Pa­tron­age pol­i­tics threat­ens ru­ral peo­ple

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Main­stream pol­i­tics here hardly no­tices ru­ral peo­ple – so no one seems both­ered that South Africans in the coun­try­side may soon be­come vic­tims of ANC pa­tron­age pol­i­tics.

The threat lies in a clause in the Tra­di­tional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill that Par­lia­ment is con­sid­er­ing. It gives tra­di­tional coun­cils the power to make land deals with­out con­sult­ing peo­ple whose land rights are af­fected.

Most coun­cil mem­bers are ap­pointed by tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties – 40% should be elected, of whom 30% must be women — but even this lim­ited democ­racy is some­times ig­nored.

So, tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties would be able to sell or de­velop land with­out even ask­ing, let alone win­ning the ap­proval of, the peo­ple who live and farm there.

Univer­sity of Cape Town land re­searcher Aninka Claassens points out that the bill would al­low politi­cians “who ben­e­fit from opaque min­ing and tourism deals in for­mer home­land ar­eas” to en­rich them­selves.

But, it may also be an­other at­tempt by ANC pa­tron­age politi­cians to strengthen the pow­ers of tra­di­tional lead­ers in the hope of boost­ing their own mus­cle. It may be as much a prod­uct of fac­tional pol­i­tics as at­tempts to im­pose a com­pli­ant fi­nance min­is­ter or take over paras­tatals.

The pro­posed law would, Claassens points out, le­galise “uni­lat­eral chiefly au­thor­ity”, which is what a sec­tion of the gov­ern­ing party has been try­ing to do for some time.

In an at­tempt to strengthen chiefs’ pow­ers, a Tra­di­tional Courts Bill was pub­lished that would have al­lowed them to set up courts in their ar­eas. Lo­cal peo­ple would have been barred from us­ing other courts and no ap­peals against rul­ings would have been al­lowed. These courts would have vastly strength­ened chiefs’ con­trol over peo­ple. Re­sis­tance – some of it in­side the ANC – blocked the bill.

Giv­ing chiefs con­trol over land would also boost their con­trol over peo­ple. Law and pol­icy have not done nearly enough to pro­tect the rights of peo­ple liv­ing un­der tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties: giv­ing power to tra­di­tional coun­cils largely ap­pointed by tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties is one ex­am­ple.

But pol­icy then was not de­signed to bol­ster chiefly power, it was an at­tempt to bal­ance tra­di­tion with democ­racy. The new push to boost chiefly power is not a mis­guided at­tempt to please both tra­di­tional au­thor­i­ties and ru­ral peo­ple: it is a prod­uct of ANC in­ter­nal pol­i­tics.

Some years ago, the ANC wrested KWAZULU-NATAL from the IFP largely by per­suad­ing tra­di­tional lead­ers to change sides. Strength­en­ing their pow­ers was prob­a­bly aimed at shoring up this al­liance. But, when the ANC lost ground in the cities in the 2014 elec­tion, more pow­ers for ru­ral chiefs be­came a cru­cial strat­egy for pa­tron­age politi­cians who did not want to make the changes needed to win ur­ban voters back; they hoped to avoid this by en­sur­ing that the ANC won such a huge chunk of the ru­ral vote that it did not need a ma­jor­ity in the cities.

Chiefs were key to the strat­egy since it was as­sumed that, as in KWAZULU-NATAL, if chiefs de­cided to back a party, they would en­sure their “sub­jects” did the same.

How­ever, last year’s lo­cal elec­tion re­sults sug­gest the ANC lost sub­stan­tial ground in prov­inces where the strat­egy was tried. One rea­son may be that chiefs don’t have as much in­flu­ence as as­sumed.

An­other may be that the al­liance be­tween chiefs and prov­inces in prac­tice has been, as Claassens sug­gests, far less about con­trol­ling peo­ple than mak­ing money: cases in which chiefs and prov­inces make deals with com­pa­nies at the ex­pense of small farm­ers have reached the courts. This col­lu­sion is why one of the bill’s “safe­guards” – pro­vin­cial over­sight — is no pro­tec­tion at all. But it de­prives peo­ple of land, which is why they vote against the gov­ern­ing party.

So, the strat­egy loses the ANC more ru­ral votes than it wins. But this does not mean it won’t be tried, par­tic­u­larly since some peo­ple will make money out of it. The vic­tims would be ru­ral peo­ple who would lose land rights and con­sti­tu­tional rights be­cause the law would give tra­di­tional lead­ers power over them.

The courts may over­turn the law, but get­ting cases to court takes time and money.

Given the dam­age that might be caused be­fore courts step in, and the like­li­hood that the push to place ru­ral peo­ple beyond democ­racy’s reach is a prod­uct of ANC fac­tional pol­i­tics, we should ex­pect the bill to at­tract the same op­po­si­tion as other symp­toms of the ANC’s in­ter­nal battle. That crit­i­cism has been largely re­stricted to aca­demics and ru­ral ac­tivists is a sign of how main­stream pol­i­tics is un­able to see beyond the cities.

Op­po­si­tion to pa­tron­age pol­i­tics would be more cred­i­ble if it took the rights of ru­ral peo­ple as se­ri­ously as those of city res­i­dents.


Fried­man is a re­search pro­fes­sor in the Univer­sity of Johannesburg’s hu­man­i­ties fac­ulty.


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