The law, like the suburban American house, is designed to order a particular pattern of relationships, many of them oriented around the heterosexual nuclear family. For real people in contemporary circumstances to inhabit the house the law built, one has to find side doors and discreet corners, while the dominant space changes little and the façade remains unaltered. The two big L.G.B.T.-rights Supreme Court victories that came before Bostock—Windsor and Obergefell—did exactly that: they carved out a place for monogamous same-sex couples who want to marry (statistically, these are more apt to be white middle-class people like the plaintiffs) in the house of the American nuclear family.
Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini earlier this week reportedly criticised people who engaged in same-sex relationships, labelling them “rotten”. “Traditionally, there were no people who engaged in same sex-relationships. There was nothing like that and if you do it, you must know that you are rotten. I don’t care how you feel about it. If you do it, you must know that it is wrong and you are rotten. Same sex is not acceptable,” he reportedly said.
(The Zulu Royal Household has since criticised what it called a “reckless translation” of Zwelithini’s speech – a “reckless translation” perhaps being one that exposes the “King” as being a bit slow and thus not very familiar with the history of his “subjects”. “At no stage did His Majesty condemn gay relations or same sex relations,” Prince Mbonisi Zulu said.)
I will leave aside for the moment the fact that anyone who is familiar with the academic literature would know that while the notion of “perverted homosexuality” as an identity was probably imported into Southern Africa by European missionaries, no credible historian will now deny the existence of certain kinds of same-sex intimate conduct over the past two centuries in Southern Africa – no matter how shocked the (white) missionaries might have been by this.
Besides, one cannot expect the “King” to read academic journals and popular articles on homosexuality merely because he wishes to express himself on this topic. He must be a busy man, what with having to spend the R883 161 salary he receives annually from the national government, and with having to ensure that the Zulu Royal Household budget of just more than R55-million for the 20011/12 year is spent wisely. (Apparently R34,2m is to be used over the next three years to renovate his palaces who must be in a desperate state of disrepair and this must also keep him busy.)
I would rather focus on a more interesting constitutional question, namely why on earth do we have officially recognised Kings and Queens and Chiefs in South Africa and why are we paying through our noses for their upkeep? After all, traditional leaders (including the Zulu King) are not democratically elected (they inherit their titles) and their exercise of power over between 15 to 20 million South Africans may appear utterly undemocratic. Secondly, traditional leaders are mostly men, which go against the principles of non-sexism that is entrenched in the founding values of our Constitution.
It must therefore come as a surprise that section 211(1) of the Constitution explicitly recognises the “institution, status and role of traditional leadership, according to customary law” – although this recognition is made subject to the other provisions in the Constitution.
Given the fact that most traditional leaders were co-opted by the apartheid state to help the state to control the rural population of South Africa and to administer apartheid policies, one might well have thought that ANC politicians and the supposedly “forward looking” business lobby represented at the time by the so called “reformed” National Party might have wanted to get rid of this undemocratic system of inherited and elitist leadership when they negotiated the 1996 Constitution.
Recall that during apartheid, labour bureaux regulated the supply of labour to the mines, commercial agriculture and industry. In rural villages the administration of the pass book and the running of the labour bureaux, where permits had to be annually renewed, were the responsibility of the chiefs, who charged a fee for this “privilege”.
The 1951 Bantu Authorities Act formed the lynchpin of this system of indirect control of the rural poor by the apartheid government via the system of traditional leaders. Power rested with a hierarchy of (mostly) compliant chiefs, who were made utterly dependent on the patronage of the Department of Native Affairs. Chiefs were no longer accountable to their subjects, but to the Department of Native Affairs. Their powers were increased while their legitimacy was being eroded.
However, this system of co-opted traditional leadership was put under severe strain with the abolition of the pass laws in 1986 as this meant that migrant labourers no longer had to present themselves at the Chiefs office in their home village. Chiefs lost their income from registration fees and, to some extent, their control over the movements of their “subjects”. Because “disobedient” villagers could no longer be punished by withholding labour permits and travel documents and as chiefs no longer had the opportunity to collect arrears from their migrant “subjects”, chiefs often reacted by imposing new taxes to make up for the lost revenue.
