Is Ramaphosa recognising Khoisan communities, or robbing the rural poor?

President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

While a new law sees the president formally recognising Khoi and San communities, its critics say it also opens up vulnerable communities to exploitation by mining companies.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has signed the Traditional and Khoisan Leadership Act into law.

According to the presidency, the Act “constitutes the nation’s unprecedented statutory recognition of the Khoisan communities, leaders and structures”.

But while a presidential statement on the Act hails it as aiding the “protection and promotion of the institutions of traditional and Khoisan leadership”, the controversial new law’s critics say it also increases the ability of government, traditional leaders and mining companies to expand at the expense of some of South Africa’s poorest communities.

It seems that the problems civil society have with the law have very little to do with its recognition of Khoisan leadership, with this aspect of it in fact widely supported by members of civil society, the Land and Accountability Research Centre’s Aninka Claasen told TimesLive.

Rather, it’s the fact that the Act applies not just to the various first nations communities which make up the Khoisan, but to all traditional leaders. And some, such as Claasen and national coordinator of the Alliance for Rural Democracy (ARD) Constance Mogale, believe it will allow these leaders and councils to sign deals with mining companies without the consent of the communities these deals will affect.

Chief !Garu Zenzile Khoisan of the Gorinhaiqua Cultural Council told The Citizen that while he felt the Act was a tentative first step towards the “recognition, restitution and restoration of the Khoi and San”, he was against the parts of it that could be abused by traditional leaders.

“The Act must never give currency to mercenary-ism,” he said.

“I don’t subscribe to certain aspects” of the Act, he added.

“We are custodians of the land, we cannot allow traditional leaders to usurp and have the powers to do what they want.”

As an example, he mentioned the Ingonyama Trust, finding fault with the fact that it had a single trustee – amaZulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.

He said the recognition that “Nguni kings and queens” receive from government was disproportionate to that of SA’s first nations people.

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“The foundation people who were the first to fight the colonial laws have no recognition compared to the Nguni,” he said.

He said he would not want the Act to further the way some “traditional leaders have ignored the broader voice of the people”.

“One of the big problems of this Act is it promotes an inequality, an anachronistic hierarchy whereby things can be done without any kind of transparency or cheques and balances.

“We don’t subscribe to that. There are a lot of things in this Act that are completely wrong.

He did, however, offer tentative praise to the parts of the Act which did indeed grant his and other first nations people formal recognition, although he said the Act was just a “starting point”.

“It gives us the kind of legal traction that is required” to address what he and others see as the marginalisation of Khoi and San people, which he said included “linguistic suppression, cultural suppression, and almost complete genocide and dispersal”.

“We experienced the apex of a cultural genocide programme, when you take people called by their own name and make them others. They made us coloureds,” he said.

He said while this had its roots in apartheid and colonialism, the current government must also take some responsibility

“The current government and all its predecessors are not absolved, because we hoped that with the advent of the democratic order, these original sins would be addressed, but they weren’t,” he said.

Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko referred The Citizen to the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs when questioned on the more controversial aspects of the Bill.

The department’s spokesperson had not responded to request for comment at the time of publication.

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