Tribal chiefs see tradition at risk; South Africa: Government efforts to overcome the inequities of apartheid are threatening ancient customs and authority.


NGQAMZANE, South Africa -- When this village's white-shirted Shooting Stars went up against the blue-clad Junior Aces from neighboring Ncekwane in the local soccer championship the other day, the players and their fans wanted a strong referee.

And no one is stronger in these parts of KwaZulu-Natal than Mpiyezimtombi Mzimela, 47, the local Zulu chief, or inkosi, before whom members of his tribe often lower their heads and bend their knees in deference.

"The people came to me and said, 'Because this is a heavy game, we feel you are the person who should officiate in it,' " says Mzimela, who had to break up a fight between the two teams before the Shooting Stars won, 3-1. "This is part of my job -- promoting understanding and unity among my people."

Apart from soccer, Mzimela's job gives him the power to levy funds for community-development projects, decide land usage, dish out punishment for petty crimes and represent his people's interests in the corridors of power.

For eight generations, his family has wielded this sort of power over the 60,000 members of the eponymous Mzimela tribe of Zulus. Now that wide-ranging authority is being threatened.

The government has decided to reduce the number of local municipalities from 843 to 300, to create more powerful jurisdictions, improve local government funding and efficiency, and make delivery of services to rich whites and poor blacks more equitable.

Only 150 largely white urban areas employ full-time engineers, finance officers, planners and administrators, said Michael Sutcliffe, chairman of the Municipal Demarcation Board that is working out the changes. The majority of rural, black areas do not have such experts.

"You have a very racially based system," says Sutcliffe. "It makes no sense to have a little white municipality of 28 voters -- and we have one -- who are all millionaires owning large holdings and compare that with another area of 300,000 voters that has no institutional capacity whatsoever.

"How do we rationalize this system and ensure there is a sharing of capacity and that there are resources available to all?"

The proposal is timed to have the new municipalities in place for November's local elections.

Mzimela and many of the country's other traditional leaders vehemently oppose the reorganization. They see their ancient powers being transferred to local politicians and officials.

They complain that the levy they can raise for community development will be usurped by real estate taxes collected by the newly established councils. Their land-use authority will pass to council planners. And traditional leaders will be given 10 percent of the seats on that council, reducing them to a powerless minority.

Mzimela points to another proposed invasion of his power: The traditional court of which he is chairman will soon be replaced by a community court, established under guidelines from the Department of Justice.

Overall, he says, the challenge by the country's black, democratic government to traditional leadership is more serious than that from the whites during the years of apartheid.

"If we compare the former [apartheid] government to the present one, I can tell you the amakhosi [traditional leaders] have not been liberated," he says.

"The government was democratically elected, but now the decisions it is taking are not democratic. Most things are just imposed, like this one," says Mzimela, who is deputy chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal House of Traditional Leaders.

"We fought the previous [apartheid] regime on the issue of land, and the issue of functions and powers," he says. "But this is going to be the first time that people here in South Africa will have to be without their traditional leaders. It will be for the first time people will be forced to part with their history, their culture, their traditions."

The clash reflects the almost inevitable tension between the traditions of hereditary power and the government's determination to introduce "wall-to-wall democracy."

"The two are not incompatible," says Sutcliffe. "It's government policy that there has to be cooperation. It will take two to tango."

The conflict is particularly intense in KwaZulu-Natal, which is under the provincial control of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party. The party has much stronger ties to the traditional institutions, headed here by the monarchy of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, than the African National Congress, which governs nationally and is directing the changes.

"People are going to resist," says Mzimela. "If this new system is imposed, we foresee trouble. The people will not tolerate the washing away of the amakhosi because the amakhosi are quite responsible for their people."

Mzimela works through a tribal council with 26 ngunas, or village headmen, and the elders of the community.

"I am a born leader," he insists. He was selected as chief in 1991 by his father, who had more than 50 sons and 60 daughters by his 29 wives. Mzimela, a teacher, was not the first-born of the sons, and his mother was his father's ninth wife, so his selection as chief came as a surprise.

"My father said he believed I was a responsible person, so I could look well after these people," he says.

When he was installed in 1991, there were only 12 schools in the district; now there are 24.

"Not a single one was built by the government," he says. "Just monies collected among ourselves. If those monies were not controlled by our own tribal authority there would not be so many schools. What little development you can see is a result of the traditional leaders and their people."

The traditional leaders met recently with President Thabo Mbeki. He asked them to draft a solution instead of presenting a problem.

The government's plan will create two types of municipalities -- mega-cities for the major population centers such as Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban; district councils for the rest of the country.

In Mzimela's area, a new mayor of the nearby town of Empangeni will be elected to replace the chairman of the regional council, which does not collect real estate taxes.

"The mayors will rule even over the amakhosi," Mzimela complains. "Their powers and duties, their responsibilities and functions are what we have been doing so far."

The traditional leaders want a third type of municipality to be created, controlled by the chiefs.

The 1996 constitution, thrashed out in negotiations between blacks and whites during the post-apartheid transition to majority rule, recognizes the role of the traditional leaders, but subjugates them to national legislation and gives no guarantees of their powers.

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