S. Africa tribal chiefs assert power
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA
Inkosi Mpiyezintombi Mzimela's family has ruled a remote patch of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, for eight generations.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Through a century of colonial-era meddling and decades of apartheid aggression, the Mzimela men - born and bred to be chiefs - mediated disputes, distributed land, and represented their people, about 80,000 Zulu tribesmen.
But now, much to their dismay, their dynasty may be coming to an end in a sweep of democratic reforms.
"We are not something of the past," the powerfully built Mr. Mzimela protests, and warns: "We shall move heaven and earth to be recognized. We will fight until all rivers run dry."
This November, South Africa plans to complete the most tangible part of its democratic transformation with the election of municipal councilors to represent every village from the Kalahari Desert in the north to the winelands in the south. The new local government officials are expected to control land use, plan development programs, and enforce social order - usurping many of the time-honored duties of traditional leaders.
"The people of South Africa have demanded a democratic and accountable government," says Monde Nkasawe, the deputy director of the national government's Traditional Affairs Department. "We must create a democratic culture. That is our mandate."
Few other issues in South Africa so poignantly illustrate the difficult transition this new nation is negotiating. With one foot in the third world and the other in the first, the nation is determining the role that aristocratic and patriarchal, but much beloved, traditional customs and values will play in the new South Africa.
The government sees traditional leaders not only as a relic of the old South Africa, but also as a powerful threat to the ruling party, the African National Congress, says Michael Whisson, an anthropology professor at South Africa's Rhodes University.
"The government is now saying it will tolerate traditional leaders," says Whisson. "It will give them some symbolic power and slowly let them fade away like the British House of Lords."
But tribal leaders have no intention of fading away. Some have threatened to lead a boycott of the November local elections. Others have vowed to take the government to court to seek an injuction against the municipal elections.
Mzimela, chairman of the National House of Traditional Leaders, which advises the government on tribal affairs, promises to bring what he sees as a cocky government to its knees. Shed-ding traditional robes for business suits, with cellphones fastened to their belts and briefcases in hand, Mzimela and his fellow leaders have descended on this capital city from villages throughout the country to lobby.
The traditional rulers still enjoy a strong following in this nation, where they have acted as de-facto local government for generations. In recent rallies, thousands of their subjects, brandishing traditional spears, cowhide shields, and fighting sticks vowed their allegiance.
Government officials, including President Thabo Mbeki, have attempted to placate the leaders while remaining true to their democratic ideals - a difficult balancing act.
Traditional leaders are demanding the power to appoint half of each local council, with citizens electing the other half. And they want assurances that new municipal boundaries will follow accepted tribal demarcations, and not divide their territories or peoples.