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Why does the EFF support the power given to tribal chie...

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Why does the EFF support the power given to tribal chiefs and kings?


Ashley Nyiko Mabasa holds a Master’s Degree in Labour and Economic Sociology focusing on South Africa’s Energy Policy from Wits University and is currently completing a Master’s in Management specialising in Governance and Public Policy with Wits School of Governance.

Despite the Economic Freedom Fighters’ 2019 election manifesto declaring a commitment to the Freedom Charter, it also supports the semi-feudal rights conferred on rural chiefs and kings. This is in direct contradiction to its avowed commitment to full political freedom.

The Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) election manifesto is founded on the exaggeration of political freedom in South Africa and inconsistencies with the political programme it has adopted – the Freedom Charter.

Clearly, the EFF’s relationship with the Freedom Charter is an opportunistic one. The EFF proclaims itself to be a dynamic and revolutionary movement, but as the elections approach, it converts to being a conservative, traditionalist organisation. The EFF is parading as the paragon of South African intellectualism while misleading our society on the question of political freedom.

The surge of the European revolution and the rise of the modern state was a culmination of revolutionary action against the tyranny of traditional authority in the form of the European monarchs. The demise of the institutions of traditional leadership was the blueprint for the birth of democratic systems in Europe.

Ironically, European colonialism resulted in colonial authorities entrenching despotic traditional systems of governance in African states – many of which were allowed to exist in their undemocratic forms by post-colonial African governments. It is therefore troubling when the EFF proposes to recognise and centralise traditional authorities as they currently exist – and giving traditional authorities increased administrative powers.

Modern European democracy did not come as a gift: It was an internal battle of the working class against the tyranny-authority of traditional leadership in the form of the European monarchies.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci identified churches and traditional authorities in Italy as collaborators with the fascist president, Benito Mussolini, and as parasites who were counter-revolutionary and resisted the establishment of a democratic system. When Mussolini was killed to establish the democratic system, traditional authorities were also displaced.

In South Africa, however, the democratic dispensation and constitutionalism did not come with the removal or decolonisation of traditional authorities. Notwithstanding the European modernity notion of democracy, the hegemony of traditional leaders in South Africa is contradictory to the current democratic system and the consultative forms of democracy which existed before colonialism. It simply means that traditional leadership in its current form cannot be reconciled with the democratic system.

It is true that what the EFF calls “western notions of democracy” must be aligned with African values, norms and traditions. However, it is dangerous to make traditional authorities – whose administrative powers and centralised, non-consultative style of ruling is a product of colonialism – the sole custodians and enforcers of African tradition.

For as long as despotic traditional authorities installed by colonial authorities exist, complete political freedom in South Africa cannot be attained. About 38% of South Africans reside in rural areas governed by both elected municipalities and traditional authorities.

Despite the fact that the Traditional Leadership and Framework Act of 2003 gives women recognition insofar as traditional leadership is concerned, women are still oppressed under that traditional leadership. In this regard, the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB), administers three million hectares, accounting for 30% of the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The ITB generates revenue from tenants and women are likely to be denied leases with an emphasis that men must be the heads of households.

In addition, crises under traditional authority such as gender-based discrimination do not exist because of inadequate legislation, but because of the absolute power wielded by traditional authorities – a power which is despotic and undemocratic. It is troubling that there is no separation of powers in the traditional authorities, as the king or chief is simultaneously the judiciary, executive and legislature. In contrast, direct rule is governed by the bureaucratic government with distinct separations of power between the judiciary, executive and legislature.

Professor Mahmood Mamdani in Citizen and Subject shows that under the colonial and apartheid states, South Africa was divided into two forms of governance – direct and indirect rule. Indirect rule was presided over by traditional authorities and those under it were subjects to be ruled rather than citizens to be governed. The purpose of traditional authorities was to enforce tribal, urban and rural divisions. The colonial and apartheid governments decentralised their powers, using traditional leaders as instruments of control over black people.

Colonial governments collaborated with traditional authorities as they recognised the strength of indigenous rulers in socially organising black people. Therefore, during anti-apartheid resistance in the late 1980s and early 1990s in rural areas, traditional authorities were discredited in the eyes of many and often targeted.  

The EFF’s manifesto, in the foreword by “Commander-In-Chief” (CIC) Julius Malema, claims that it represents 25 years of a democratic breakthrough. CIC Malema further asserted that political freedom in South Africa has not rendered economic emancipation. Therefore, the EFF is embarking on a fight for economic freedom. The question remains, what does political freedom mean for the EFF?

Clearly, the EFF is exaggerating the meaning of political freedom in the context of the political programme it has adopted – the Freedom Charter.

