Nothing about us without us

It is quite obvious that African traditional leadership is steadily losing its relevance for its subjects. It is becoming difficult to defend what is supposed to be the need for this type of leadership in modern-day society.

Its shortfall is the fact that women, youth and other vulnerable people in our communities are not represented in those councils within the tribal leadership, which, to say the least, is very perplexing.

Around the 6th century BC in the Greek city-state (known to many as Polis) of Athens, democracy was developed and practised. That democracy was fit for that time; it was an elite form of government that excluded women, the poor, and other vulnerable social groupings such as people living with disabilities.

In a similar way to the Athens of that time, important social groups are not part of tribal or traditional leadership. If the world was able to adopt Athenian democracy and contextualise it to suit social contexts and times, then why is it so difficult to review and reset some of our cultural practices to suit the current era?

I am often embarrassed to watch old, frail men with walking sticks make pivotal decisions, the consequences of which they may not be able to witness because they are already on the doorsteps of their graves. It is vitally important to include youth and women in traditional councils because they are young and involved and hence have a better understanding of social conditions. Africa’s largest population is below the age of 35 years, so why not allow the youth to take the decisions that impact them?

There are attempts from the government to include our traditional leadership into governance processes but these efforts are meaningless, because we have people who have no clue about the running of the government itself; for instance, they do not even know what to do when people do not have water. 

There is a great and growing need to capacitate our traditional leadership by including capable women and energetic youth to help build communities. If these things could be done, we would see less community protests around the country because productive engagement would be taking place. 

These community protests often occur due to breakdowns in communication. It is no secret that many communities have ward councillors who are not doing what is expected of them, and neither is the traditional leadership.

The inclusion of women is important in many regards. They should be included as a way of breaking boundaries in gender diversity in order to demolish patriarchy. Traditional leadership plays a significant role in entrenching patriarchy in the family, the church and other social systems.

Culture should not be used to maintain the filthy status quo by making other people believe that they are inferior to others. Culture should be treated as an institution to restore our beliefs, values, and practices, which are ever changing.

It is also important to remind those tribal councils that Kgosi ke kgosi ka batho (a King is a king by his subjects), this means that the tribal leadership has a duty to give regular reports to the masses — such reports should be scrutinised, critically and objectively. It was American disability activist James Charlton who said “nothing about us without us”. 

In communities blessed (or cursed) with mineral resources in Limpopo, North West and the Eastern Cape, traditional leaders often collude with the private sector and government on decisions that have potential health and economic effects on local communities, without involving the people in these communities.

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Kenneth Mokgatlhe
Kenneth Mokgatlhe
Kenneth Mokgatlhe is a writer, academic, political analyst, communication specialist and journalist.

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