Limpopo chiefs’ shameful neglect

While traditional leaders toyi-toyi for bigger salaries, most rural communities live in abject squalor.

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You know that you’re in South Africa when you pick up a newspaper and read the following headline: “Traditional leaders to march for better salaries.” As I’m writing this, plans are under way by the Limpopo traditional leaders and the African People’s Convention (APC) to toyi-toyi to Premier Cassel Mathale’s office over what they called “shameful” income.

Shameful, pah!

APC leader Themba Godi was quoted in news reports as saying: “We are leading the march tomorrow to say enough is enough – traditional leaders live in poverty and their families are destitute.” The march is planned despite the fact that a massive R80 million has been made available to the chiefs and headmen to increase their salaries. Headmen who were earning R13 000 per annum are now earning over five times more – R71 000 per annum – while the chiefs have been given a 13,25% hike to increase their salary from R150 000 to R170 000 per annum.

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Well, if the chiefs live in poverty, what are the living conditions of the ordinary folk in the villages under those chiefs? In most villages in Limpopo, unemployment and poverty are still rife. This is despite these leaders being custodians of thousands of hectares of land that could potentially improve the lot of the people.

An angry community
While chiefs in Limpopo demanded better salaries, 32 villages under the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela Tribal Authority marched to Moruleng, accusing their leader, Chief Nyalala John Pilane, of enriching himself through deals with mining companies while doing little or nothing for them. These companies operate on Bakgatla land, which, according to the villagers, was fought for by their forefathers. One of the mines, Swartklip, opened in 1948 but community members maintain they have never benefited from it.

I’ve always maintained that if any chief plays an active role in uplifting the community and works to improve the lives of his people, he deserves to be rewarded. But I’ve come across few who do. A more fundamental problem with chiefs is that when they fail to deliver to their people they cannot even be held accountable, as they are not democratically elected in the first place.

Prof Christina Murray, head of Constitutional and Human Rights Law at the University of Cape Town, once remarked that the fact that traditional leadership has survived at all in the democratic era is quite remarkable. Murray, who in 2009 and 2010 served on a committee of experts to help draft a new Constitution for Kenya, said that in many parts of Africa, traditional leaders had been co-opted by the colonial powers to help them govern rural areas.

From the early 1950s, South Africa’s apartheid government developed legislative and administrative structures in the Bantustans which used traditional leadership to enforce apartheid and act as local government rulers in rural areas. After the government changed in 1994, the chiefs turned to the ANC. At this stage, it is not clear what their role is.