Inauguration of Khosi Vho Fhatuwani Douglas Nesengani Khosi of the Nesengani clan


Tshino Village, Vuwani, Vhembe District: 7 February 2020

Khosikhulu Vho Toni Mphephu Ramabulana of the Venda Kingdom;
Members of the Royal Family and Members of the Royal Council;
The Honourable Premier of Limpopo, Mr Stanley Chupu Mathabatha;
Khosi of the Nesengani Clan, Thovhele Fhatuwani Douglas Nesengani;
Officials of the Limpopo Provincial Government;
His Worship the Executive Mayor of Vhembe District, Councillor Nenguda;
His Worship the Mayor of Makhado Local Municipality, Councillor NS Munyai;
Chairperson of the Nesengani Traditional Council, Mr Ralufhe, and Members of the Nesengani Clan;
Kgosi Dikgale of the Limpopo House of Traditional Leaders;
Khosi Livhuwani Matsila;
Officials of the Limpopo Provincial Government;
Representatives of Contralesa;
Bishop Dr Lekganyane and members of the clergy;
Musanda Vho Ramukhuba;
Vho Nesengani Pandelani Phanuel;
Musanda Vho Nesengani Thinandavah;
Programme Directors;
Distinguished guests.

I consider it an honour to be present today to witness the inauguration of Khosi Thovhele Nesengani as he takes up the leadership of his Clan. Having served as Inkosi of the Buthelezi Clan for 67 years, I understand the commitment being made today both on the part of Khosi Thovhele Nesengani and on the part of all of us who witness this inauguration.

With our presence here today, we are declaring our position on the institution of traditional leadership. We believe this institution to be the fulcrum around which good governance is secured within traditional communities. It is not an antiquated system nor is it incompatible with the present democratic system. Traditional leadership is alive and functioning, and it supports the very values that underpin democracy.

As I witness the inauguration of Khosi Thovhele Nesengani, I cannot help but think back to my own inauguration in the 1950s. I was working in Durban and preparing to do my legal articles when the call came for me to return to Mahlabathini to take up my hereditary position as Inkosi. I was deeply involved in the politics of our liberation struggle and I felt torn between continuing into law or entering traditional leadership.

I therefore sought the advice of my mentor, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, who was then the President General of the ANC. Inkosi Luthuli himself had given up a lucrative teaching position to embrace the institution of traditional leadership when the community at Groutville elected him. Without any hesitation, Inkosi Luthuli advised me to return to Mahlabathini. He was a highly educated man and he understood that a traditional leader is able to uplift his entire community both spiritually and materially. He had set an inspiring example, and I determined to follow it.

On the day of my installation, leaders of the ANC were present, including AWG Champion and Masabalala Yengwa. Inkosi Luthuli wrote me a long letter enjoining me to serve my people with selfless dedication and the wholehearted assurance that this was my calling.

If I were to give Khosi Thovele Nesengani any advice today, it would be that same advice given to me by Inkosi Luthuli. Serve your people with selfless dedication.

At the time of my own installation, traditional leaders were faced with the injustices and oppression of a minority government. Again it is Inkosi Luthuli who guided us, when he said –
“My view has been, and still is, that a chief is primarily a servant of his people. He is the voice of his people… and not a local agent of the government. Within the bounds of loyalty it is conceivable that he may press the claims of his people even if they should be unpalatable to the government of the day.”

I recount all this because it speaks of the struggle of the institution of traditional leadership in its interactions with government. Most of us expected, quite naturally, that when a majority government came to power, traditional leadership would be recognised in full. We would no longer be pitted against government, but would work hand in hand with government, serving at local level.

And indeed, when we finally achieved liberation, the Constitution of our democratic South Africa did recognise the institution of traditional leadership. The existence of Ubukhosi became enshrined in the foundational law of our country.

Yet as South Africa moved towards establishing local government, the role, powers and functions of traditional leaders became a contentious matter. These had never been defined in legislation, and this laid the way for a clash between the role, powers and functions of municipalities, and those of traditional leaders.

Many young people, and even many traditional leaders, are not aware of what was first proposed when it came to the establishment of municipalities. This was twenty years ago. The then President Mbeki established a Joint Task Team to negotiate with the Coalition of Traditional Leaders. Through that process, the participants to negotiations agreed on a way forward.

