Defend Truth


Murder of 12-year-old Emihle Tukani galvanises rural community into action while spectre of apartheid lingers


Cori Wielenga is acting director of the Centre for Mediation in Africa and an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria. Her research interest is in the intersection of formal and informal governance systems on the African continent, and in non-traditional actors in periods of transition.

In areas where traditional leaders historically played a critical role in holding the social fabric of a community together, rural communities are now floundering without direction. But there are notable exceptions.

While the floods raging in KwaZulu-Natal dominated the media space, a small story about the rape and murder of 12-year-old Emihle Tukani in a village close to Mthatha in the Eastern Cape went almost unnoticed. That it received any attention at all is perhaps noteworthy, since incidents of gender-based violence in the Eastern Cape, including against young girls and boys, is tragically high.

I happened to be at Emihle’s memorial service and was surprised by what was highlighted about the event in media reports compared with my experience. Largely, there seemed to be a focus on the gruesome details of the crime, followed by an emphasis on the problem of drugs in the villages. What the reports were missing was the context in which this crime occurred and the resilience and resources that were mobilised within the community at very short notice.

Emihle’s home village of Mputhi, which is in the Bhaziya Traditional Council in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality, is about 45 minutes from Mthatha. The landscape is achingly beautiful, with colourful huts scattered over rolling hills, against the backdrop of the blue Bhaziya mountains. Mist rises from the mountains in the early mornings, giving the villages a deeply peaceful atmosphere.

My team and I spent several weeks in those villages, moving from household to household in an attempt to better understand the relationship people have with their traditional leader in relation to a range of issues.

While we were there, Emihle’s tragic death occurred. We first heard of it from Nkosi Minenkulu Joyi, the senior traditional leader of the Bhaziya Traditional Council. It was not the only story of unimaginable violence that we heard in the weeks that we were in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality, but it is the only one in which such fast action was taken.

Nkosi Joyi interrupted his university studies at the age of 25 when his father died, and he was compelled to take on the position of traditional leadership of the traditional council. In the 10 years that he has been a traditional leader, he has worked hard against almost impossible odds to bring resources and development into his community.

Neighbouring Bhaziya is the Jumba Traditional Council, and here Nkosi Nokhaka Jumba, one of a slowly increasing number of women to take on the mantle of leadership, is similarly working to change the circumstances for the people she serves while also transforming the institution from within to become more gender sensitive.

The former homeland of Transkei remains one of the most underdeveloped areas in our country. The unemployment rate is about 70% and there is a high level of dependency on social grants. Small-scale agricultural activities are affected by weather conditions, including several years of drought followed by the unusually heavy rainfall this past summer.

Drug and substance abuse is very high. As we slipped and slid over the muddy gravel roads, we would encounter young men who were evidently inebriated at any time of the day. The assumption is that with nothing better to do, turning to substance abuse is inevitable. The assumption further is that once “high”, engaging in criminal activity, including gender-based violence, is also inevitable.

On the surface, causal links may be assumed. But in reality, these things are far more complex. It has become almost taboo on popular platforms in South Africa to speak of the legacy of apartheid. But I don’t think we can begin to unravel the high levels of gender-based violence in villages in the former Transkei without talking about the legacy of apartheid: the tearing apart of families as a result of forced migrant labour, the absence of fathers, the emasculation of black men, the systematic underdevelopment of the former homelands and the resultant disruption to the social order.

I was in the Eastern Cape as part of a research team, led by the University of Ghana and in partnership with the University of Pretoria, that was studying women traditional leaders across the continent. In our encounter with traditional leaders, both women and men, we became aware of the ways in which their authority has been systematically diminished with nothing else taking its place.

The topic of the diminishing power and authority of traditional leaders is the topic of another article, but suffice it to say here that where traditional leaders played a critical role in holding the social fabric of a community together, rural communities are now floundering without direction. In speaking to members of households, one senses there is a feeling of having been abandoned under the “new dispensation”.

In this context, when the terrible story of Emihle Tukani’s death emerged, what was significant wasn’t the gruesome details of her death, but that the community took action. Under the leadership of Nkosi Joyi, within days of the tragedy, critical actors from across the board were mobilised to address the issue. Grassroots civil society organisations, church leaders, political party leaders and members of the South African Police Service, including at the provincial level, were present.  

Several traditional leaders in the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality have started foundations to raise funds to support their development work. But beyond trying to lift their communities out of poverty, these leaders are also addressing the sense of directionlessness and abandonment of the rural villages of the former homelands.

Four days after Emihle’s death was reported in the media, News24 reported on the R38.5-million spent over the past 10 years on the planning and design of a government complex in Bisho which is still “no more than an empty plot”.

In our conversations with traditional leaders, we heard very few complaints about the government, or the lack of funding given to support the work of traditional leaders. What we did hear was what the dreams of these traditional leaders were in terms of developing the communities they know and understand well.

Nkosi Joyi, for example, dreams of starting a centre near the Royal House (instead of 45 minutes away in Mthatha – an impossible distance for people living on R350 per month) where Home Affairs, recreational facilities and social workers could be based to address issues in the community as they arise.

Nkosi Jumba sees the traditional courts being able to respond more swiftly to issues before they escalate once the Traditional Courts Bill has been passed.

If there is any meaning to be made out of a tragedy such as the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, then let it be that we actively work to prevent it from happening again. Residents reminded us time and again that we were in the area where our great leaders, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, came from, but that their communities of origin have been forgotten.

Emihle’s death is not some strange rural event, it is a direct symptom of apartheid, and of the deep inequalities we continue to foster, and thus becomes the responsibility of every one of us. DM

The fieldwork referred to forms part of a continent-wide research project on women traditional leaders and political representation, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, and led by a team from the Legon Center for International Affairs and Diplomacy at the University of Ghana in partnership with the universities of Pretoria and Makerere. Cases under study include those of Ghana, Liberia, Botswana and South Africa.


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