It is very easy to forget about people if you believe that they cannot think. It becomes just as simple to violate their rights and deny their dignity. Just ask President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Last week, Ramaphosa signed the Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Act — a victory for a Bantustan politics of authoritarianism and ethnicity, a shot in the arm to xenophobia, and a defeat for democracy. Beyond the legal terms of the Act, this signals an abandonment of a universal politics in favour of distilling difference. It is a suggestion that one’s place of birth, the colour of their skin and their maternal tongue are the calculi from which their capacity to make decisions for themselves can be measured.
The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Act is not in fact about leadership at all. The Act identifies and isolates those living in the former Bantustans. It subjects them to two sets of laws: constitutional and so-called customary law. I say “so-called” because customary connotes indigenous, African law in static, rather than living terms. In fact, this Act instills a notion of customariness that comes from colonial, not African thought.
By forcing rural residents to be governed by hereditary leadership, it mirrors the actions of colonial and apartheid authorities, which imposed leadership that would tow the colonial line. Towing the colonial line meant managing the rural population, those dispossessed and forced into the Bantustans. Leaders, such as Langalibalele or Albert Luthuli, who refused to be co-opted, were deposed. Today, the Act empowers those leaders who worked with the regime, or their descendants, to unilaterally enter their communities into economic agreements, including with the extraction industry. Let’s call this what it is: rural patronage.
The Act forces rural residents to live under a governance system legitimised by lineage, not by the popular will. This violates rural peoples’ right to freedom of association while weaponising a colonially distorted conception of tradition in order to ease the expansion of mining in rural South Africa. The Act does so by employing a framing of traditional leadership that is a far cry from pre-colonial governance systems, which affirmed the ability of everyday people to make decisions. Prior to administrative colonialism, leaders were dependent on the support of their communities. This is reflected in isiZulu as “inkosi yinkosi ngabantu (a chief or king) is chief because of the people”. Similarly, in Setswana, kgosi ke kgosi ka morafe (the king is a king by virtue of the people)”.
Unfortunately, the Act does not honour these ethics or the historical vitality of traditional governance. Rather the democratic era has witnessed a failure of imagination and a lack of will by the state to embrace a living democratic ethos of traditional governance. The above concepts of popular legitimacy fail to animate traditional leadership as an institution. In fact the opposite is true: the Act confers decision-making power on one person, rather than its pre-colonial diffusion. It appears the purported Africanness of law is only appreciated insofar as it fosters commercial exploitation and makes the surplus rural population manageable.
The Traditional Khoi-San Leadership Act will directly affect 18-million rural people. Their capacity for decision-making, for knowing what is best for their families and communities is sidelined in the name of tradition. In effect the Act equates African cultures as immutably authoritarian. Removed from the visibility of urban life, denied the privilege of their white-skinned farming neighbours, the message this Act sends to rural residents is clear: you are only as good as you are exploitable; your ideas or opinions do not matter; and your culture is to remain ossified within colonial confines. The dispossession of land and voice are indeed bedfellows.
Grievously, the Act also reflects the colonial-capture of the idea of leadership when in reality the nation’s leaders are everyday people across the country. They are the parents caring for other people’s children in order to put food on their own children’s table. They are toiling in the mines. They are aunts and uncles paying school fees for their nieces and nephews. They are first-generation university students working tirelessly to uplift their families that have worked so hard to get them there. They are grandparents sharing their wealth of knowledge with the next generation.
Indeed, while everyday people lead their families and communities with all-too-little support from the government, they face the contempt of their government, told that if they happen to live in a rural area, their voice does not matter. Apparently, only lineage-based leaders are capable of deciding whether community members want to live in a clean environment or not. Who knew decisions over clean air and water were so complicated? The Act would have us believe that for rural people the ability to make such decisions rests solely with those born to the right family. This is Culture. This is Tradition. This is Freedom.
One generation beyond minority rule, the government has elected to re-affirm a two-tiered system of governance and a politics of tribalisation. Unable to deliver on the promises of freedom beyond the ballot, they have turned to fostering belonging through a politics of difference. Unable to fulfill a shared purchase on belonging through universal human rights and basic dignity, they have re-appropriated one of their predecessor’s most devious instruments of control, essentialised difference. Tragically, the hazards of this are felt beyond the boundaries of the very Bantustans reinforced by the Act, in the form of xenophobia. Once a calculation of dignity has been superimposed on to people by virtue of their race and place, it becomes very difficult to keep this from reaching beyond the confines of the out-of-the-way re-fashioned Bantustans. Similar to the distortion of African law, this distillation of difference is a campaign of dis-imagination, of a predatory anti-politics. Anger at the failures of the post-apartheid promise is re-routed towards those that find themselves of the wrong hue, speaking the wrong language, holding the wrong passport, and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Twenty-five years after the historic 1994 vote, it appears the government has forgotten the freedoms of its own Charter. It has turned on the very people that brought them to power, the very people whose inviolable dignity powered the struggle and continues to today. It has actively forgotten the very people that inherently knew they deserved a better, equal station in life. They still do. Whether because of the pressures of international finance, nexuses of corruption, or a bankruptcy of imagination, it appears the government is suffering from an acute case of amnesia. As always, rural people bear the brunt of this campaign of forgetfulness.
Richard Raber is a PhD student in African History at Indiana University Bloomington