Kings, Queens and other Tribal Has-beens

Brennus This is a depiction of my great ancestor, Brennus, smiter of the Roman legions at the Battle of the Allia in 387 BC. The Gaul’s victory over the Romans was the prelude to the first and only capture of Rome for almost 800 years. All of that destruction because a Gallic tribe, searching for new land to settle, made the local inhabitants feel threatened when they initiated negotiations for land rights.

Admittedly I can’t prove that Brennus was my direct ancestor, but since most Western and Central Europeans are partly descended from the Celtic tribes who inhabited the area from at least 800 BC, there is a good chance that I, a paler shade of Auster Africanus, am distantly related. So why is the white African shooting his mouth about the alleged martial prowess of his ancestors? Am I falling prey to that not-so-special South African disease of trumpeting imagined or mythical victories ad nauseam? The Zulu conqueror, the vanquisher of Cuban Communists, or the empire builder and grand civilizer a la Cecil John Rhodes?

In a way I am, because we are all informed by the historical fairy tales and tribal myths that make up our individual paradigms. There’s even a modern equivalent in the false superiority complex held by professional graduates. Have business degree, will espouse on the benefits of a libertarian economy, for example. In fact modern tribalism extends so far that it encompasses ownership of semantics and the definition of concepts. The ‘you are not of our tribe, so you can’t possibly understand and therefore have no right to comment’ obfuscation that often doubles as a blatant lie to avoid accountability. As if there is no ancient common humanity, sense of fair play or ultimately a shared history of human trial and error.

The above tale of heroic Gauls (French Celts) defeating the nascent Roman war machine is a good example of how historical facts seen in isolation can be extremely misleading and false grounds for cultural chauvinism. The Romans learned from their defeat at the hands of the Gauls, adapted their weapons and battle strategies to eventually become the masters of most of the Celtic lands for hundreds of years, supplanting Celtic culture with their own religion, legal system, language and even philosophies.

There is a certain historical irony in the fact that Western democracy is in large part built upon Greco-Roman traditions and principles, while many Western citizens are descendants of people (Celtic, Germanic) whom the Romans considered barbarians. A double irony, if you consider the fact that the Romans themselves were arguably the greatest adopters of other cultures’ technology, philosophy, religion and so forth. A trait that could to some extent explain the far reaching dominance of Roman and Western culture. A cursory glance at history – Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde would be another example – seems to affirm the idea that cultural entities that adapt quickly, adopt wisely and develop a strong hybrid culture seem to dominate. For what is English, the de facto global language, other than probably the greatest linguistic slut to have tumbled over the lips of hundreds of millions of first, second and third language speakers?

The United States is the most powerful modern example of a mongrel geopolitical entity that owes its enormous clout to a history of cultural mixing and matching, discarding that which weakens it (slavery) and adopting that which strengthens it (e.g. the political philosophy of republicanism which underpinned the American Revolution).

As a South African though, whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I start feeling bilious. South Africa is a country uniquely burdened with a triple whammy of cultural flatulence, each one responsible for its own special brand of odiousness.

We have to endure weekly not-so-subtle harangues about the superiority of white English speaking South Africans in columns written by insular journalists who have proven themselves in no arena other than networking with cultural clones who attended the same elitist institutions. They bombard the South African public with a patronising cultural chauvinism masquerading as slice-of-life wisdoms, in complete denial that their jobs, awards and readership are based on apartheid privilege, old boy networks and an overrated education, and not based on literary merit as they like to pretend.

For example, a recent article in the South African financial daily, Business Day, penned by a supercilious little twit, attempted with audacious hypocrisy to revise history, by excising the 1820 British Settlers and military campaigns by the British in the Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, to clear land for white settlers, from the historical record just so that he could support his agenda of Afrikaner bashing. Just one of a slew of recent digs at Afrikaners in the English press. One particularly obnoxious wise arse stooped as low as using his deceased grandfather as a proxy for his apparent Afrikaner hate. I don’t usually give a toss about the irrelevant scribblings of some pretentious schmuck trying to cover for his or her low self-esteem issues, but when such rubbish is trumpeted on a regular basis from the pages of widely read national publications, then it is time to get worried.

