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Date: 10/08/2005
Source: National House of Traditional Leaders
Title: Mzimela: Annual Conference of Pan African Anthropological Association


Keynote address by Inkosi Mpiyezintombi Mzimela, Chairperson of the National House of Traditional Leaders at the 15th Annual Conference of the Pan African Anthropological Association (PAAA), Younde, Cameroon

TRADITIONAL LEADERS ARE FOR LIFE; DEMOCRACY THE AFRICAN WAY

“A traditional leader is a tree on which all birds sit and a traditional leader was born for a purpose that the world cannot do without”.

Your Royal Highnesses,
Your Excellencies,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour and a privilege for me to have been asked to address you at this auspicious gathering. It is a pleasure to talk to you about a matter that rest at the bottom of my heart.

I am Mpiyezintombi Mzimela, Inkosi of the Mzimela community, which is based in northern side of my province, KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). I am also the Chairperson of a national statutory body of traditional leaders of my country, the National House of Traditional Leaders (NHTL). Our organisation is established in terms of constitutional provisions and has institutional ties with similar organisations, which are established in terms of provincial laws in six of the nine provinces of which South Africa comprises.

The NHTL co-ordinates the activities of traditional leaders nationwide and expresses the views of the provincial Houses within the national field of debate. Further, the NHTL draws its mandate from policy pronouncements by National Government and from legislation, inter alia:

* The National House of Traditional Leaders Act No. 10 of 1997(as amended);
* The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act No. 41 of 2003.

Background

Traditional leaders are the heads of a complex system of societal organisation, which consists of its own laws, traditions, social dynamics and interaction, and a comprehensive way of life. In South Africa we refer to all this as traditional communities, but internationally people also refer to them as tribes or clans. Because of the regressive connotation usually associated with it, we tend to dismiss the words “tribe” and “chief”, preferring the expression traditional community and traditional leader.

I have inherited the task of guarding the interests of the people of my community. It is a task that I intend carrying out in the manner that my ancestors would expect of me. I must not fail my people or my ancestors. My people would suffer and my ancestors would turn in their graves. It is a responsibility that I did not choose but which I accepted because my ancestors have imposed it on me. I preside over Izimbizo, which are community gatherings of my people where I act as a facilitator but where I have no decision-making power – the power lies with the people, who make all the decisions. My people have made decisions by consensus since time immemorial – so it has been, and so it must remain. I tell you this to give you an insight into the functioning of traditional system throughout South Africa and Africa.

This system was left in muddle by the legacies of colonisation and apartheid. There is no doubt in my mind that these led to Africa’s downfall.

We can never know whether in the longer term the coming of Europeans to Africa represented a curse or a blessing because we don’t know what conditions would now be if Africa had remained isolated for these past several hundred years. Although this question makes for interesting speculation it is not useful for purposes of current discussion. Colonialism is past history and the only part of it that is now worth focussing on is its conflict-provoking legacies, most of which relate to the fact that Africans have forgotten that they are African.

The colonial powers left behind their system of democracy, a system they developed over many centuries in their own countries, based on an idea formulated by the Greeks more than two thousand years ago. The word democracy comes from the Greek words demos, meaning “people” and kratos, meaning, “power” so, power to the people.

However, there are two very distinct strains of democracy. The one brought to Africa by the colonial powers, and with which we are therefore most familiar, is representative democracy, which allows the people to vote for representatives every time an election is held but otherwise gives them no real say in the day to day affairs of the area, region, province, state or country in which they live because all the decisions are taken by their elected representatives. This method of governance, imported into Africa, has been conflict- provoking.

Direct democracy is the other major form of democracy. In this system the people either gather together in a public meeting (our South African version is called an imbizo) or they vote in a referendum to make decisions on an issue-by-issue basis. The people do not give their representatives the power to make decisions on their behalf without the right to intervene in a decision with which they do not agree. Switzerland is the only real example of direct democracy operating in an advanced country, or anywhere in the world other than in those exceptional places where Africa’s communal system of direct democracy decision-making has been allowed to continue to function. Direct democracy brought peace and prosperity to Switzerland, whose people were earlier involved in strife over languages, customs and religions. It was also responsible for maintaining a relatively high level of peace within traditional communities in Africa before the Europeans arrived.

The colonial powers usurped and patched together territories belonging to the peoples of Africa, often territories containing people who had been rivals and even bitter enemies for centuries. They called these territories countries. The colonialists maintained control over these countries of their creation with their soldiers and guns and by playing the various peoples within the countries off against each other.

