The lofty debate about the Traditional Courts Bill (“Traditional leadership is part of us”, May 25) conceals its likely impact on the poverty of rural people.
Traditional leadership expresses a culture of patronage and patriarchy that is given spiritual authority by the ancestral spirits of hereditary clan leaders (iinyanya or ama-dlozi). This is characteristic of what the South African anthropologist Monica Wilson years ago called a small-scale society. Such village societies may have positive rights and values not found in cities, for example, cheap or free access to land for a home, a sense of belonging and considerable interpersonal intimacy.
But patronage and patriarchy mean that power belongs to the hereditary leader and his council of relatives and supporters (ibandla or lekgotla). Such patronage enhances networks of belonging among men. Enduring the pain of circumcision gains young men entrance to such networks and also encourages a sense of entitlement. This turns into cronyism and possible corruption when men move into positions of power in the institutions of a large-scale society.
The tradition of patronage also partially explains the ruling party’s preference for the deployment of loyal supporters to posts in government rather than appointments based on merit.
Hereditary leadership linked to a particular place can provide local people with a welcome sense of personal identity: SingamaQadi – We are Qadis! It also makes local development largely dependent on the character and skills of the incumbent inkosi or kgosi. This can be tragic if the hereditary leader is not particularly good at, or interested in, governance, law or service delivery. It also stifles farming because such leaders are usually loath to grant large tracts of land to potential rivals.
Hereditary leaders are wrong to romanticise culture. My experience of rural courts suggests two things. First, small groups of people hanging listlessly around a great place on a Monday morning wondering whether the hereditary leader will pitch. Second, elderly men, in the absence of a written record, arguing heatedly about what so-and-so said or did not say at a sitting of the court months before.
There is nothing exclusively African about the conflicted role of hereditary rulers in small-scale societies in a globalised and industrial, knowledge-based economy.
Have our legislators, in preparing this Bill, explored what we can learn from changes to rural leadership in Japan, Brazil, Botswana or South Korea?
There have been numerous mistakes from which we can also learn, such as the attempted collectivisation of farming in the Soviet Union, China and Africa. (In China, three times more people died in the famine that followed collectivisation than in the Nazi Holocaust.)
This Bill needs much more work and far more vision. Simply extending further powers to hereditary leadership in the framework of the Constitution is likely to make rural governance and the poverty of millions of rural people much worse. – Chris Zithulele Mann, Grahamstown