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Vuwani: The Role of Traditional Leaders in a Democratic South Africa

Vuwani, a small village in the Vhembe District in Limpopo whose existence remained unknown to many until recently, instantly shot to prominence when it erupted into violent protests in May. To date, many have come to know about it as that violent rural area in Limpopo where 24 schools were burned down in violent protests. But beneath the ashes of those schools’ destructions lays an overlooked story about the role of traditional leaders in a democratic South Africa, writes SABC Political Researcher, Maswele Ralebona

The order of the homeland of Venda was sparked by the Municipality Demarcation Board (MDB)’s decision to remove eight of the chieftaincy’s land from Makhado and Thulamela Municipalities respectively to form a new municipal with Malamulele.

Understanding the extent to which the people of Malamulele played to get the attention of government to grant them a municipality and the role traditional leaders in the Vuwani area continue to play in this regard, one wonders if there is a space in the South African for traditional leaders in democracy.

Even the country’s constitution doesn’t say much about the role of our traditional leaders.

Chapter 12, Section 212 of the South African Constitution says, “National legislation may provide for a role for traditional leadership as an institution at local level on matters affecting local communities”. The chapter is so small that it can be interpreted as a non-issue to those who drafted our constitution. One wonders if traditional leaders were consulted during the process.

According to Professor Kealeboga Maphunye, a University of South Africa scholar and governance expert in local government, especially on the role of traditional leadership in South Africa, remains a minor player in terms of the post-1994 dispensation because much of the current system borrows from western traditions of governance.

Investigation of the root cause of the violence that gutted at least 24 schools leaving several others damaged has revealed that traditional leaders were at the forefront to resolve the matter. They even approached the Polokwane High Court with the hope that their problems would be put to rest for good. However, the court dismissed their legal challenge.

Again, it begs the question whether traditional leaders have any powers to lead their communities into prosperity if they still have to consult the western structured courts of law.

On the back of this, one would most likely agree that the fight against colonialism and later apartheid in South African is not over. If it were over, then why do we still have the judiciary system that leaves no room for customary affairs?

Some might wonder why we need politicians and presidents to confirm or approve traditional leadership. Therefore, a case could be made that the law in its current form needs to be revisited.

The irony of the current legal system from traditional leaders is that politicians or elected public representatives seemingly play a predominant role in determining who becomes a king or chief in our African societies, not only in South Africa, but also continentally.

Back to the Vuwani matter, traditional leaders tried to bring calm even assisting communities by donating thousands of rands in legal fees to fight the new municipal proposal.

Venda King, Toni Mphephu Ramabulana, for instance, appeared in the media asking for his communities to be exempted from the new municipal order, but so far, there has been no action in that regard. His call for recourse to the powers that be has fallen on deaf ears.

One can only wonder whether in Britain the same attitude would have been meted out to British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Talk about a case of some being more equal than others.

Talking to traditional leaders in the affected communities, there’s an apparent sense of desperation among them for some kind of recognition and respect from the government.

In Africa, traditional leaders operate under the Western rule and culture, which undermines their legitimacy and makes it difficult for them to be respected and be heard by their communities and political leaders.  Abathembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo’s case in South Africa comes to mind. He’s currently serving a jail term for applying a customary law in his own jurisdiction.

The views of the community leaders under the Pro-Makhado banner are that they are fighting for their recognition and legitimacy more than anything else. In the Mashau traditional authority, two villages out of 13 would still fall under the Makhado municipality – another sign that there were no consultations with communities and their traditional leaders when the decision was made to incorporate Mashau to the new municipality.

Maswele Lennox Ralebona is the SABC News Researcher at the Policy and Analysis Division

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