Gender is another hurdle for S. Africa

November 05, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Making the races equal in this country is all good and well as far as Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana is concerned.

But gender equality is a very disturbing prospect for Chief Nonkonyana and the other chiefs and kings negotiating for a South African constitution that would achieve racial equality. Equality for women would upset the system by which the so-called traditional leaders claim and pass on the throne.

Prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex could mean that their daughters will be suing their eldest sons for the right to assume power.

And it could play havoc with traditions of polygamy that allow the chief to pick a favorite among his wives, designating that her offspring continue the royal lineage.

Such concerns may never have crossed the mind of U.S. advocates of the proposed equal rights amendment, but in a country whose tax forms inquire if you are the favored wife in a polygamous marriage, they must be taken seriously.

Chief Nonkonyana, a 36-year-old chief of the Amabhala clan of the Xhosa tribe who claims 12,000 subjects in the Transkei region, is the articulate spokesman for the traditional leaders' position.

Trained as a lawyer and a regular at the negotiating table during the months of talks, he seems thoroughly westernized. It is only the leopard skin peeking out from under his stylish three-piece suit that lets you know he clings to a bit of old Africa even as a new South Africa takes shape.

The beautiful strip of spotted fur is representative of his royal position, which Chief Nonkonyana inherited from his father despite the fact that he has three older sisters.

Studying his clan's oral tradition, he has traced his royal blood back to the 16th century, well before white settlers claimed dominion over this land.

Democracy in danger

Chief Nonkonyana warns that if the African National Congress, the National Party, the government and the other powerful political forces shaping South Africa's new dispensation ignore their country's deep-seated traditions, it will endanger the democracy they are trying to nourish.

Indeed, these traditional leaders claim that the majority of South Africans live under such rulers.

Most are in rural areas, but many who have moved to the cities still consider themselves subjects of a chief or king in their native region.

Although the chiefs and kings have long acknowledged the ultimate authority of political institutions, on a day-to-day basis they still make many decisions, solve disputes and impose taxes in communities throughout South Africa.

"We do not have our inheritance system to discriminate against women, but they have a different role to play," Chief Nonkonyana explained. "By their very nature, women are builders of the community. They are not inferior, it's just that they perform a special function."

"As chief, I stepped into my father's shoes, taking on all his rights and responsibilities, including all his debts and the obligation to take care of my family," he said. "That is my role."

Polygamy difficulties

He sees potential litigation not only among a chief's daughters and sons but also among his various wives, leading to chaos in these traditional communities.

"It would be a blunder to enforce this anti-discrimination provision," he said. "You have to understand that in these rural communities, the people see nothing wrong with their traditions."

Chief Nonkonyana and the other traditional leaders are proposing a separate parliamentary body composed of kings and chiefs who would consider matters where laws are seen to come into conflict with traditions.

"This house could propose delaying the implementation of these laws to give the chiefs time to explain them to the people," he said.

Delaying the gender discrimination provisions for up to five years is one of the first such proposals. That idea brings strenuous objections from Mavivi Manzini, a negotiator for the ANC.

"There is no way we are going to constitutionalize gender inequality," she said. "We are creating a new South Africa, and it is not going to have some rights applicable to part of the population and not applicable to others.

"Our struggle as the people of South Africa is against any form of domination, including domination by men. In the new constitution, human rights must be above everything else. It is a question of equality in all spheres of life."

Ms. Manzini argues that traditional leaders will have to change with the times, which is, in fact, what they have always done.

"I think a lot of their fears are unfounded," she said. "Traditions and cultures develop over time. They are not static. Nothing is written in stone."

She claimed that the way property is inherited has changed -- to the benefit of male heirs. "It used to be that all property belonged to the community, and so the chief held the land in trust. But as the country became westernized, the property went to the first son. Now, that house, that land, belongs to him.

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