Traditional Governance in the age of Democracy

On 'Traditional Governance in the age of Democracy' (2004):

In an age when hereditary rule is often regarded as being an anachronism, the Bafokeng believe their form of traditional governance, and adaptations they have made to it over the years, neatly balances recognition of tribal custom and expression of popular will.

As the Bafokeng King, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi, explained in a speech at Brown University in the United States: "Our traditional form of government espouses certain principles of democracy. These include mechanisms to ensure that Kgosi is carrying out the will of the people, political representation at multiple levels of local government, and even a system for electing village representatives to the King's consultative council. There are examples in the historical record of Bafokeng Kings being fined for not carrying out the will of the people."

Perhaps the most significant adaptation the Bafokeng have made to their form of governance followed South Africa's transition from apartheid to democracy in the early 1990s. The Bafokeng moved with the times and introduced a system of electing certain community representatives. This, in turn, saw a departure from a patriarchal form of governance, with a number of women being elected to the Royal Bafokeng Nation executive council. As Kgosi Leruo has noted: "We are rooted in - but not bound by - tradition."

The institution, status, and role of traditional leadership is protected by the South African Constitution. The inclusion in the country's Parliament of a House of Traditional Leaders is in itself, says Kgosi Leruo, an example "of the happy marriage between the modern and the traditional". He sees traditional governance as a "way of organising community life that is founded on basic human principles such as respect, sense of community, and sense of commitment to one's neighbours as well as oneself. It is around these principles that our system has developed, and it is always changing to meet the needs of the times."

The 29 villages that make up the Bafokeng community are divided into 72 traditional dikgoro (wards), each of which is regulated by a hereditary kgosana (headman) and Bo-mmadikgosana (headmen's wives). The kgosana is assisted in carrying out his duties by a minimum of four bannakgotla (ward men).

Duties of the kgosana are many and varied. He must keep Kgosi's office informed of births, marriages and deaths, and of pressing issues or specific problems in his community. He must resolve disputes ranging from the use of resources to family matters.

If Kgosana is unable to resolve disputes, such as those within a marriage, he refers them to the Royal Bafokeng Nation Tribal Court which sits in the Civic Centre in Phokeng. If an aggrieved party is unable to secure justice through these channels, he or she can then seek redress through the formal Magistrates' Court in neighbouring Rustenburg.

Kgosana must also ensure development of the community. For example, he must identify talented young people as candidates for Royal Bafokeng Nation bursaries supporting tertiary education. On another level, Kgosana must supply character references for young people seeking work.

The Royal Bafokeng Nation as a whole is represented by the Executive Council consisting of 39 members, 29 of whom are elected by villagers, and 10 of whom are appointed by the Kgosi. The Executive Council has the status and functions of a local authority, with committees responsible for portfolios such as youth, community development, health, and education.

Whenever important decisions affecting the entire community need to be made, the Kgosi convenes the Supreme Council of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. This consists of the Executive Council, Dikgosana, and bannakgotla.

The highest-ranking decision-making body in the Nation is called Kgotha Kgothe. This is a general meeting of all Bafokeng that is held twice annually and whenever there is an important matter to debate.

"My mandate comes from consulting with this body," explains Kgosi Leruo. "The people can overturn my input and views on any given matter through the general meeting."

Decisions made by these councils are enacted by the Royal Bafokeng Administration (RBA) which is effectively the Nation's civil service and employs a staff of some 300 people. RBA is funded by the Royal Bafokeng Nation out of revenue derived from royalties and dividends received from mines operating on the Nation's land. An estimated R2 billion of this money has been invested in infrastructure and services for the community.

"As a traditionally governed entity, then, the Royal Bafokeng system of governance embraces a range of mechanisms for ensuring that people's concerns, opinions, and ideas are an integral part of policymaking, and that there are sufficient checks and balances in place so that no branch of governance can act on its own," explains Kgosi Leruo.

"With the introduction of elected village councilors, there are also more women in positions of authority than ever before. And, although we rely on indigenous law and traditional forms of conflict resolution to mediate most conflicts at the local level, we are also subject to the laws and legal procedures of the South African state." This "democracy within a democracy" continues to adapt. As Kgosi Leruo has said: "We are constantly devising new ways to ensure that everyone's voice is heard."

A recent innovation has been Dumela Phokeng. Drawing inspiration from the word dumela, meaning "greetings", this inter-active initiative sees Kgosi Leruo and his key representatives visiting each of the Nation's 29 villages. These weekly meetings at the beginning of the year enable Kgosi Leruo to see for himself what is happening on the ground and afford villagers opportunities to tell him what is on their minds."
© 2012 Royal Bafokeng Nation. Created by Thinkshoppe.