Millions of South Africans live much of their lives according to customary law (instead of having their lives regulated via the common law). During the apartheid era, customary law was viewed as second class law. We were told that the law that counted was statute law and, more importantly (for most – white – lawyers and legal academics), the “magisterial”, so called “conceptually refined” and “fundamentally fair” system of common law. When I studied law at Stellenbosch University, we did not study a single aspect of customary law. It was as if customary law (and the millions of people who lived in terms of it) did not exist.
Later I discovered that some of the ideological underpinnings of the Roman Dutch common law were rather suspect, what with its radical assumptions about freedom of contract and a predisposition to favour the powerful and the propertied classes above all others. At the same time it dawned on many that, for better or worse, millions of South Africans lived much of their lives in terms of customary law.
The official view on customary law has thankfully now changed, as the status of customary law in South Africa is constitutionally entrenched. Section 211 of the Constitution provides that the institution, status and role of traditional leadership are recognised subject to the Constitution. As the Constitutional Court has made clear in the case of Alexkor v Richtersveld Community, customary law must now be regarded as equal with the common law and as an “integral part of our law” and “an independent source of norms within the legal system.” Like any other source of law, customary law has a status that requires respect. Customary law must also not be judged through the lens of the common law.
But what happens if traditional customary law rules – interpreted and applied in its proper context and not with reference to the common law – conflicts with other provisions in the Bill of Rights? This question came to mind when I read about claims by Princess NomaXhosa Sigcawu from the East Cape that she had been overlooked to lead the AmaGcaleka Kingdom and that this was unconstitutional.
NomaXhosa said her mother, Queen Nozizwe, had been her father (King Zwelidumile Sigcawu’s) senior wife. Because she had been a baby when he died, King Xolilizwe, her older brother from another mother, had been made king. When King Xolilizwe died in 2006, one of his sons, Mpendulo, took the throne. The Princess claims that this move – based on the customary law rule in that community that only the oldest male heir could become King or Chief – discriminated against her on the basis of her sex or gender.
This case differs from the case of Shilubane and Others v Mwamitwa, where the Constitutional Court recognised the fact that a traditional community itself could change the rules to allow the female children of chiefs to take up the reigns, despite a previous custom that only the oldest male child could do so. This is because in the case of Princess Sigcawu, the community had not changed the custom and is resisting her attempts to become the Queen.
Commenting on the case, Chief Patekile Holomisa, Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) president, said custom dictated who should be a royal leader. “Legitimacy of ubukhosi is derived from custom, not from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” he said, referring to kingship. “It is not automatic that a woman as the first-born is a successor. If a traditional council decides to go against the custom, the court can allow that, but we do not accept it.”
As the Constitutional Court makes clear, this view by the President of CONTRALESA is not sustainable. Several provisions in the Constitution affirm that – like common law – customary law is now subject to the Constitution and cannot contravene the Constitution. Moreover, although Courts should try and respect the right of communities that observe systems of customary law and should try and respect their right to develop their law as they wish, where a custom discriminates against women or infringes on the rights of individuals, a court had a duty to declare that custom unconstitutional and to amend it.
There is a serious debate raging in academic circles and also amongst judges on how to deal with this issue. On the one hand, courts – especially the Constitutional Court – is acutely aware that customary law has been disregarded and disrespected in the past and that courts should now recognise the fact that customary law is a living law that can change over time. It is not the rigid and inflexible system of fossilised rules, written down by white colonialists and enforced by white judges during the apartheid era, and courts should be sensitive to this and, where possible, should allow the customary law to be develop by the relevant community themselves.
On the other hand, the courts have a duty to develop customary law rules to bring them in line with the spirit, purport and object of the Bill of Rights. Where customary law rules discriminate against women, they must be developed or declared unconstitutional. As the Court said in Shilubana:
courts must be cognisant of the fact that customary law, like any other law, regulates the lives of people. The need for flexibility and the imperative to facilitate development must be balanced against the value of legal certainty, respect for vested rights, and the protection of constitutional rights.
Whether a court will show deference to customary law and wait for it to develop organically, or whether it will intervene will depend on several factors. These factors would include:
the nature of the law in question, in particular the implications of change for constitutional and other legal rights; the process by which the alleged change has occurred or is occurring; and the vulnerability of parties affected by the law.
It is clear that a customary law rule that prohibits women from becoming traditional leaders like chiefs or queens, unfairly discriminates against women. It is based on patriarchal notions about the “proper” roles of men and women in society and is often justified on the basis that a chief or a king can only become one if he was fathered by a chief or a king. As women cannot father any children, they cannot and should not become chiefs or kings.
This view perpetuates the notion that men – because they father children – have a higher status in society than women. Although very few women will therefore directly be affected by this customary law rule (as very few women are actually the daughters of chiefs or kings), the rule would have far-reaching consequences for many women living in traditional communities exactly because it is based on patriarchal assumptions about the general subordination of women to men and because it reinforces and perpetuates this subordination.
I would therefore argue that in this case, the court should not wait for the community to develop the customary law rule to bring it in line with the requirements of gender equality, but should intervene (if asked to do so) to declare this customary law rule unconstitutional.
This is a pressing problem for another reason. There is a dirty little secret at the heart of traditional leadership which is never spoken about or acknowledged by Contralesa. The fact is that many traditional communities are controlled by Chiefs who were appointed as proxies of the apartheid government to exercise control on behalf of the apartheid state and they will not want to diminish their power and prestige by amending customary law rules to recognise gender equality. The very system of traditional leadership has been completely subverted by colonialism and apartheid and is far removed from the kind of benign system which made King Moshoeshoe such a revered leader more than hundred years ago.
Maybe it is time to recognise that our whole system of traditional leadership as it has evolved, is deeply problematic and not really compatable with a system of democratic governance. On the one hand one is acutely aware of the need to respect the traditional beliefs and cultural practices of millions of South Africans whose way of live was so fundamentally circumscribed and for ever changed by colonialism and apartheid.
On the other hand the system of customary law and of traditional leadership has been fundamentally subverted and corrupted by the colonial authorities and the apartheid state – often (but not always) with the collusion of traditional leaders. Some Chiefs or other traditional leaders do not always act in the best interest of the community and according to rules of customary law that protect everyone in the community as a member of the community.
Such unscrupolous and unelected leaders often borrow from customary law those parts that suit them and then also rely on common law or statute law rules based on a more individualistic view of the world in order to subvert the very system of rules which organised communal living, which (it could be argued) used to operate for the benefit of all. Instead many traditional leaders now act to cement their own hold on communities and to enforce completely unacceptable and bastardised forms of customary laws on their subjects. This leads to much hardship and suffering on the part of their “subjects” and seems to be in conflict with principles of democracy and the demand for respect of the inherent human dignity of all.
Maybe it is time for the government to return to the original policies regarding traditional leadership adopted by the ANC when they were still in exile and to do away with the undemocratic and often oppressive system of traditional leadership. I suspect this will not happen, but I also suspect customary law will only be able to take its rightful place as an equal and important body of law alongside the common law – as required by the Constitution – when traditional leadership structures are fundamentally reformed and democratised. The current system is undemocratic and (often) oppressive and has no place in a Constitutional democracy.