently opposed the homeland system, will go a long way to demonstrating the level to which the once proudly independent Pondo paramountcy was prepared to stoop:

“I have pledged my loyalty and trust to Dr [Hendrik] Verwoerd’s government which has brought so many benefits for the enjoyment of the Bantu people.

“I feel, and am determined, that whatever the government expects from me I will do. I am not prepared to allow disturbances in my area.”

Holomisa says that, “our people have always understood the predicament in which traditional leaders found themselves, there was never a call of any serious nature during and after apartheid, for traditional authorities to be done away with”.

The Bantu Authorities Act damaged the reputation of chiefs more than any other measure. Previous legislation, mainly the Native Administration Act, had allowed some leeway for chiefly independence.

Bantu Authorities unambiguously tied the chiefs to the local arm of the state. Recalcitrant chiefs, those who refused to implement the oppressive policies of apartheid, were simply sidelined to make way for their more compliant counterparts. Invariably, the latter were subordinate chiefs not recognised by the mass of the people. Thus, for example, Sabata Dalindyebo was deposed as the paramount chief in Thembuland in favour of Kaiser Matanzima. A similar fate was visited upon the Pedi paramountcy. Lucas Mangope, a minor chief, installed himself in power.

In some cases, as in the former Ciskei, chieftaincies had to be created where there were none. Compliant commoners like Lennox Sebe made the most of the opportunities for collaboration. The list is endless. After Bantu Authorities there could no longer be “good” chiefs accountable to the people, only co-opted lackeys of the apartheid regime. The widespread popular opposition to Bantu Authorities is very well-known. In his classic account of The Peasant’s Revolt, Govan Mbeki records the resistance across the country and provides detailed evidence of how these uprisings were met with brute force. The legitimacy of the chieftaincy had all but dissipated in a sea of rural revolt.

Holomisa makes the sweeping statement that, “no leading members of the liberation movement ever seriously called for the abolition of the institution [of traditional authority]”.

Mbeki, clearly a leading member of the liberation movement, argued almost 40 years ago, that, “If Africans have had chiefs, it was because all human societies have had them at one stage or another. But, when a people have developed to a stage which discards chieftainship, when their social development contradicts the need for such an institution then to force it on them is not liberation but enslavement.”

The subject of serious debate is, of course, not whether the chiefs should be done away with completely or not, but what their role should be under a democratic government. The chieftaincy is inherently undemocratic. Chiefs are not elected by popular vote but imposed on the basis of ascription and lineage and there is very little chance of women becoming traditional authorities. One of the major tensions of inconsistency in our Constitution is the recognition of traditional authorities side by side with support for elected representatives in the rural areas. Because the specific roles, functions and powers of traditional authorities are not clearly elaborated, there is considerable confusion as to what exactly the constitutional recognition implies.

Holomisa makes the statement that, “Politicians, of whatever level, are not supposed to regard themselves as equals or alternatives to their traditional leaders.” What happened to chiefs under colonialism is crucial and it has little to do with tradition. We cannot simply wipe out the colonial history of South Africa to emerge with a chieftaincy untainted by it.

Holomisa says, “In the rural areas tribal or communal land is owned by the tribe as a collective.” After decades of corrective history on the use of the term tribe, Holomisa wishes to resurrect it at the stroke of a pen and give it the respectability that it does not deserve.

“It is interesting to note,” writes Archie Mafeje, “that ... the word for ‘tribe’ does not exist in indigenous languages of South Africa.”

The policy implications of Holomisa’s position are that we should return to the homeland system preferably with a form of Bantu Authorities in charge of local government. Under this system, the former reserves will continue to exist as separate geographic entities from the rest of South Africa, differentiated by the land tenure system and the role of unelected traditional authorities. This is apartheid under a new guise.

Fred Hendricks is the head of the sociology department at Rhodes University; Lungisile Ntsebeza is a researcher at the University of the Western Cape

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