At the heart of the above issue is the cultural hegemony that is exercised by white media owners over what South Africans read, view or hear on a daily basis. Media owners, editors, senior journalists and columnists are still mostly white and as such dictate the debate in the mainstream media. This control is reflected in the selective use of words like ‘Afrikaner’. The little pseudo-Englander furiously attempting to exorcise his or her own white guilt and cultural irrelevance, uses the word pejoratively. A cultural insult that arbitrarily groups people together based on their skin colour and first language, and with a stroke of Kitchener’s magic wand confers moral and intellectual superiority upon the user. Despite the fact that most white Afrikaans speaking people have completely rejected the term as having any real meaning to them, it is still used as bait by sub-standard media commentators. One can only surmise that the use of a cultural tag against the wishes of the tagged is a remnant of colonial control techniques. Control the language and semantics of the discourse and you invariably have the upper hand.

It is one of the enduring inequities of life in South Africa that a small percentage of the population, white English speaking South Africans, are vastly over-represented in the media, despite being the linguistic group with probably the highest incidence of monolingualism. The great majority of South Africans who left the country since 1994 were unsurprisingly English speaking whites, due to the relative ease of obtaining residency/citizenship based on family ties in countries like Britain. The myth that white English speaking South Africans were all underground operatives in the struggle against apartheid also deserves a mention. A little reminder for my English speaking brethren struggling with amnesia. In the 1987 general elections, at the height of apartheid, the various white political parties garnered votes as follow:

The governing National Party received 52.3% of the vote.
The right wing Conservative Party received 26.6% of the vote.
The liberal Progressive Liberal Party received 14% of the vote.
Other parties received a total of 7.1% of the vote.

Since white English speaking South Africans formed almost 40% of the white population in South Africa according to the 1996 Census, they were probably a bigger percentage in 1987, which means that the vast majority of white English speaking South Africans supported pro-apartheid policies. Myth debunked.

The above facts make a mockery of the liberal values so casually claimed as a group by many white English speaking South Africans.

When it comes to Afrikaner bashing let’s at least base it on facts and focus on an outcome to the bashing. The patriarchal power grip exerted by white men during apartheid over every single aspect of life in South Africa has been extensively analysed since the dismantling of that criminally moronic system. What is relevant today, is how white Afrikaans business tycoons and professionals have reinvented their outward image while holding on to surreptitious prejudices and after hours bigotry. Monopolies established during apartheid or with apartheid connections and power still provide massive sources of wealth for ex-Broederbonders and ex-National Party supporters. It is an ongoing national shame that these oligarchs have not been subjected to an economic Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the economic crimes they committed and are still committing against the people of South Africa.

That said, the ignorant and vicious attacks on white middle class citizens who pay their taxes dutifully and in general obey the laws of the land, is completely misplaced and to the detriment of all South Africans. The targeted white middle class have become a political scapegoat, while the true criminals, the main beneficiaries of apartheid corruption, laugh all the way to their Swiss bank accounts.

In general, the above forms of cultural tyranny, hypocrisy and their deleterious manifestations, have been widely exposed and debated in mainstream media. Both the white English and white Afrikaans electorate have a powerful voice over and above the democratic vote: they have access to a wide variety of media and thus information, they are the most mobile population group based on income and education, and they have the biggest economic clout per capita and thus form a powerful commercial pressure group. Factors that give them and other middle class groups in South Africa a massive advantage when it comes to making decisions that are in their own best interests.

What many (sub)urban South Africans fail to understand or are in complete denial about, is the fact that millions of their fellow citizens have been marginalised to such an extent that they have effectively been removed from the democratic process. British colonialism, Apartheid policies and post-apartheid politics have all played a role in curbing and regressing the rights of a large section of the South African population. There seems to be a limited understanding of what democracy entails. No, it is not just about a vote. It also means empowerment through access to information, education and communication. When those rights are not equitably distributed you have a malfunctioning democracy that favours vested minority interests over that which is in the best interest of society in general. To put it bluntly, you have a corrupt mafia state. And the favourite method to entrench the status quo? It can all be summed up in that perennial smoke screen: culture.

