Friday, 27 February 2015

King’s culture call is all about land

Nomboniso Gasa, Business Day

KING Goodwill Zwelithini made a fiery speech in Kokstad recently in which he declared 2015 to be the Year of the Regiment. He urged male initiates to be "his regiment and defend African culture against critics".

His call to arms must be understood in the broader context of claims of power over land, resources and customary law.

Almost every week a story breaks about mining companies that, under the protection of some traditional leaders and powerful political figures, disregard regulations and the legal requirements for mining. The stark reminders of this deeply flawed process are recent reports on the IvanPlats mine in Mokopane, Limpopo.

King Zwelithini’s speech is also one of the multiple ways in which traditional leaders make decisions in areas of life that are historically not within their scope in African cultural systems. Their entry into these areas did not result from fluid and organic growth and changes of African cultures. It is part of the legacy of colonial distortion of African cultures and customary systems which vested power in one ruler (in the image of the European systems).

The apartheid system entrenched this colonial distortion and hand-picked traditional leaders who were strategic in the apartheid project. King Zwelithini and many others have come to believe that they — and only they — are the bearers of the "truth" of African cultures and systems. Other voices are silenced, by all means necessary.

Before dealing with aspects of the king’s speech, let us consider the occasion and its significance. Those who know the history and evolution of the "Zulu Kingdom" are aware that King Shaka abolished male circumcision among the Zulu people and replaced it with the formation of regiments, who formed part of his conquering army.

The nature of the ceremony in Kokstad is a result of processes of recent change that continue. In this instance, the reintroduction of the initiation school resulted from external influence — the medical awareness campaign led by the World Health Organisation on HIV/AIDS prevention.

The group of initiates comprised young men from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, including Hlubi, Zulu, Sotho and coloureds (as described by Benny Khobo, who is in charge of the process). It was undertaken under the auspices of the Indlondlo Circumcision Institute. This is hardly how initiation used to be practised, by any stretch of the imagination.

The decidedly militaristic tone of King Zwelithini’s speech — a "call to arms" — is part of continuing efforts to intimidate critics of recent laws and policies that cement colonial distortions which exaggerate chiefly power over land and people. The specific trigger is the unconstitutional blanket land claim the king recently announced. He recruited the initiates to be part of his regiment, whose responsibility is to "defend African culture against critics".

Threats to his control over land through the Ingonyama Trust is at the core of King Zwelithini’s wrath. According to a report that the Ingonyama presented to Parliament last year, the trust is busy converting "indigenous land rights" to leasehold. It increased the rental fee for such leases tenfold over the past 10 years.

The report also revealed that millions of rand are transferred by the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform to the Ingonyama Trust. It receives money from other sources, too, such as mining, game reserves and other tourists attractions.

Emboldened by President Jacob Zuma’s call to traditional leaders to "put their best resources together and claim for land on behalf of their people", King Zwelithini was the first among many traditional leaders to announce their intention to claim land. The vast area of land earmarked for the claim cuts through different provinces and falls outside the scope of the current law. The claim goes back to the 1800s.

The government has not told those who jumped on the bandwagon of "tribal" claims that the cut-off date remains 1913. This silence creates uncertainty and gives the impression that the claims are valid.

"This land was not taken from trusts, which are now popular in the country, but was taken from traditional leaders, and your fathers and mothers," King Zwelithini said. It is important to remind him that land was seized from the people.

Africans had different systems of land ownership in the past, including purchasing land as groups and forming trusts. Land that was under the control of traditional leaders was held in trust on behalf of communities.

The power of traditional leaders derived from the people, and without this, they were vulnerable. Multiple forms of land ownership and plurality of voices were encouraged and allowed to flourish, throughout Africa.

The king also called for the "unity of Nguni people" in the fight for land. But against whom? Unity and peaceful coexistence of all people is what’s important.

How will this manifest when people decide to claim land independent of traditional leaders’ big claims, which is their right according to the constitution? What will happen to those whose claims straddle the borders between different kingships? Will they be called part of those against whom "African culture" must be defended?

King Zwelithini attacked the "critics of the Traditional Courts Bill" for raising the violation of women’s rights. The critique of the status of women is based on real and lived experiences: dispossession of widows; discriminatory inheritance practices which, when brought to the attention of some traditional leaders, are confirmed; denial of women’s right to own land in their own name in some communities; and exclusion of women from decision-making forums, among other practices.

These issues are well recorded in Parliament and the National Council of Provinces after women have spoken with their own voices, in provincial and national hearings on the bill.

Scholars and activists have been at pains to point out that not all communities — and certainly not all traditional leaders — discriminate against women. The binary approach that the king and many others have adopted is unhelpful. It is dangerous to take a stance that says people are anti-African culture if they are critical of some practices, or are in favour if they support the big land claims by the king, the Traditional Courts Bill and Traditional Affairs Bill.

We need a nuanced discussion that takes into account the complexity of the issues and, most important, puts the substantive rights of all people at the centre of public debate, legislation, policy debate and programmes that are adopted and implemented. Such a conversation can only take place if the king, other traditional leaders and the government recognise the accountability to, and participation of, people as an integral part of African cultural systems and democracy.

It is crucial that the government provides leadership and clarity on these issues. This can be done through revisiting all government policies and asking this fundamental question: does this policy strengthen the substantive rights of all people, including those who live in the former bantustans?

This must be done through a careful review of all legislation, policies and programmes. These cut across government departments, including justice and constitutional development, co-operative governance and traditional affairs, rural development and land reform.

Perhaps King Zwelithini may want to reconsider his position on the "critics of African culture". He might want to take a leaf from the African forms of knowledge creation and look at the role of griots, izanusi, elders, community members and others. That requires an open and candid discussion about the second dispossession that is happening in KwaZulu-Natal.

It demands an honest discussion about the blanket land claims he and other traditional leaders plan to lodge. Difficult as this may be, it is necessary and it is urgent. That, after all, is the way many African societies build and expand knowledge.