On 24 June 2014, the EFF claimed that it is the only organisation that genuinely upholds the objectives of the Freedom Charter. Thus the EFF in the foreword by the CIC poses a contradictory, flawed logic to contend that South Africans have fully attained political freedoms. This despite the fact that the Freedom Charter states that “The People Shall Govern” through democratic means of voting and standing for all bodies which make laws.

The Freedom Charter does not state that the people shall govern through traditional authorities – kings, chiefs and indunas. It is important to acknowledge that political freedom has not yet been fully attained in South Africa. About 38% of South Africans reside in rural areas which means they are governed by both elected municipalities and semi-autonomous traditional authorities.

The fact that traditional leadership continues to rule rural people shows that the struggle for attaining political freedom is not complete. So, the EFF’s conceptualisation of attainment of political freedom is faulty and misleading, because “semi-autonomous tribal authorities” were created to control black people in the countryside, and 25 years into democracy, we continue to be ruled by unelected institutional bodies of traditional authorities. The EFF manifesto continues to support those unelected structures.

After the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857 by Indian nationalists, because they believed that by conscripting them, the British colonial government internalised colonisation and that they were religiously and culturally marginalised, the British had to rethink their colonial methods.

In addition, the British colonial method was expensive for the British government to maintain. Lord Frederick John Lugard was entrusted with reinventing ways of colonising African countries and lower caste Asians to counter resistance. Lord Lugard introduced the “divide-and-rule” mechanism, and the British government identified traditional leaders to facilitate colonisation. The traditional leaders operated as an advisory and consultative structure for the coloniser. In other words, the traditional leaders became leaders of native societies under the 1891 National Native Code, which give chiefs or kings power over their subjects.

Today, the British 1891 National Native Code continues to exist in disguise in South Africa. The legacy of colonial and Apartheid rule that gives recognition to traditional leaders continues to exist – inter alia the establishment of Bantustans through the Black Authority Act No 68 of 1951, which enhanced the powers of traditional authorities in rural areas. The EFF’s manifesto position on traditional leaders contradicts its claimed commitment to the Freedom Charter’s “The People Shall Govern”, and at the same time also misunderstands the question of traditional leaders. It contends that “EFF firmly believes that the received western notions of democracy must necessarily be aligned with and adapted to the African way of life, culture, traditions, customs and norms.”

The EFF’s manifesto here appears to insinuate that it supports traditional authorities mainly because it wants to reconcile the “African way of life, customs and norms” – meaning traditional leaders. The EFF misses the point. Today’s organised traditional authorities are the culmination of colonisation and of Apartheid history. Historically, traditional leaders in Africa were not attached to the ownership of the land, unlike in Europe, because land was abundant and did not broadcast their power to their subjects.

It is a fallacy for the EFF to say that we have to attain political freedom in the context of South Africa. By giving institutions of traditional leaders full recognition as it claims, is to continue to confer the existence of indirect rule and the supporting of the colonial and apartheid notion of the rights of chiefs and indunas to rule their subjects. The EFF’s affirming of traditional leaders is affirming that 17 million subjects must be ruled by 800 unelected and uncontested traditional leaders.

It was no accident that on 24-25 May 1986, the National Working Committee of the United Democratic Front (UDF) resolved that the institutions of traditional authorities must be dismantled and replaced with democratic organisations. The UDF, in its slogan “Chiefs must go and the people must run the villages”, understood that political freedom would also mean the dismantling of institutions of traditional leaders – which serve to accentuate the forces of ethnicity, and institutions which were used by the colonial and Apartheid government as the institutional organs in the divide-and-rule strategy of ethnic homelands.

The EFF’s manifesto and its CIC Julius Malema exaggerate political freedom. The existence of quasi-feudal traditional authorities under the contemporary democratic dispensation means that political freedom is not complete. This is because traditional authorities still exist under the definition which was given them by the colonial and Apartheid states to control the oppressed in the countryside, structured around perverse customary laws under despotic power centralised in one person – the chief or king.

The EFF’s consistent contradicting of the Freedom Charter in its manifesto is a clear sign of political expedience because if it was serious about advancing the struggle of the Freedom Charter, it would call for the abolition of traditional leaders. The Freedom Charter proposed a model of political rule which includes direct and representative democracy – which does not include rule through quasi-feudal political relations in the rural areas.

If the EFF’s manifesto was committed to the Freedom Charter, it should be calling for the abolition of the institution of traditional leaders and give a deep-seated commitment to deepening democracy.

The EFF’s manifesto exaggerates the notion of political freedom because around 17 million South Africans are still dominated by chiefs and kings. DM


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