This is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of Another Country. The chapter begins by telling the story of Nokhakha Jumba, the female chief of the Jumba clan, and one of the many many of the new sisterhood of chiefs who are living in fear of their lives, threatened by male jealousy and tribal hostilities. This excerpt is the last 1000 words of this chapter where I set this conflict against a bigger political backdrop. It's tricky because I don't want this book to become overly theoretical or politically analytical, so I'm hoping this provides sufficient depth for the reader without sending them to sleep...
Barely 20 miles from Nokhakha’s kraal is a third woman who understands the fear that permeates her life. 44-year-old Noitaly Mthirara is chief of Mpheko. She returned from a nursing job in Johannesburg at the community’s behest to take over the chieftainship from her late husband’s alcoholic brother. What followed was a bitter struggle that went all the way to the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein.
“It was not an easy thing, it was a hassle. We were divided. But now, I don’t want to lie before God, things are going a bit normal now. But what I’ve learnt from this, the chieftainship needs someone who is very strong. The government did pass it on the Constitutional side that women can be chiefs, but when it comes to protection, you have to do it on your own, the government doesn’t protect you at all. Even if you have your own security, they can be bribed. Your only protection is God. For example now, I don’t have a car and I’m not worried about that. I said to myself if I have a car it’s easy for them to do whatever. But if I am using taxis, even if I die, I will die with my community members, I won’t be alone.”
There is an old African saying. Inkosi yikosi ngabantu. A chief is a chief by the grace of the people. It’s a reminder that grassroots democracy existed in South Africa long before 1994, but it also highlights how tribal politics has forever been fraught with conflict and challenges. I asked Nokhakha if she thinks democracy is responsible for this conflict. She shakes her head.
“In traditional leadership Claire, most of us never take it that it says anything to us about equality. We always cry about justice or recognition, not equality. We have our own challenges as women in the rural areas, like if you can claim that we have to be equal to me, we have challenges of digging graves. If we say we are equal, it means we must take the spades and go to the graves. As women in traditional communities, we are not so strong about equality, we only need justice.”
But what shapes does justice take for unelected chiefs in a democracy? In these same months that I am travelling the Transkei, elsewhere in South Africa rural communities are preparing to challenge the authority of the tribal councils in the Constitutional Court – the highest court in the land. The basis of their argument: that during apartheid, many of the old chiefs colluded with the white minority government in order to secure themselves more land and power. One community that experienced this first-hand were the Makulele in Mpumalanga. In 1969 the Makuleke were forcibly removed from their land and resettled in the Mhinga Tribal Authority to make way for part of the Kruger National Park.
Why is this a burning issue 32 years later? Because in 2004 the government passed the Communal Land Rights Acgt (CLARA) which aimed to end a century of black land dispossession. At last people leaving on tribal land would be able to get title deeds to the land they’ve inhabited for generations. Sounds good in principle, but the institution given the power to distribute these title deeds were the tribal councils. The Makulele argued in front of the Constitutional Court that to give that kind of power to the tribal councils, would entrench Apartheid’s unjust divisions of land and power forever.
This is not an isolated story. In his book, Democracy Compromised, Lungisile Ntsebeza, recounts tale after tale of rural people who became unwitting pawns in a power play between rural leaders and their apartheid masters, and remain at the mercy of these political divisions still today. Tribal political power was an issue that divided the African National Congress (ANC) leaders during the transition to democracy, and has remained a burning issue in every South African election since.
Today the workaday solution is for each village to be overseen both by a chief and a ward councillor, both paid government salaries. The chiefs are in charge of settling rural disputes and safeguarding customs, the ward councillors responsible for rural development. It may sound workable on paper, but the reality is a headache-inducing mish-mash of back-biting, corruption and power struggles.
Before I started out on this journey, I found it easy to vilify the chiefs. I come from a world where unelected kings and queens are little more than tourist attractions. Where the only weapons they wield are scissors to cut ribbons at the opening of new buildings. The idea of the unelected clinging on to power was an anathema to me, though despite my biased preconceptions, I was curious to know the role they play in rural societies, and more to the point, how come they can continue to exist in a democracy
The answer became obvious as I travelled down those rutted tracks and discovered communities without sanitation, electricity, running water, doctors rooms, post offices and police stations. Communities so cut off from the rest of South Africa – before and after 1994 – and so vulnerable to conflict with other clans, that it was imperative that they have a fixed, hierarchical system which would stay the ship from one generation to the next. But I also wondered if it wasn’t possible for an elected official to offer the same role?
Chief Noitaly Mtirara explained it to me as clearly as she could. “A councillor is just there for five years, but a chief is there to stay. If we leave it to democracy, we’ll see everyone just doing as he feels because he will say that is his right because he is in a democratic world. Even if it’s democratic, there must be someone who says its right. Even if it’s a democracy there must be nobody who suffers at the end. Everybody must benefit.”
There it was again. That strange Transkei-version of democracy which gives everyone the right to do exactly as they please. A democracy without responsibility or accountability twinned with a belief that only the chiefs can be truly responsible and accountable. My heart felt heavy for the rural people caught between these two political worlds, neither able to propel them forward.