System of traditional leaders under pressure at Land Divided Conference

The system of traditional leaders was put sharply in the spotlight at the first plenary session of a high-profile conference themed Land Divided: Land and South African Society in 2013, in Comparative Perspective, that commenced in Cape Town yesterday (24 March 2013).

The conference, collaboratively hosted by three Western Cape Universities – University of the Western Cape, University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University, focuses on South Africa’s land issues and the notorious Natives Land Act of 1913.

Plenary presenters included the Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform, Mr Gugile Nkwinti, Dr Mamphela Ramphele of the political movement Agang and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town; Ms Prisca Shabalala, Chairperson of the Rural Women’s Movement; Prof Peter Delius of the University of Witwatersrand and one of South Africa’s foremost scholars of rural and agrarian history; Mr Sipho Pityana, Chairperson of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution and Prof Russel Botman, Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University.

In his opening remarks at the conference, Minister Nkwinti said that the lack of administrative capacity in his department contributed to the slow pace of land reforms. He also referred to the system of willing buyer and willing seller and said that it is clear that the process is not working. Only some 8% of land was transferred to its original owners since 1994.  He also said that there has to be a balance between land redistribution and food security.

In her presentation Dr Ramphele said that the question of land is one of the most important questions in South Africa’s move to democracy. She challenged the Minister and said that if the land reform process was properly conducted, it would have lead to job creation and enhanced food security as well as economic growth in “double digits”.

She was also critical of the ANC government for “entrenching” tribal authority and a system of chieftains making it very difficult for ordinary citizens to own land. “I can’t believe it’s being done by our own post-apartheid government,” she said. She added that the concept of chieftains and traditional leadership was colonial and intended for divide and rule.

In a lively presentation, Ms Shabalala related how difficult it was to ensure development in her community and blamed the traditional leadership for the lack of progress, while Prof Delius said that the Land Act of 19 13 resulted in the original owners of land became workers on farms and that the Act played a key role in economic decline and political exclusion. Customray law also became entrenched through the Act.

Mr Pityana also referred to the system of traditional leadership and asked if it was possible to have this system in a democracy.

Closing the plenary session, Prof Botman thanked the speakers and remarked that it does not always happen that three universities work together but that the importance of the event is of such nature that it necessitated cooperation. He added that the three universities are partners in bringing about change and that it is research that should guide policy.

Prof Cherryl Walker of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at SU is one of the main organisers of the event. She has extensive research as well as applied experience in land reform, rural development and gender studies, spanning the academic, state and NGO sectors. Between 1995 and 2000 she served on South Africa’s Commission on Restitution of Land Rights as Regional Land Claims Commissioner for the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Her most recent books are Landmarked; Land Claims and Land Restitution in South Africa (2008) and an edited collection: Cherryl Walker, Anna Bohlin, Ruth Hall and Thembela Kepe (eds.), Land, Memory, Reconstruction and Justice: Perspectives on Land Claims in South Africa (2010).