Of Kings and Women

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Mar 2011

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Picture: I am Kat
Picture: I am Kat

The reconfiguration of the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs has come into sharp focus as local government elections draw closer. The notion of locating traditional affairs at the local government level has detractors and I count myself among them.

The conflation of the two means that patriarchal interpretations of social and developmental priorities will continue to undermine and dispossess women living in those communities.

The battle between tradition and feminist struggles for women has been fought for decades across the global South, and it appears to have intensified in the last twenty years as a result of democratization and decentralization of the State.  This has helped to highlight competing claims to power and legitimacy.

The launch of the ANC Local Government Manifesto some weeks back provides an interesting opportunity to again consider the efficacy of ceding women’s rights to traditional leadership, especially since “tradition and culture” are problematic and complex domains of struggle for women.

At this point, I must declare my own reservations about the diminishing effect of the terminology “traditional leaders” and “chiefs,” used to describe monarchs and kings. However, for conceptual clarity I shall use the terms going forward.

The difficulty of locating traditional leadership in the same cluster as local government is the patriarchal collaboration that takes place at community and local government level to exploit or exclude women from the full of expression of their citizenship rights.

South Africa offers the opportunity to examine some of these issues from a feminist perspective including women’s access to land rights, inheritance practice, widows’ inheritances, forced marriages (as distinct from arrangements between young lovers who choose to elope), access to decision making fora and access to basic services.

Other than the claim that it ensures gender parity in decision-making, the local government manifesto makes inadequate provisions for women who represent a majority of South Africa’s most vulnerable and marginalised. With tragic (though typical) lack of depth, there are no “gendered” targets for healthcare, housing, education and other service deliverables in the 2011 local government manifesto.

In the context of rural communities, the omission is even more acute where land and agrarian reform are still closely linked to patriarchal ideas about inheritance and women’s access to land. Here, where traditional authorities work at the coalface of service delivery, there is perpetual vagueness and contestation in relation to the authority of elected municipal councils versus chiefs and traditional leaders who hold court over vast constituencies.

A Kgosi (king/traditional leader) is a “kgosi ke kgosi ka batho” ("a King who is a King through their people"), the father or mother of their people and a binding and spiritual factor that serves as a symbol of the unity for the group. He or she is seen by most people as the embodiment of law and order, the upholder of values and as provider for the needs of the community and, in some instances, even as an institution created by God.

However, the interface between this ordained status and the significantly weakened role of traditional leaders during the colonial struggles has now resulted in vulnerabilities in the notion of the king being the embodiment of all law and all values.

Be that as it may, the notion that the king can never be wrong i.e., “Morena ha a fose” creates an environment where accountability and transparency in leadership are limited.

For many years, security of tenure for women on farms has been a strong advocacy campaign for the progressive land sector with several NGOs and research institutions providing thoughtful and cogent analyses of rural women’s particularly invidious living and working conditions.

In my own home village it remains difficult for women to inherit or acquire land without the assistance of the area monarch. It is also difficult to secure access to reproductive healthcare at local community clinics.

When a woman’s physical integrity is conflated with social mores, which the King is typically the custodian of, the terrain becomes very complex.

Yet the President’s speech at the launch of the manifesto drew few connections between the questions of power, culture and the social conditions of women.

Many may argue that the institutional forms addressing power and the abuse of traditional practices are uneven, elusive and not worth the social cost of the endeavour. Given the levels of corruption and cronyism in some municipalities, it seems that the mutually reinforcing interests and attitudes of some local government officials and traditional leaders only narrows the space for women, churches, communities and broad society to question lack of delivery.

Traditional leaders are undoubtedly a crucial feature of community life both as symbols of an unconquered pre-colonial past and as defenders of values, customs and legacy.  The concern with their location in the local government level arises from the lack of protection afforded many women, as “culture and tradition” are interpreted inaccurately, subjectively and sometimes even wrongly.

The arbiters of custom may deem it unnecessary or inappropriate for complaints about poor social services, land rights or forced marriage to be expressed openly. It is difficult to ascertain how local government can perform its functions effectively and how good governance can give meaning to people’s lives with the fettering of sometimes-contradictory customary mores.

Thus, locating local government service delivery within the purview of traditional leadership largely removes women’s ability to express our own citizenship, access inheritance rights and justice. This reinforces deficits in local government delivery and disadvantages the position of women.

President Zuma’s paternalistic tone during the manifesto launch, which recognised no sense of women’s agency strongly, enforces the condescending and complex relationship between local governance and the question of gender equity.

It is imperative that traditional leadership councils and the department of local government be delinked. The conflation serves to support a paternalistic value system, which muddies the already murky waters of a complex terrain.

With so much at stake in these elections it does not seem that South Africa can afford to continue being hamstrung, inefficient or dismissive of the grinding social and living conditions of many women (and men) in our communities.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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One soldier
16 Sep


Really onsightful piece. It's a shame we dont get these rational, informed arguments in larger spaces. The current discourse is absolutely clouded by political opportunism and manipulation of dynamic and varied cultural constructs.

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27 Sep


Very fascinating piece. I wonder if there is a connection between the current regime and this blurring of local government and traditional feudal roles as embodied by kings [rather than chiefs as Liepollo points out]. So how do we extracate ourselves from this. Questions, questions.

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