By Ayanda Tshazi
A common attitude amongst many modern and educated blacks in South Africa towards traditional leadership is disdain. Beyond “backward”, traditional leadership is considered an illegitimate form of rule compared to democratically elected public representatives.
The same clever blacks however have quite the opposite attitude to the English Monarchy. I wouldn’t have known this were it not for the marriage of Prince Harry to a black American woman, Meghan Markle. The reverence and excitement from educated blacks for this black woman and her mother’s seeming acceptance into the royal family seemed to fulfill some sort of validation and legitimation for many blacks who watched and tweeted glowingly of the royal wedding. The wedding should not have mattered for blacks if all the British royal family represented is a ceremonial relic of a bygone era. No. In the minds of many blacks who despise and dismiss local traditional leaders, the British royal family seems to hold in their minds a legitimate position of significance.
I personally was dismissive of the whole affair, because in my mind, the British royal family was really just a set of colonial thieves whose importance was linked to a frivolous romanticism of the past by British citizens. This was my attitude until my attention was drawn to the material power that the queen has over the British parliament, through her appointment of the members of the House of Lords.
The House of Lords represents a majority in the British parliament and Lords are appointed by the queen along hereditary lines. Lords would be the equivalent of chiefs in our context and in Britain, they sit in parliament as a majority! And until recent years, they served as the Supreme Court of appeals. If that is not real power, then I don’t know what is.
The idea of monarchs being ceremonial leaders with no real power or influence is a fallacy in developed nations. The United Arab Emirates is another case in point. The positions of president and prime minister are always occupied by inheritance. In their parliament, only a portion of the representatives are voted in, the rest are appointed according to inheritance/hereditary lines.
Many people are aware of this – it’s no secret. The question then becomes, how black South Africans have never interrogated the relevance and wisdom of our indigenous leadership systems in comparison to the democratic process of voter representation? Why have we been so complete in our rejection of traditional leadership systems, and quick to embrace the new Western system that the West itself hasn’t completely embraced? The British nation is clearly preserving its monarchy and continues to hold it in high prestige. It’s governing system still very much defers to the queen.
I am worried that in our haste to appease the world and take on a democratic system we have neglected some fundamental wisdom found in our indigenous systems.
For one, traditional leaders are custodians of our customs, laws and traditions – all things that give meaning to our identity as Africans. What does it mean to shut them out of the governing system?
If there is a misalignment between our identity and the laws that govern us, it will be easy for us to fall foul of the law. Being criminalized will almost be by default because the laws governing us are not in any alignment with our identity.
It seems to me that if we are to truly decolonize systems of governance and the judiciary, we may have to revise our attitude towards the chiefs and other traditional leaders.