Since time immemorial hereditary, patriarchal tyrants have been telling all and sundry who they are, which positions in society they are allowed to occupy and what their rights are. This prescriptive and oppressive attitude has of course led to the occasional hiccup in the form of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution and so on. Kings and queens got their heads chopped off and tribal myths got relegated to the dustbin of history. Today few countries are subject to an absolute monarchy, unless of course you are the polygamous teletubby of a poor enclave in southern Africa whose only notable export product is a yearly dance by bare breasted girls in front of lecherous European photographers, or a sexist, religiously intolerant regime in the Middle East propped up by petrodollars.

Unfortunately though for 17 million rural South Africans there are plans afoot to disenfranchise them further via the introduction of the Traditional Courts Bill. The Bill has been rejected several times by all segments of civil society, but it gets resurrected every other year in what seems like barely disguised attempts by the ANC government to ensure the fealty of the traditional leaders. Except for the fact that the persistent reintroduction of the same bill is unconstitutional, its passing into law would be a final blow to an already weak rural democratic infrastructure. It may be good to first look at the status quo & extent of rural governance:

  • Number of people subject to traditional rule – 17 million (a third of the total population).
  • 99% of traditional leaders are men.
  • Amounts spent on traditional leaders, including salaries, benefits, houses and cars, are costing the South African tax payer millions.
  • 10 kings, 829 senior traditional leaders and 5 311 chiefs cost the South African taxpayer over R650 million in 2012. That excludes money spent by provincial governments. The KZN provincial government spent an additional R59 million on Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini and his family.
  • Areas under traditional control are some of the poorest and most underdeveloped in the country.

The National and Provincial Houses of Traditional Leaders were instituted after 1994 to give a voice to the various chiefs and legoland kings. They were not happy with the limited and vague provisions of the Constitution and have ever since whined and threatened about the expansion and entrenchment of their traditional fiefdoms.

The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) is the biggest lobby group for traditional leaders in South Africa. It has consistently rejected democratically elected local government institutions and elected councillors.

Some of the demands that CONTRALESA has made in the past:

“[it is] common knowledge that millions of rural South Africans are serviced by the courts of traditional leaders in the administration of criminal and civil justice. In spite of recommendations by the South African Law Commission that these courts be fully recognised and given the requisite resources, the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Development has failed to take the action necessary to promote them.”

The issue at stake here is not the legitimising of traditional institutions which deny basic human rights, but the failure of government and the legal profession of South Africa to provide sufficient, quality access to courts and other legal remedies. The urban equivalent would be kangaroo courts and vigilante justice. I don’t see anyone agitating for the formal introduction of kangaroo courts in shanty towns.

CONTRALESA has made constant demands for higher salaries and more benefits for all traditional leaders. Why someone in Gauteng should pay for an Eastern Cape chief they have never heard of, is not clear.

The organisation has also made not-so-subtle threats about causing instability in rural regions:

“Every minister, councillor or state official knows that the co-operation of traditional leaders, of all ranks, in the implementation of government programmes is of vital importance for its meaningful and sustainable success.”

South Africans will do well to remember the horrific bloodshed in Kwazulu-Natal during the early nineties. It was mainly due to a power struggle between traditional leaders and political party structures.
It seems that traditional power structures are allowed to blackmail South African society with impunity. The Ralushai Commission (started in 1996) was established to investigate the legitimacy of traditional leaders in Limpopo Province (then Northern Province). Its findings were never made public for fear of unrest.

The issues with the Traditional Courts Bill:

  • It transgresses the democratic principle of a separation of powers, by giving traditional leaders executive as well as judicial powers. They would carry out government administrative functions as well as being in charge of traditional courts.
  • It transgresses the equality before the law principle by removing a woman’s right to appear or represent herself in court and removing a tribal subject’s right to appeal to higher courts. So for example in a domestic violence dispute a woman would not be able to defend herself under customary law.
  • Land use and property ownership are controlled by the chief which has in many cases lead to nepotism and discrimination. Women are often barred from owning property. Consider the case of the Ingonyama Trust which owns about 2.8 million hectares spread throughout the province of KwaZulu-Natal making it the largest property owner in the province. The sole trustee is King Goodwill Zwelithini and it remains one of the poorest and underdeveloped areas in South Africa.
  • The bill was drafted in conjunction with the House of Traditional Leaders, with no input from the rural communities.
  • Some traditional leaders occupy political roles as members of parliament, which is at odds with their stated role as leader of all their people.
  • Many chiefs collaborated with the apartheid regime and have now switched allegiance to the ANC government to protect their special position in rural society.
  • Traditional leaders already have the power to impose informal taxes and levies on impoverished communities – a heavy burden often carried by rural women.
  • Traditional leaders want protection of individual rights on the basis of sexual orientation stripped from the Constitution, lest they be forced to protect homosexuals from discrimination in traditional policy and courts.

