Defending democracy in the countryside

26 June 2018 | Story Lisa Boonzaier. Photo Lerato Mokhethi. Read time >10 min.
Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza has overcome political obstacles to become a renowned researcher in his field.
Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza has overcome political obstacles to become a renowned researcher in his field.

Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza was born in Cala in the Eastern Cape. After overcoming political barriers – including imprisonment and banishment during apartheid – his life and work have come full circle as his research played a critical role in a landmark case fought by the Cala Reserve community, igniting a movement to restore democracy across the rural Eastern Cape.  

Humble roots

Early life for Ntsebeza unfolded in the rural Eastern Cape. He was born in 1954 in the small town of Cala to parents who were teachers. They influenced him from a young age to read newspapers and listen to the radio news. This, he says, gave him a sense of what was happening in his country and the world and influenced him towards his studious habits.

“I grew up as a reader. This was an influence of my parents and siblings,” explains Ntsebeza. “I remember my father religiously bought and read the Daily Dispatch newspaper and listened to the radio. He also had his own library, which was open to all to use. “There was always something to read at home.”

Through his involvement with study groups that looked at the political situation in South Africa and alternatives to apartheid, Ntsebeza developed his abilities in analytical thinking. It would be his involvement in these study groups that would precipitate his imprisonment at the age of 22. At the time, under South Africa’s Suppression of Communism Act, political study groups were considered subversive and Ntsebeza had by then been organising them.

Ntsebeza spent more than five years in prison – but not idly. While incarcerated, he completed his first degree: a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy and political science. On his release, Ntsebeza was banished to Cala where he revived a bookshop belonging to his parents, both of whom had passed away: his mother while he was in prison and his father soon after his release. The bookshop, it seems, was another step in his intellectual preoccupations: In 1987, Ntsebeza registered for an honours degree in African studies at UCT. After completing a master’s degree at the University of Natal and a PhD in sociology at Rhodes University, he returned to UCT and became a professor in 2007.

Ntsebeza’s career path has been long and challenging, and now he is nearing retirement, but throughout, he has remained committed to addressing economic and social justice.

Now the National Research Foundation (NRF)/Department of Science and Technology South African Research Chair in land reform and democracy, the AC Jordan Chair in African studies, and director of the Centre for African Studies at UCT, Ntsebeza is as committed as ever to addressing economic and social justice through leading-edge research on land reform and democracy.

Among legends

During 2017, Ntsebeza was awarded the NRF Hamilton Naki Award, which is bestowed on individuals achieving world-class research performance despite considerable challenges. The award is named after Hamilton Naki, who – like Ntsebeza – was able to overcome political obstacles and realise research excellence.

Prof Lungisile Ntsebeza, Hamilton Naki Award 2017

Born in the Eastern Cape during 1926 to a poor family, Naki’s first job was as a gardener at UCT. But his abilities would take him much further – into surgical laboratories, including those of Dr Christiaan Barnard. Despite his lack of schooling and the apartheid system working against him, Naki went on to help with the research and experimental work that preceded and followed the historic first heart transplant.

“Despite the fact that I did not, as Naki did, come from a poor family and was in fact very privileged to get good education, the political situation in apartheid South Africa was a major hindrance to me achieving my life goal of using education to make a difference in the lives of especially the poor and downtrodden,” says Ntsebeza.

“Like Naki, I didn’t allow it to discourage me from fighting against the odds and turning disadvantage – being sent to prison and banished – into advantage: reading and selling books. Thus, I set myself up for where I am now, where I am able to conduct relevant research that impacts the lives of the marginalised majority in South Africa.”

Research that’s relevant

Ntsebeza's research centres on three main areas at the interface of theory and practice: democratisation in South Africa’s countryside, land and equity in the context of the struggle against poverty, and social movements in the land sector. 

Ntsebeza argues that recognition by the government – led by the African National Congress – of traditional leadership coupled with the establishment of traditional councils, which are modelled on apartheid-era tribal authorities, compromises South Africa’s democracy. In both traditional leadership and traditional councils, the majority of members are unelected.

“This gives rise to questions around the meaning of democracy for people living in rural areas under the jurisdiction of traditional authorities,” he says.

On the subject of land and equity, Ntsebeza has focused on the South African land reform programme. “I’ve not only looked at the limitations of the South African Constitution – particularly section 25, the Property Clause – and the land reform programme, but also the broader question of whether access to land makes a difference to the livelihoods of South Africans, both rural and urban,” says Ntsebeza. “My research has shown clearly that those people with access to land, regardless of its extent, are better off than those without.”

His interest in social movements also relates to the land reform programme. “Until 2013, I had been arguing that one of the reasons the land reform programme in South Africa was proceeding at a snail’s pace was that social movements in the land sector were weak,” explains Ntsebeza. “However, the historic farmworkers’ and -dwellers’ revolt towards the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 compelled me to reconsider.

