More than 40 women and men from some of the remotest rural enclaves of the country trekked to Parliament this week to beg — sometimes in tears — the portfolio committee on rural development and land reform to disband traditional authorities created by the 1951 Black Authorities Act (BAA).
And the MP who spearheaded the defence of traditional leadership was none other than committee member Zwelivelile Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson and chief of the Mvezo traditional council in the Eastern Cape — Mvezo is the village where the former president was born.
“We as women don’t really like the chief that much,” one woman told the committee. “We ask this Parliament to disband the current traditional authority and court.”
By the end of the second day of the hearings, only three members of the 17-strong committee attended.
The committee was holding hearings in preparation for the repealing of the BAA, seen as the last remaining apartheid legislation. The repeal Bill holds that the Act “was a cornerstone of apartheid by means of which black people were controlled and dehumanised, and is reminiscent of past division and discrimination”.
Not a single witness favoured the role of amakhosi or the appointment of chiefs, or saw benefit in bolstering their legal powers and functions. The most devastating testimony came from women denied the right to own communal land and who have no locus standi in traditional courts — they have to be represented by a man. There are about 16-million rural South Africans, the majority of them women.
In their submission to Parliament, the Legal Resources Centre (LRC) quotes Nelson Mandela warning that “the reversion to tribal rule might isolate the democratic leadership from the masses and bring about the destruction of that leadership as well as of the liberation organisations”.
But his grandson clearly has other ideas. At the hearings he made an impassioned speech about the wholesomeness of ukuthwalwa, the marriage custom — meaning “to be carried” — which implies the abduction of often prepubescent girls, who are then forced into marriage. Speaking in isiXhosa, Zwelivelile Mandela reprimanded one of the rural woman who had criticised ukuthwalwa as a distortion. “What is her culture that informs her that [ukuthwalwa] is a distortion?” he asked.
“When a man sees that this one is ripe for marriage, then she is taken and she is put through a ceremony and then she’s ready. Don’t bring in white people’s things such as her age,” he snapped.
Mandela left before the end of the hearings without hearing the LRC’s submission that quoted his grandfather’s opposition to the BAA.
Under former president Thabo Mbeki, the amakhosi chiefs were given powers that exceeded those that they enjoyed under apartheid.
In 2003 the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act was promulgated, effectively entrenching the traditional jurisdictions created during the formation of the homelands, which many rural people do not recognise.
‘We don’t know why our progressive government is doing this’
In their submissions rural residents also found fault with the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act, the 2005 Provincial Traditional Leadership Act and the 2008 Traditional Courts Bill.
The South African National Civic Organisation’s secretary in the Eastern Cape, Mqondisi Ngojo, described the laws as “cruel and unscrupulous”, claiming they were “tantamount to killing our rural people”.
“We don’t know why our progressive government is doing this,” Ngojo said. “The way our government is making the laws is very clandestine, as if they are hiding something … these pieces of legislation are very reactionary, as if they were not done by our comrades. Communities were never consulted.”
Old women and men, most of them active during the anti-apartheid struggles appealed to committee members to acknowledge abuses by often self-imposed traditional leaders.
Mary Mokhaetsi Pilane, of the Bakgatla tribe, asked committee members to explain “how, now that we have freedom, we are in a situation where a chief who has been found guilty of corruption can interdict us from holding community meetings?
“We are very worried about these new laws that entrench the legacy of the BAA … these laws make it very difficult for people like us to challenge the abuse of power.”
Johannes Ramutangwa, of the Ramunangi clan in Limpopo, told the committee that his tribe are “the custodians of the sacred sites in Limpopo since the time when the first people came to that place”.
In 2006 one site was destroyed when a road was built through it. The headman had also turned the site into a picnic spot with an entrance fee, which he pocketed.
Ramutangwa said that earlier this year bulldozers started excavating another sacred site to make way for new roads and six chalets. The clan have been unable to stop the chief from promoting this project.
“The BAA created tribal authorities that give all powers to the chiefs. Parliament must ensure that the
traditional authorities are not again given absolute power over our land,” he said.