Some commentators have said that under the Bill tribal chiefs will have more power than they did under apartheid. The similarities between apartheid bantustans and areas currently under the control of traditional councils are illustrated by the below map, compiled by Custom Contested, an initiative of the Rural Women’s Action Research Programme at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town.

Traditional Councils vs Apartheid Bantustans Past attempts to regulate the powers of traditional leaders and bring it in line with constitutional imperatives have proven mostly unsuccessful. The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Amendment Act of 2003 stipulated that at least a third of the members of a traditional council must be women and 40% of the members of a traditional council must be democratically elected. To date no such elections have been held and female representation is not near the 33% requirement. The only conclusion is that there is no political will from government side to enforce the law.

There have been other attempts to disenfranchise rural people. The Communal Land Rights Act of 2004, which effectively stripped rural people of their ability to administer their own land and gave the power to traditional councils headed by traditional leaders, was struck down in May 2010 when the Constitutional Court found that insufficient public participation had accompanied the law-making process. It now seems that government is attempting to revive the Communal Land Rights Act by proposing a communal land tenure model in which single title ownership would be held by a traditional council. The proposed legislation would deny communal land ownership to elected non-tribal entities, such as communal property associations (CPAs), opening the door to massive theft and corruption.

Christopher Morris, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at the University of Colorado,wrote in Custom Contested about the Masakhane Communal Property Association in the Eastern Cape, that have been embroiled in a transnational struggle over Pelargonium sidoides, a medicinal plant endemic to southern Africa:

“The plant generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales across the global North as a popular pharmaceutical product. [It seems the chiefs] are enriching themselves through the pharmaceutical royalties, rather than directing the royalties toward community upliftment. Meanwhile, the local plant harvesters, whom the state seems to regard as the ‘natural subjects’ of tribal authorities, are paid a pittance for their labour.”

The battle for rural democracy is inextricably linked to the land issue, and of course that old bugbear, whose interpretation of history is the correct one? A pragmatic approach may be to move scarce resources away from the intractable land ownership issue and start focusing on land use policies. What can we do with the available land and how would that benefit the greatest amount of people in the long term? If people are not empowered through education and training to utilise land properly, it becomes a pretty self defeating exercise. Qualified ownership and profit sharing similar to an Israeli moshav is one possible model.

Circumspection also needs to be applied to the findings of academics and self-appointed experts. What the academics do not tell anyone is that their ponderous theses are often merely stepping stones in their individual careers, to be forgotten and left to gather dust until the next hypotheses accompanies a free holiday in South Africa. Some academics and other tribal apologists mention the oral traditions of land rights and that they are not analogous to the clearly delineated western concepts of land rights. According to them what may seem to outsiders as a form of feudalism is actually a far more nuanced system of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. The sceptic’s first question would rightly be why did no one write down any of these rights in over 300 years? Countless books by black intellectuals and economists have been published, but none concerning this crucial matter? The cynic would argue that it seems like a convenient smoke screen for traditional leaders to stay in control of communal lands.

The Bill of Rights in the South African Constitution clearly states:

  • Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.
  • The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.
  • No one may be subjected to slavery, servitude or forced labour.

Nowhere does it state that tribal fiefdoms supersede individual rights. Mr Zuma and his henchmen would however dearly love to change the Constitution to suit their vision of a de facto totalitarian state. They may achieve this if the apathy among the mostly white middle class towards the plight of black rural dwellers does not change. This will be the battle ground where selfless sacrifice will prove to black voters that white South Africans can be trusted and maybe even forgiven. White support for business monopolies especially media conglomerates like Media24 and professional cartels such as the legal profession needs a rethink based on consumer support for what is moral, transparent, equitable and sustainable.

