Exempting land under traditional leaders flies in face of real problems people face

President Cyril Ramaphosa should have underscored to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini that his authority is subject to constitutional processes, says the writer. / KHAYA NGWENYA
President Cyril Ramaphosa should have underscored to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini that his authority is subject to constitutional processes, says the writer. / KHAYA NGWENYA

President Cyril Ramaphosa has assured Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini that land under the Ingonyama Trust will not be expropriated.

Although Ramaphosa and his advisers may have calculated this to be a way of quelling the tensions brewing between the ANC and the Zulu monarchy, the gesture undermines the ongoing parliamentary process on land.

The implications of a head of state in a constitutional democracy being seen to elevate the status of traditional leadership above those of other interests - security of tenure for individuals and communities - cannot be downplayed.

Traditional leaders have been railing against the recommendation by the parliamentary high panel, chaired by former president Kgalema Motlanthe, that control and ownership of land be given directly to the people living under customary arrangements, and not be held in trust by traditional leadership.

The panel's report found that in most instances, including under the Ingonyama Trust, the rights of communities are disregarded.

The report points out: "There are also significant gaps, such as on tenure security, where legislation has not been passed, putting the lives and livelihoods of many rural dwellers in peril. The government's interpretation of customary law, centred on traditional leadership and away from living custom, has added to insecurity."

This finding speaks to the post-apartheid government's fixation with traditional leaders as a constituency. This is because the ANC has found in them allies that have been vital in guaranteeing rural votes.

ANC administrations have been conflating the whims of traditional leaders with custom and satisfying themselves that traditional leaders are the embodiment of the people they exercise authority over.

This tendency has emboldened traditional leaders like the Zulu monarch to claim that a parliamentary process is equal to a declaration of war on the Zulu nation.

As the president of the Republic, Ramaphosa should be defending the rights of all people, groups and communities to raise their concerns, even about the administration of land by chiefs, including the high-level panel which was informed by community consultations.

There can be no holy cows in the effort to ensure redress. Traditional leaders are not above or beyond scrutiny. They should never - in a democratic dispensation - have the status of gods who cannot be questioned or called to account.

Ramaphosa should have underscored to the Zulu king and other monarchs across the country that their authority is not absolute, but subject to constitutional processes.

Instead, Ramaphosa has kowtowed to Zwelithini in response to baseless threats of violence and secession because a high-level panel dared to question whether the chiefs were serving the interests of communities.

Ramaphosa and his deputy, David Mabuza, have taken the position that the government is not interested in discussions over land held by chiefs, because this is land in black people's hands.

The government is focusing on the 87% of land which was held by the colonial and apartheid administrations.

In the broader context of the ongoing public hearings on land, Ramaphosa's rush to give assurances to one sector of society undermines the spirit of the entire process.

The assertion that the land under chiefs is not subject to debate "because there are no problems" denies the very real challenges that communities under the authority of chiefs are facing.

The government should be keen to uncover whether the current system of land tenure, even in areas administered by black chiefs, is assisting communities to fully exercise their rights.

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