South Africa's Female Tribal Chiefs Often Rule in Fear

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Marc Shoul

Chief Nokhakha Jumba

Outside the Great Place of Chief Nokhakha Jumba, a crowd waits beneath clouds that hang damp and heavy over the South African village of Tabase. The tin-roofed hut is packed with 30 men squatting on low benches, all seeking the counsel of the chief. The topic: whether the area's agricultural cooperatives will join under one umbrella group. As the debate grows heated, the chatter outside subsides as everyone strains to listen. Then the men in the hut go quiet, as the chief slowly and softly summarizes the discussion before taking a break. Minutes later, a tall woman, her hair wrapped in a leopard-print turban, steps out. She is Nokhakaha, chief of the Jumba clan.

Nokhakha's face is impassive and her manner regal, but her demeanor belies a woman living in fear. Since she assumed power from her late husband in 2005 as regent for her young son, a male cousin has relentlessly challenged her position. The conflict came to a head last year, when supporters of Nokhakha's cousin surrounded her home after sunset and declared that she would rule only over their dead bodies. She has since been afraid to sleep in her home and spends her nights in the nearby town of Mthatha. For many of South Africa's small but growing number of female chiefs, constant dread comes with the job.

In villages all over the country, tribal chiefs still settle rural disputes and allocate land for home building and agriculture, a responsibility that, since the country's first democratic elections in 1994, they have shared uneasily with government-appointed ward councilors tasked with rural development. Before Nelson Mandela brought democracy to South Africa, female chiefs were rare. "It was Mr. Mandela who insisted that the women as well become chiefs because everyone is equal in front of the people," says Nokwanele Balizulu, chief of Mandela's home village of Qunu.

Mandela's wishes became law prior to the 2004 elections with the passing of the Traditional Governance and Leadership Framework Act, which stipulated that a third of all traditional councils must be women. In a country where women make up 60% of the rural population, the law could go some way to reversing apartheid-era politics that still deny single and widowed African women formal property rights. But while the official line pushes forward, the country's staunch patriarchal heritage means that many tribes resent having women in positions of power.

Noitaly Mthirara, a 44-year-old former nurse, returned from Johannesburg to the village of Mpheko in 2001 to wrest control of her tribal authority from her late husband's alcoholic younger brother at the behest of the community. What followed was a six-year dispute that ended with the courts ruling in her favor. Before the resolution, Mthirara had been threatened by some of the villagers who supported her brother-in-law, and she believes she once narrowly avoided assassination.

The chief of Mthonjana village wasn't so lucky. In 2007, she was shot dead and burned in her hut by four men, appointed as assassins by the villagers who did not want to be ruled by a woman. Her daughter Lindiwe Ngubenani, 27, is now chief, but she stays with friends 60 miles from home because she fears for her life. "People are still old-fashioned," says Ngubenani. "They want a man to be the chief, but a chief is not chosen. A chief must be born."

Some see the fact that there are still tribal chiefs — unelected, salaried leaders — in a democracy as even more old-fashioned and believe that the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has made too many concessions to the tribal establishment. Prior to every election since 1998, the party has been placating chiefs by passing controversial laws like the 2004 Communal Land Rights Act, which grants tribal councils control over land-tenure reform. The idea was to end a century of black land dispossession, finally making it possible for villagers to use their plots as collateral for loans.

But critics point out that many tribal chiefs were put in power by the apartheid government, which used land to reward pro-apartheid leaders. Putting today's chiefs in charge of dishing out title deeds could entrench apartheid's divisions forever, they say. Three tribal communities challenged the act in the Constitutional Court in March; the judgment is still pending.

In the poor villages of South Africa — their hills dotted with pastel-colored huts, many still without access to running water, electricity or basic sanitation — what people want most is jobs. But internal tribal bickering and tensions between traditional and democratic structures are stalling development. The conflict between Nokhakha Jumba and her cousin, for instance, resulted in the intentional destruction of a 1.7 million rand ($220,000) project to grow canola, which can be used to make vegetable oil. When the cousin, in a bid to assert his authority, made the deal to set up the project behind Nokhakha's back, her outraged supporters sent in their cows to destroy the crops.

Lungelwa Shaun Mabongo, general secretary of the ANC Youth League in the Jumba authority, contends that were Nokhakha a man, none of this would have happened. "If a woman is on a higher position, there will always be a conflict," he says. But Chief Noluntu Dalindyebo, second wife to the king of the Thembu tribe, thinks the solution is more power to the chiefs — of both sexes — not less. "We know better than [the politicians] what is needed in our areas," she says. "But our place in democratic South Africa is not clear." Until South Africa's female chiefs can rule without fear and with the cooperation of the government, their long walk to freedom and equality continues.