Lo­cally, power does grow from the bar­rel of a gun

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

LAST week I en­coun­tered first-hand how tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties as­sert power over ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and re­alised why so much is at stake at the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions, to the ex­tent that peo­ple are pre­pared to kill to safe­guard po­si­tions, as has al­ready hap­pened in some ar­eas.

I was in Em­pan­geni in north­ern KwaZulu-Na­tal, in­ter­view­ing and pho­tograph­ing a psy­chol­o­gist who had ben­e­fited from a bur­sary scheme sponsored by an over­seas foun­da­tion. With help from this foun­da­tion, he qual­i­fied and went back to ru­ral KZN where he ini­ti­ated a project to pro­vide psy­cho­log­i­cal ser­vices to more than 550 000 peo­ple.

The pho­tog­ra­pher asked whether we could take a pic­ture of him in a ru­ral set­ting, so we drove out to a small vil­lage, about 10km out­side town. We took some pic­tures at the vil­lage en­trance and drove fur­ther in­side to take some more pho­tos, with the back­drop of the rolling KZN hills.

Af­ter park­ing our cars next to a gravel road, we were pre­par­ing for the photo shoot when two big 4X4 ve­hi­cles pulled up and out jumped three guys armed with what looked like sub­ma­chine guns and Uzis. I’m not an ex­pert at guns but the men looked omi­nous. And ner­vous, which made them more omi­nous.

A big man (in a phys­i­cal sense) in one of the ve­hi­cles asked us what we were do­ing there and when we ex­plained, they asked why we had not asked per­mis­sion from the “tribal au­thor­ity” be­fore we be­gan tak­ing pic­tures. We as­sumed he was the in­duna of the area be­cause he said he needed to know what to tell peo­ple if they asked him why peo­ple were al­lowed to take pic­tures in their vil­lages.

Af­ter much ne­go­ti­a­tion, un­der the beady eye of the armed men, they agreed that we could con­tinue with our photo shoot.

Later we saw sev­eral blue-light brigade ve­hi­cles driv­ing into the town and the pho­tog­ra­pher re­mem­bered he had heard that one of the po­lit­i­cal par­ties was an­nounc­ing may­oral can­di­dates or can­di­date lists for the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions on that day.

This might ex­plain the twitch­i­ness of the in­duna and his men. They may have been ner­vous we were jour­nal­ists want­ing to write a neg­a­tive story about their vil­lage. But even that would not have given them per­mis­sion to stop us from tak­ing pho­tos and to dis­play their guns in a threat­en­ing man­ner.

The ex­pe­ri­ence left us shaken, even the psy­chol­o­gist and pho­tog­ra­pher who’d both grown up in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and ex­pe­ri­enced the power of tra­di­tional lead­ers.

It was my first such ex­pe­ri­ence and I re­alised why tra­di­tional lead­ers ini­tially op­posed suc­cumb­ing to elected mu­nic­i­pal lead­er­ship. It would ap­pear that in some of th­ese smaller com­mu­ni­ties, tra­di­tional lead­ers are con­sid­ered close to gods. No one ques­tions them and no one does any­thing with­out them know­ing.

For some­one who has always lived in a big city this is dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand. But I un­der­stand power is im­por­tant to most peo­ple and the tra­di­tional lead­er­ship struc­tures en­sured peo­ple sub­jected them­selves to power. This might also ex­plain why the ANC lead­er­ship quickly caved in to the de­mands of tra­di­tional lead­ers and be­gan pay­ing them af­ter 1994.

In the 1980s, most of us in­volved in the Strug­gle never ex­pected pay­ment or po­si­tions, but times have changed. With power comes jobs and re­mu­ner­a­tion. And coun­cil­lors and tra­di­tional lead­ers earn a rea­son­able amount of money, es­pe­cially if one had noth­ing be­fore.

Things have also changed and most peo­ple no longer get in­volved in pol­i­tics be­cause they want to make a dif­fer­ence to so­ci­ety. It ap­pears most peo­ple get in­volved be­cause they see some po­ten­tial ben­e­fit for them­selves.There are many com­mu­ni­ties, not only in ru­ral ar­eas, where one can­not do any­thing with­out the per­mis­sion of lead­ers, some of whom are self-ap­pointed. Nat­u­rally, th­ese “lead­ers” always stand to ben­e­fit from what­ever hap­pens in “their” com­mu­ni­ties.

The con­cept of a “cap­tured state” prob­a­bly ex­tends to “cap­tured com­rades” in a much broader sense. Peo­ple in pub­lic ser­vice of­ten put their in­ter­ests ahead of the in­ter­ests of the peo­ple they are sup­posed to serve. This is prob­a­bly why most peo­ple in gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ment don’t speak out about the prob­lems in so­ci­ety. It is ,there­fore, up to civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions and or­di­nary mem­bers of po­lit­i­cal par­ties to in­stil val­ues of self­less ser­vice into party and gov­ern­ment struc­tures. This, of course, is eas­ier said than done. As a re­sult we will prob­a­bly have to live with gate­keep­ers and self­ish po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship for a long time.

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