One way of increasing their income (and retaining some form of control over “subjects”) was for traditional leaders to seize control over communal land and strictly regulating the use of resources (like water, grazing and fire wood) on that land, thus forcing rural poor people to pay for the “privilege” of using these communal resources. Thus the system of communal living was completely subverted in favour of traditional leaders with none of the checks and balances on the power of chiefs which existed in pre-colonial times. Another way of retaining control over “subjects” was through the role played by traditional leaders in interpreting and enforcing customary law rules in traditional courts.
No wonder the ANC, who in exile seemed rather hostile towards the system of co-opted traditional leadership (including towards King Goodwill Zwelithini who at the time was in the pocket of a Bantustan leader called Magosuthu Buthelezi), changed its mind once back in South Africa. In order to defuse the violence between supporters of Buthelezi’s IFP and ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal and to gain support from voters living in traditional areas under the undemocratic yoke of traditional leaders, the ANC started wooing traditional leaders.
In this process, the masterstroke of the ANC was for the national government to take over control over the purse strings. Thus Parliament adopted the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers Act in 1998 which prevented Provinces (like the then IFP controlled KwaZulu-Natal) from paying traditional leaders over and above the payment made by the national government in terms of this Act. (This move – along with the buying off of King Goodwill himself – broke the stranglehold of the IFP over traditional leaders in KwaZulu-Natal and allowed for the current resurgence of the ANC in that province in the light of President Jacob Zuma’s election as President of the ANC.)
Meanwhile the Black Administration Act was finally abolished in 2005 and left a power vacuum as it robbed traditional leaders of some of their authority. This may be why the adoption of a Traditional Courts Bill (tabled for the first time in 2008) is reportedly on the legislative agenda for 2012. The draft Bill authorises a traditional court (led not by a judge or magistrate but by a traditional leader authorised to do so by the Minister) to hear and determine civil disputes arising out of customary law and custom brought before the court where the act or omission which gave rise to the civil dispute occurred within the area of jurisdiction of the traditional court in question.
Thus, instead of speeding up the integration of customary law into mainstream law (as one of the three pillars of our legal system), this Bill will have the effect of ensuring the continued marginalisation of customary law, practiced mostly in traditional courts and seldom in High Courts, where judgements are reported and infiltrate the legal consciousness.
Although the draft Bill requires the traditional courts to respect the provisions of the Bill of Rights, it is unclear whether such safeguards will be respected and to what extent “subjects”, especially women who may depend on the goodwill of the chief to gain access to water, grazing for cattle and housing, (or other unpopular individuals like gay men and lesbians) will be prepared to challenge a decision made in such a traditional court elsewhere.
There are going to be serious constitutional problems with this Bill despite the fact that section 211(2) of the Constitution allows a traditional authority to observe a system of customary law, subject to any applicable legislation and customs. This is because section 34 of the Constitution states that everyone has the right to have any dispute that can be resolved by the application of law decided in a fair public hearing before a court or, where appropriate, another independent and impartial tribunal or forum. This must be read with section 165(2) which states that the courts are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law, which they must apply impartially and without fear, favour or prejudice.
Given that the Constitution subordinates traditional leadership functions and structures as well as customary law provisions and their application to other provisions in the Constitution – including the provisions of the Bill of Rights – I would guess that courts staffed by unelected hereditary chiefs will be found to be unconstitutional as they will not be independent and nor will they be likely to administer justice in an impartial manner – especially not to someone who happens to be a women or, god forbid, gay or lesbian.
They would lack independence because they would not enjoy the basic institutional guarantees required for a tribunal or court to be considered as independent. For starters, chiefs are paid by the government of the day and can also be removed as chiefs and they therefore do not have security of tenure. They would also potentially lack impartiality, as those chiefs who happen to be unwise, or are patriarchs or have been corrupted by money interests, might reasonably be perceived as being biased in one way or another.
Which brings us back to King Goodwill and his reported remarks about same-sex relationships: when we talk about transformation and the need to eradicate the vestiges of apartheid thinking, has the time not come for citizens to stop bankrolling the lavish lifestyles of Kings like Zwelithini (with his backward views) and the lifestyles of other unelected traditional leaders? Given the fact that traditional leadership has been totally transformed by the engagement with colonialism and was co-opted by the apartheid government and thus implicated in taking part in the enforcement of sometimes authoritarian controls over rural citizens, should people like King Goodwill not perhaps stop milking the taxpayer and start paying his own way like everyone else?BACK TO TOP