Women in Limpopo’s Vhembe district have come out in support of the aims and objectives of the Traditional Courts Bill in the hopes that it will regulate the traditional courts system, which they deem more accessible, efficient and conducive to social cohesion than the statutory courts system.
Some women the Mail & Guardian spoke to in this vast rural district even went so far as to argue that, given the distances and costs involved in accessing statutory courts, the traditional courts’ powers should be expanded to include more serious offences.
According to the Bill, offences that may be tried by a traditional court cover theft, malicious damage to property, assault – where no grievous bodily harm has been inflicted – and crimen injuria.
Humbelani Netshandama, a director of the Vhembe-based HM Motivation and Rehabilitation centre that works with released offenders and parolees, said that in traditional courts “many people try the case and not an individual”, making the system less likely to be derailed by incompetence or vested interest.
“In the khoro [as traditional courts are referred to in Tshivenda], efforts are made to make sure that every household is represented so that sentences can act as a deterrent,” she said. “People are free to participate by raising hands and nobody is paid to prove you guilty or otherwise.
Relevance to women
“With traditional courts you try the case where the offence is alleged to have taken place and you are given a reasonable amount of time to pay reparations to the people you have wronged, unlike in magisterial courts, where if you don’t have money for a fine, you go to jail.”
Netshandama, who hosts a radio show at the University of Venda that deals with issues of relevance to women, said some opponents of the Bill had no experience of rural life and added that in Tshivenda culture women enjoyed considerable powers, which in some cases even allowed them to decide on matters of succession in chieftaincy.
In the Vhembe district alone, there are at least 10 female traditional leaders who have the power to preside in traditional courts.
Other women interviewed by the M&G felt that the courts should be more formalised with the proceedings of each case being recorded to bolster consistency in sentencing.
Sophie Ligudu, who lives in the rural outpost of Lunungwi, said that bribery was common in the traditional courts system and some chiefs protected people they were related to.
A female traditional leader who comes from a dynasty of female leaders (and preferred to remain anonymous) said the khoro system, as practised by her dynasty, had mechanisms of appealing rulings. She said the prevalence of rape and domestic abuse in the region, as evidenced by statistics, pointed more to the fact that women knew their rights and spoke up and reported abuse.
Avitus Agbor, an access to justice officer at the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme said that if the aims and objectives of the Bill were properly implemented and its powers were not abused it could help rural communities build repertoires of common law. The jurisprudential value of the Bill, he said, is something that could only be appreciated in at least 20 years time.
The programme, which is mapping out an awareness drive on the Bill, has adopted a neutral position on the legislation as members of the Vhembe Civil Society Network have varying views on the topic.