African Queens

Interesting story: the Valoyi clan, who live near Tzaneen, has just got its first female chief. Now, while that’s all rather nice, it’s hardly ground breaking. This kind of thing has been going on in southern Africa for hundreds of years; the most famous female chiefs being the Modjadji dynasty who (until recently) ruled over the Lobedu of Limpopo. So, while it’s unusual to have a female chief, it’s not that interesting. What really caught my eye, however, was the manner in which she got appointed.

You see, back in 1980, the Valoyi Chief Fofoza Nwamitwa passed away without the good sense to father a male heir. His oldest daughter, Nwamitwa, was not considered suitable for chieftainship at that time, and Fofoza’s younger brother, Richard, took over.

Good ‘king’ Richard ruled over the clan of around 500 000 people until he died in 2001. Then, an age-old scenario played itself out, just as it has done in monarchical societies all over the world. And please permit me to lapse into mock-Shakespearean tones as I humbly narrate the particulars of what eventuated.

Verily, Richard’s son, Sidwell, wanted to succeed his father. But the old chief’s daughter was now prepared to stand up and fight for the throne. Usually, this kind of succession battle turns nasty. Families are ripped apart, nations are torn sundered, wars are fought, blood is spilled. You know the deal.

The histories of the European nations are full of brothers and sisters killing each other, to try and get their hands on a newly vacated throne. Back in the 1700s, the Xhosa nation split in two because of a succession battle between Phalo’s sons, Rarabe and Gcaleka. And the Zulu’s had a civil war every time a king died. In fact, back in Europe, the whole complicated system of democracy was invented to stop this kind of lethal squabbling (and to prevent the ascension of congenitally mad royals).

But that was then. Today, things are done in a much more organised manner. These thoroughly modern monarchs simply eschewed all that bloody fighting and went to court. The legal battle was ferocious, however, and the battling barristers took the case all the way up to the Constitutional Court. Finally, after 7 years, the ConCourt ruled that the chieftainship should go to Ms. Phylia Nwamitwa Shilubana (who also happens to be an ANC MP, but that’s another issue).

And that was that. The first female chief of a Shangaan clan was duly appointed. The rivals sheathed their swords, the Valoyi are happy and no-one got killed. It’s hardly a dramatic ending to the story, but that’s exactly what I find so interesting.

I’ve often heard people say something to the effect of ‘tribal societies cannot change, they are based on fixed customs’. This type of statement is usually made as a preamble to a blanket criticism (or outright attack) on large, diverse groups of people – you know the kind that starts with ‘They are all…’. It is particularly prevalent whenever people talk about Africa, Africans and the Third World in general.

But then just you start getting tired arguing with Them’s about They’s, there comes along an interesting story, such as the one about Chief Phylia Nwamitwa Shilubana – a female traditional leader who was peacefully appointed by a modern political authority.

Now, let’s take a moment to break down just how much is going on here.

Firstly, a tribal succession battle was settled in a western court of law. Secondly, a female chief was chosen over a male claimant. Thirdly, and most interestingly, more than half a million traditional people seem to have accepted the outcome!

All of this demonstrates a huge step forward for collaborative democracy in Africa. It shows that tradition and modern thinking do not have to be mutually exclusive. It suggests that two apparently incompatible political systems can function together, as long as both are prepared to be accommodating and respectful. Most importantly, it proves that political conflicts do not have to be resolved through physical violence.

Now I’m the first to admit that democracy is inefficient and slow. Lots of time and money is wasted on things like parliament, elections, bureaucracy and the civil service. But no matter how bad things get, it’s a damn sight better than our forebears who were forced to fight to the death on behalf of an ambitious prince they had never met. So, all in all, I believe in democracy as the best way for our unruly species to rule itself. And not even the presidency of George W. Bush can shake my faith in that. IMHO.

[Originally posted 09/07/2008]

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