Business Day

Patronage politics threatens rural people


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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