“Subsequently, I am more optimistic about the prospects of ‘change from below’.”

A landmark court case

Ntsebeza's expertise and research have taken him around the world. But it is research he undertook in the region around his home town that has had a resounding impact on the lives of South Africans in rural communities and the immense structures of governance and democracy.

This research played a crucial role in supporting a landmark decision by the Eastern Cape High Court on the succession of headmen – administrative officials in tribal authorities below the level of chief. The story unfolded in Cala Reserve and began in 2013 with a resignation: that of Jongilizwe Hamilton Fani, headman of the reserve, who had served the community there since 1979.

“His evidence stands unchallenged. It is the only admissible evidence on the issue. No reason was advanced as to why it ought not to be accepted.”

Following Fani’s resignation, the Cala Reserve community proceeded to elect a successor – as was their custom. At a community meeting, the majority present elected a sub-headman and Fani’s de facto deputy as their new leader. However, the amaGcina traditional council rejected their choice of headman, apparently because he was not a member of the royal family. The head of the traditional council, Chief Gecelo, imposed his own choice, an unelected clansman, on the community – to their dismay.

Gecelo cited the Eastern Cape Traditional Leadership and Governance Act which, he said, instructs the royal family to elect headmen and told the Cala community: “Nokuba niyathanda okanye anithandi na, yiroyal family ethata izigqibo ngokubekwa kwenkosana [whether you like it nor not, it is the royal family that decides on the headman].”

The Cala community responded by writing complaints to the Premier of the Eastern Cape, the Member of the Executive Council for Local Government and Traditional Affairs, and the Qamata Regional Traditional Council. When these complaints were rejected, the community turned to the Legal Resources Centre, which launched an application on their behalf in the Eastern Cape High Court against the decision of the Premier.

During 2014, the court found in favour of the Cala Reserve community and declared that the customary law of the community requires its headman to be elected by community members. The Premier appealed.

It was the decision, taken by a full bench of the Eastern Cape High Court, to dismiss the Premier’s appeal that represented a landmark win for democracy in the countryside. The full impact of this decision is still reverberating across South Africa, and Ntsebeza’s research was critical in determining the outcome of the case.

A force for democracy

Having conducted extensive research over the course of 20 years into the history of traditional authority in the Xhalanga district, which includes Cala Reserve, Ntsebeza was able to provide the court with a detailed account of the area’s history of electing headmen. Importantly, his evidence included written records that corroborated the oral testimonies he had collected. Ntsebeza also drew attention to a provision in national legislation, the Traditional Leadership Governance Framework Act, stating that the royal family can only appoint a headman after taking into account the practice of the community.

The practice in Cala Reserve, as he showed, was to elect their own leaders.

“Both the lower High Court of Bisho and the full bench agreed that the task of appointing headmen resided with the royal family,” explains Ntsebeza. “However, both courts pointed out that the law required that the royal family should take into account the custom of the community concerned. This is where my evidence proved decisive.”

Of Ntsebeza’s input, Judge Clive Plasket wrote: “His evidence stands unchallenged. It is the only admissible evidence on the issue. No reason was advanced as to why it ought not to be accepted.”

Plasket also suggested that the case of Cala Reserve should act as a model on how to democratise traditional authority, a suggestion that Ntsebeza himself asserts.

His involvement in these events and the associated social movement has provided him with an opportunity to gather data for his new research outputs.

“Indeed, the judgment has already been instrumental in igniting a movement across rural areas of the Eastern Cape that poses the very same question I raise about the meaning of democracy for people living under the jurisdiction of chiefs,” he says.

Following the judgment, rural residents in the Eastern Cape began requesting workshops on the Cala Reserve case and its possible implications for rural areas outside Xhalanga. This led to a series of workshops, and a civil society-led campaign around the meaning of democracy for people residing in the rural areas of the former Bantustans has since gathered momentum.

Ntsebeza regularly speaks to participants at these events, mainly activists and ordinary rural women and men, about the judgment and its implications. His involvement in these events and the associated social movement has provided him with an opportunity to gather data for his new research outputs.

More to come

Ntsebeza’s career path has been long and challenging, and now he is nearing retirement, but throughout, he has remained committed to addressing economic and social justice. His research work has grown in prominence and now provides essential reading on the important debates about the future of land and the institution of traditional authorities and social movements. His seminal work, Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of Land in South Africa, a book based on his PhD thesis, was described by a leading historian as an “instant classic”. Now, he is working on a sequel, including new information drawn from his involvement in the events following the Xhalanga case.

“I am currently exploring the implications of the High Court judgment, as well as the social movement it has given rise to, for the meaning of democracy for residents of rural areas that are under the control of traditional authorities,” says Ntsebeza. He expects the book to be published in 2019.


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