Modernity clashes with heritage AmaKhosi: South Africa's traditional leaders -- kings, chiefs and village headmen -- are caught in a squeeze in the push for "wall-to-wall elected local government."

Sun Journal

June 30, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KWAMHLANGA, South Africa -- South Africa's traditional leaders -- 10 kings, 800 chiefs and thousands of village headmen -- are caught in a conflict between old and new ways of doing things.

The government of President Nelson Mandela is committed to what is termed "wall-to-wall elected local government." That puts the squeeze on the authority of the AmaKhosi, or traditional leaders, who hold sway over millions of subjects in rural areas.

"They have tried to define a democracy ignoring the traditional leadership," says King Mayisha II, ruler of the 1.5 million-member Ndebeli nation since 1992. Mayisha, 51, has five wives and 14 children, and his family has exercised royal power for centuries.

Chief Moses Mgiyeli Khumalo of the Gutshwa tribe, part of the Swazi nation, echoes the complaint. Husband of two and father of four, Khumalo, 47, is jealous of his ancient prerogatives of disposing of tribal land and dispensing justice.

"In the first place," he says, "there is this new constitution, which has never taken us on board. It says very little about us."

Chapter 12 of the constitution makes the status and role of the traditional leaders subject to government legislation being devised by Mandela's government.

The chiefs want their rights and powers not only protected but clearly spelled out. They have rejected outright the notion, initially floated by the government, that their role in a modern democracy should be largely ceremonial.

Politically, the government is walking a tightrope. Alienating the traditional leaders could be costly at the ballot box in next year's general election to replace Mandela, who is retiring.

The tripartite government alliance -- with Mandela's African National Congress partnered by the Communist Party and the trade-union congress -- is hoping to gain an unassailable two-thirds majority in Parliament. Without the support of the chiefs, that may prove impossible. In the first all-race election in 1994, the alliance got 62 percent of the vote.

"The ANC . . . got their majority share in 1994 because of the strength of the traditional leaders," says Mayisha. "If they exclude traditional leaders, they might have a problem. But there is still time to rectify the situation."

Mayisha's younger brother, an Ndebeli prince, recently deserted the ANC to join a new opposition party, the United Democratic Movement, which will be led into the next election by Bantu Holimisa, son of a chief.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, recently told a meeting of traditional leaders that the government proposals would mean the end of the traditional model of society in his native KwaZulu-Natal, where the role of the AmaKhosi is particularly strong.

Mandela, born into the Tembu royal family, has consistently acknowledged the status of his fellow traditional leaders while .. pointing out that they cannot hope to return to the power they enjoyed in pre-colonial times. This has done little to allay the leaders' fears that they are losing out in the battle between modernity and heritage.

"They are trying to get rid of all us traditional leaders -- that I know," says Khumalo. "But you can never get rid of traditional leadership. The secret about it is it is rooted in the minds, in the blood, of the people of this soil. It is not something you can teach them. It is something that is born with them."

Khumalo, for 17 years chief of 15 villages in the rural province of Mpumalanga, surrounding the tribal center of Witrivier, points out that the traditional leaders usually interpret government policy for the mostly illiterate villagers.

"We are the ears and eyes of the government," he says. "But when the government is destroying us, it is destroying the communities we serve, and the government has an interest in serving these communities."

He contrasts the influence of traditional leaders, who are either born into power or acquire it by royal appointment, with that of local councilors, who are political-party appointees. "The problem is the party-list system," Khumalo says. "They will appoint somebody unknown to a constituency. The people won't support him. He doesn't live there. They don't know him.

"You can never at any given time keep two bulls in one kraal -- myself in the tribal council and these locally elected councilors," Khumalo says. "There is no role the elected council can play. There is no room for them in our tribal areas. They may have the power, but they will never exercise that power.

"Our people in concert ask, 'What does our chief say? Does it have the blessing of our chief?' Any development that is to take place should have that blessing. Then, the people will accept that."

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