It was proposed that traditional authorities would continue to operate in terms of indigenous and customary law; that they would be presided over by a traditional council headed by a traditional leader; that they would remain the primary local government structure of traditional communities; and would operate under a district municipality in the same way as local municipalities in terms of the Local Government: Municipal Structures Act.

Accordingly, a district municipality would have underneath it traditional authorities as the primary local government structure in respect of traditional communities, and local municipalities as contemplated in the Municipal Structures Act in respect of other areas.

Traditional authorities would be on par with local municipalities, and traditional leaders would exercise the same role, powers and functions as councilors, within their own communities.

That was the proposal. It honoured the established and recognised authority of Amakhosi.

But the proposal was rejected by Cabinet in favour of wall-to-wall municipalities, and instead it was promised that if the powers of traditional leaders were diminished by the implementation of the Municipal Structures Act, that would be corrected after the fact. Indeed, an ad hoc Cabinet Committee, led by then Deputy President Jacob Zuma, committed to amend Chapters 7 and 12 of the Constitution to ensure that our powers would never be obliterated.

Tragically, that commitment was never honoured. Municipalities usurped the full range of powers and functions of traditional leaders, and we were left with the vague concept of being ‘partners in governance’, despite legislation being passed to limit the number of traditional leaders who can participate in municipal council meetings, and barring any traditional leader from having a vote in decisions of council.

Over the years that followed, the role, powers and functions of traditional leadership were sidelined in the governance of our country, until traditional leaders became little more than ceremonial figureheads; courted to secure votes, but devoid of any real authority when it came to the governance of our own people.

We never expected this kind of opposition under a majority government. But traditional leaders across South Africa can attest to the fact that we have been all but hamstrung in the service and development of our communities. Traditional leaders are neither supported nor resourced to perform our fundamental task of governance.

I know that when I speak like this, people become uncomfortable. But I have raised this matter regardless, because the very reason that traditional leaders exist is being undermined, to the great detriment of our people. I have raised it in Parliament and in the National House of Traditional Leaders. I have raised it in the presence of Heads of State and Ministers. I have spoken openly and called on government to define the role, powers and functions of traditional leadership through legislation.

Twenty-six years into democracy, this is yet to happen. In the process, our people have come under pressure to silently relinquish our traditional structures of leadership.

Having fought this battle for several decades, I am relieved to see some light of hope. I renewed my call for the empowering of traditional leadership with President Ramaphosa. In fact, I spoke here in Limpopo in November 2017, on the eve of the ANC’s conference where the Deputy President was elected as the new leader of the ruling Party. I said then that I was giving him fair warning that he would hear from me about traditional leadership.

I hoped that this issue would be picked up by a new leadership in our country, so that legislation would finally be enacted that defines where we stand as the custodians of tradition and culture, and the champions of good governance.

I am pleased to say that President Ramaphosa took up the issue of traditional leadership, appointing a team headed by the then Minister of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs, Dr Zweli Mkhize, who opened consultations with traditional leaders. When Minister Dlamini-Zuma was appointed in May 2019, I wrote to inform her that I would continue to pursue the matter.

There is still a long way to go before the partnership between government and Amakhosi is properly defined and functions in a way that honours the role of traditional leadership. This matters. It is not something we can ignore. And it is something that should deeply concern this generation of traditional leaders.

Because the fate of South Africa’s people is bleak in this present hour.

The economic distress and vast social injustice that we face demands a leadership of wisdom, integrity and ability. In the absence of such leadership, there is little hope that South Africa will survive. This is not the time to sideline good leaders on the basis that they are not government deployees.

We may well disagree with the paths being taken by the government of the day, and we retain that responsibility spoken about by Inkosi Albert Luthuli to put our people first. We need to lead with selfless dedication, because this is what our people require.

I feel the burden that rests on the shoulders of leaders like Khosi Thovhele Nesengani. They are taking the baton from leaders of my generation, and they will carry it in a time of great uncertainty and hardship. I encourage them to take comfort in the fact that their battle is waged in a democratic country. The value system in place now is one to which we all subscribe. If we need, therefore, to draw strength for the fight ahead, let us draw it from the anchor of our values.

We do not stand in opposition to government, and neither should government stand opposed to traditional leaders. What we seek is one and the same: social justice, economic development and the good of our people.

I thank you.