Debate future of SA tribal authority

President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, and members of the ANC’s top six visit Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini at his Osuthu Palace in Nongoma
President Cyril Ramaphosa, right, and members of the ANC’s top six visit Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini at his Osuthu Palace in Nongoma
Image: KHAYA NGWENYA

Former president Kgalema Motlanthe chaired the high level panel that made farreaching proposals to parliament that included fundamental recommendations on land policy.

His stance was that the land must be owned by the people, not by traditional leaders.

He called traditional leaders “village tinpot dictators”, and indicated that these leaders don’t want to lose their land because the rent their subjects paid was a slush fund that they could use as they wanted.

However, to keep the system going the story is being circulated in SA that kings, queens, nkosis, chiefs and tribal structures are an indigenous African tradition.

The fallacy of such thinking can quickly be dispelled by looking around, and it soon becomes obvious that such structures have occurred all over the world, whether they are called kings, queens, emperors, lords, chiefs or whatever.

The question then arises: how did these elitist structures become established?

The answer is quite straightforward, since the ones in power just succeeded in eliminating their opposition by the simple expediency of killing them.

They then called themselves kings and queens, and set up a system of loyal henchmen whom they could trust – these henchmen were rewarded with land and titles such as lord, earl or chief with power over the poor and the vanquished.

The kings entrenched their dynasty by continuing their brutal power politics, eliminating anyone who they thought could be a threat – until such time as someone else managed to usurp the throne.

Fortunately in most parts of the world these despotic regimes have given way to more democratic systems, where the people have some say in who governs them.

Perhaps the most famous relic of such royal structures is that in England.

Queen Elizabeth II only has a ceremonial position in the whole political structure and the main function of the royal family is as a tourist attraction.

Many people who grew up with fairy stories about kings and princesses still seem to have a fascination about those who carry such titles.

This was again manifest at the royal wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, where people lined up to catch a glimpse of royalty.

The picture of the two little girls, one a princess, waving at the crowd from the top of the stairs remains a lasting impression of the event.

Adorable? Perhaps, but the princess will grow up with a lasting sense of superiority over the minions who were clapping them.

Unfortunately that is one of the consequences of royalty: people who think they are superior just because they were born into a particular family.

Of course, in England there is no requirement of fealty and anyone can tell Prince Charles to get lost without suffering any consequences.

That is not the case in SA, where kings, queens and chiefs have some legal standing, and those people who fall into the tribal community actually have to obey their dictates.

Not only that, but the SA taxpayer pays those regal representatives a salary. Not because of any special aptitude or skill, but just because they were born to the title.

A case in point is the Ingonyama Trust, which came into existence as the last act of the apartheid-based KwaZulu homeland legislature.

It declared all land in the KwaZulu homeland to be included in the trust and that Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini was to be its sole trustee.

Recently the Umnini people near Umgababa in KwaZulu-Natal became victims of the Ingonyama Trust.

They own their land in terms of a deed of grant going back to 1858, but this provided no protection against the Ingonyama Trust leasing out their land to third parties for its own account.

However, after the recommendations of the high level panel were made public, King Zwelithini intimated that violence or secession would follow unless threats to “the land of the Zulu nation” were withdrawn.

Which is not surprising, since the king knows of no other way to maintain his exalted position.

Moreover, he now wants a signed document to maintain his authority.

It did result in the undignified spectacle of President Cyril Ramaphosa rapidly kowtowing to King Zwelithini to assure him that his land was safe.

It does not augur well for the poor people tied up in tribal politics.

Nonetheless, the Motlanthe high level panel asked some legitimate questions about the role played by tribal leaders.

Surely there should be an open debate on the issue to determine whether the tribal system has a place in a democratic SA?

  • Dr Eckart Schumann Humewood, Port Elizabeth
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