The tired use of ‘culture’ as an excuse for undemocratic and human rights abusing practices should not be tolerated in a civilised country. Female genital mutilation, muti murders and gay killings are committed under the pretence of culture. Does that mean those practices deserve serious consideration for legalisation? Where are the condemnation of those practices by traditional leaders? Slavery was an intricate part of ancient Celtic culture. It disappeared because of societal evolution, as did the concept of an all powerful nobility, and the acceptance of a church in control of all knowledge. As the Dude said in the Big Lebowski: “some new shit came to light”.

Barbara Oomen, dean of University College Roosevelt and a Professor of Law at Utrecht University, quotes revered ANC leader, Govan Mbeki, in her book, Chiefs in South Africa: Power & Culture in the Post-apartheid era:

“If Africans have had chiefs, it was because all human societies have had them at one stage or another. But when a people have developed to a stage which discards chieftainship…then to force it on them is not liberation but enslavement.”

She goes on to say: “customary law was, above all, a historic formation created for certain reasons within a particular socio-political context that set it at ‘the cutting edge of colonialism’. Traditional leaders played a central role as bureacratised representatives of forcibly created tribes, enjoying more legitimacy within the state than with the people they claim to represent.”

It is time to apply Occam’s Razor and stop entertaining the opportunistic lunacies of a few anachronistic dinosaurs. Stop and think for a minute. If 60% of a specific rural community votes in favour of traditional rule, how are the other 40% governed? What about their children? Are they automatically born into bondage? How are the traditional leaders held accountable when they are incompetent or corrupt? What if I do not accept traditional authority, which court do I have recourse to if I’m stuck 500 km from the nearest municipal courts?

We need to move away from South Africa being such a unique country. It has become a millstone around our necks that prevents full accountability and allows tribal myths to proliferate. By conflating tribe and culture we are creating isolated pockets of humanity, permanently geared to work against each other. Most if not all countries experience varying levels of ethnic, religious and cultural tensions. Every single human being on earth carries a certain degree of tribalism with them, whether in a modern industrial context or in a historical way, but that does not mean it is a frozen identity. Cultures and tribes evolve, hopefully into free and equitable societies. Blocking that natural flow of human evolution should be considered a crime against humanity.

This article is not written for the eyes of the marginalised about whose abrogated rights I hold forth in such paternalistic fashion, a disease very common in our benighted country. It is written for you, the citizen with full access to his or her democratic rights. If you can’t be bothered about the fact that your fellow citizen has less rights than you, then ultimately, you don’t deserve your current rights and chances are they will eventually be taken away from you.

The urban middle class need to start grasping the massive challenges faced by rural people who have very little access to information and communication networks. We need to confront the fact that rural people are being isolated and prescribed to at unprecedented levels. Service delivery protests spiraling out of control is clear evidence of people who feel they have no voice in matters that affect them. How on earth would more prescription, corruption and authoritarianism exerted by government backed traditional leaders alleviate the explosive situation?

Things that need to happen:

  • The SA government needs to be taken to task for not providing fully functional local government structures and full access to municipal courts and other legal avenues in rural areas.
  • Legal associations and big law firms need to be forced to do pro bono work for rural communities.
  • Access to free information (internet) & cheap telecommunication networks should be considered a human right. A special tax on media & telecommunication conglomerates should be implemented to finance infrastructure and access in rural areas.
  • A framework for transparent, independently observed referendums in individual rural areas needs to be drawn up.
  • Referendums should be repeated at 5 yearly intervals.
  • Democratic rights education and access to information should be made a priority before any referendum takes place.
  • Traditional leaders may only be financed by their own people and only after a referendum. No national or provincial taxes to be spent on them. If you can’t finance yourself you ain’t no king. It would be interesting to see how many people would still support the chiefs and kings if the local subjects have to pay for them in stead of the provincial and national governments.
  • A commission of inquiry into the behaviour of mining companies and other multi-nationals in communal lands. Bribing one chief will always be cheaper than negotiating in transparent fashion with a whole community.
  • The United Nations and other world bodies need to declare where they stand on the issue.

By putting pressure on NGOs, academic institutions, media conglomerates, telecommunication companies, global organisations and foreign governments we may be able to force the restoration and fulfilling of all South Africans’ democratic rights and thereby ensure a better, freer and fairer future for all of us.

One of the biggest dangers to the future of democracy in South Africa is the pervasive culture of ignorant platitudes and easy hubris that informs debate among the privileged. Those with voices need to wake up before we all burn in a Dantesque tribal inferno of our own making.