Tuesday, June 24, 2008

South African Women Traditional Leaders: Progress or Not?

Women traditional leaders: progress or not?

MONDE NKASAWE - Jun 24 2008 09:55
Reprinted From the South African Mail & Guardian

On June 4 2008 the Constitutional Court handed down a historic judgement effectively allowing women the right to succeed, in their own right, into positions of traditional leadership.

Through the Nwamitwa-Shilubana judgement, the quest for the transformation of the institution of traditional leadership -- particularly in relation to its patriarchal nature -- was significantly advanced.

The judgement, among other things, acknowledges that traditional communities are not immune to continuing social change. It asserts the role of key customary law structures, such as the royal family in interpreting such change and in taking whatever decisions necessary to accommodate a changing environment. It upholds, as an absolutely imperative, the principle of equality, which is enshrined in our Constitution.

The judgement dismisses the argument advanced by traditional leaders that the representation of women in traditional leadership structures should be seen in the context that the institution is hereditary in nature and that to preserve the genealogical line, male primogeniture must be maintained. The judgement declares unequivocally that if "women are to be chiefs, the practice that a Hosi always has to be fathered by the previous Hosi must necessarily change".

The judgement makes it clear that gender transformation cannot be used as a scarecrow signalling the demise of traditional leadership.

On the contrary, by affirming the integral role of the royal family, the judgement assures the long-term survival of traditional leadership in the context of our present system of constitutional democracy.

While establishing legal certainty, the judgement nevertheless does not settle the debate on unequal gender relations, especially in traditional communities. The male-dominated culture and systems of traditional leadership structures, even with women at the top, will not change as a result of this judgement. But it offers space for creative thinking that contributes to a groundswell of movement advancing towards a gender-balanced society. Such thinking will have to grapple also with questions regarding the status and position of women in traditional communities not just in representational terms, but generally.

For example, does gender imbalance in traditional communities constitute evidence of gender oppression? Whatever our answer might be, what is clear is that the enjoyment of our traditions cannot be at the expense of suspending any of our constitutional rights, even if such traditions are themselves constitutionally protected.

Monde Nkasawe is a PhD student at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management, Wits University, and works at the office of the premier in the Eastern Cape. He writes in his personal capacity.

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