The real problems came when they left. They did not, as they should have done, attempt to repair the damage they had done to the traditional African communities. They did not say, as they should have done – “let us attempt to return the systems of governance to the way they were before we arrived and destabilised the way of life of the people”. They merely handed over their mechanisms of power to “the new elected representatives” of people’s who had previously hated the way the colonialists had used those mechanisms for purposes of dominating and controlling the indigenous population.

One of the primary objectives of the colonial powers had been to undermine the traditional African leaders and the age-old decision-making processes of the traditional African communities. They knew that a traditional leader in most parts of Africa was not allowed to be autocratic. The people did not allow it. The role of the traditional leader consisted of facilitating meetings of the people of the village, clan, or tribe, in order to ensure that everyone was given the opportunity to be heard before the taking of important decisions, and to attempt to allow the people to reach a unanimous or consensus decision.

The traditional leader was also expected to have expert knowledge of customary law for purposes of giving rulings on disputes between people under their jurisdiction after hearing the views of trusted advisers. Most African traditional leaders therefore retained their positions because of their wisdom and fairness as well as the loyalty of their subjects to them and the memory of their forefathers – not because they were backed, in the manner of European-style governments, by soldiers and policemen with guns.

The contrast of the two systems was too great for the colonialists to feel comfortable about attempting to govern people with such ties of loyalty to their own leaders. They did their best to undermine the system of traditional leadership. However, despite all their efforts, the traditions have survived and so have the hereditary leaders.

The next part of the African saga has been most tragic. As mentioned earlier, the colonial powers transferred the alien European system to elected majorities, along with its mechanisms of power such as armies and police. In most cases power was centralised in the hands of a few. Where the colonialists attempted to build in checks and balances, such as entrenched constitutions, separation of the executive and judiciary, and other mechanisms that function relatively well in Europe, where they took centuries to develop, they did not last long in the hands of governments that had little patience with constraints on their power. What elected African leaders wanted, knowingly or unknowingly, was for their positions to become the same as that of hereditary leaders – positions for life.

Among a people accustomed to hereditary rule it was relatively easy to obtain acceptance for such a wish and the result has been the “President for Life” phenomenon that has, with few exceptions, plagued Africa since the departure of the colonialists. In many cases bloody battles for power have ensued, very often fuelled by the presence of mineral and oil riches.

Many elected African governments have followed the example of the colonialists in their attitudes towards traditional leadership. In order not to alienate the people, who continue to value their allegiance to traditional leaders, the elected governments give some form of recognition to such leaders but ensure that African direct democracy is not re-instated.

Traditional communities are prevented from utilising their ancient, effective, and peaceful decision-making processes, in which the people decide what should and should not happen within their own communities. In many cases the resulting frustrations boil over into conflict. In some cases a frustrated or even unwise traditional leader may precipitate such a problem.

It is probably too much to expect to see direct democracy re-instated throughout Africa, with decision-making power devolved down to the community level, with every community making its own decisions on all matters and with no dominant central power imposing its will on the community.

We now have cities and towns where people are congregated, many of whom recognise no traditional leader. In such places, and in respect of regional and central government affairs, it may be necessary to accept the existing representative democracy system but there is much to be gained by giving back to rural traditional communities their right to make their own decisions in their traditional manner within their own communities. This would allow communities to protect and foster their customs, culture, languages and histories.

However, if this should happen it will be necessary for us as traditional leaders to carefully study the ways of our ancestors, so that we do not also become hungry for a kind of power that our ancestors did not have – that we should recognise that while our people may give us their allegiance we have inherited a duty to serve and not to dominate them.

Recommendations and Conclusion

We must devise a system that utilises and blends the original African direct democracy at the local traditional community level with the representative democracy we have inherited from the colonialists at the state, provincial and regional government level. Traditional leaders of South Africa believe that African traditional leaders have a potential to revive “Democracy the African Way”. We are certain that African Renaissance, New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union, without including all traditional leaders of this continent might be a futile exercise.

The realisation of this dream will further boost the potential of our traditional leaders and their ability to bring the continent closer to each other. It is the dream of all traditional leaders in Africa to see the Continental House of Traditional Leaders of Africa (COHTLA) being born. We are convinced that since South Africa, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Nigeria, Togo and Botswana, have bought to this idea, all other countries will do like wise. We are preparing a summit for all African Traditional Leaders for early 2006 with the aim of preparing guidelines to the formation of the COHTLA.

Your Excellencies, Your Royal Highnesses, distinguished guests ladies and gentlemen we can’t do much about our ancestors but we can influence our descendants enormously. Time has come to say YES! to Democracy the African Way. I thank you!

For further information please contact:
Sibusiso Nkosi
Cell: 082 855 4436
Issued by: National House of Traditional Leaders
10 August 2005
   
Edited by: Colleen Smith
 
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