A Zulu king's threat to undermine the chances of the African National Congress (ANC) at next year's election has led the ruling party to exempt tribal territories from land reform in South Africa.
The government’s decision has come amid a national debate around whether the constitution should be amended to allow expropriation without compensation to remedy one of colonialism’s worst legacies: the forced displacement of indigenous people.
Millions of blacks were illegally evicted from their land – which ended up in white hands – and sent to live in tribal reservations known as “homelands” under the National Party’s racial segregation policy.
More than two decades on from the transition to democracy and this injustice has not been adequately rectified, despite attempts to tackle the issue through state-driven land redistribution and compensation programmes for the dispossessed.
White commercial farmers and urban land hoarders have long feared they will bear the brunt of expropriation without compensation if the government amends the constitution to allow it, but tensions have also arisen between traditional leaders and the state over the issue.
Traditional leaders fear the ANC-led government wants them to relinquish also their custodianship of the 10 homelands, especially those held in trusts, following remarks made in May at an ANC meeting by former South Africa president Kgalema Motlanthe.
During the meeting he suggested that chiefs’ control over the homelands and those who live there should end.
During apartheid the homelands were put under custodianship of compliant chiefs who were administrators for the white-led governments rather than representatives of the people, according to Mary de Haas, an anthropologist from KwaZulu-Natal province.
“It is a feudal, autocratic system which runs parallel with the elected democratic government,” she said, adding that “even when chiefs engage in illegal behaviour, like driving people off their land, government does not act against them”.
The traditional system is also out of sync with national laws around land ownership and occupation.
People allocated tribal land for residential purposes do not receive title deeds or have security of tenure under the current system, which leaves them open to abuse.
Motlanthe referred to village-level chiefs as “tin-pot dictators” when discussing a parliamentary report he helped to produce that recommends the disbandment of the one of the trusts, the Ingonyama Trust, which owns 30 per cent of all land in KwaZulu-Natal.
Administered by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, the trust was established just before apartheid ended in 1994 to protect traditional Zulu land and pacify tribal leaders threatening to destabilise the country’s transition to democracy.
In response to the criticism, Zwelithini condemned the government’s plans for land expropriation without compensation in so far as it related to the Ingonyama Trust.
In a tribal meeting in July, he suggested Zulus vote against politicians who threaten traditional systems, and warned that any attempts to take their land would lead to violence. Zwelithini also said that KwaZulu-Natal was prepared to become its own state if the government continued to ignore them.
With a crucial general election next year, Zwelithini’s warnings appear to have motivated the ANC to defuse the situation in order to shore up its electoral support base in KwaZulu-Natal.
In a meeting with Zwelithini in early July, president Cyril Ramaphosa promised that the land under traditional leaders' control would be exempt from the proposals because "they hold that land on behalf of our people".
It was also confirmed that the contentious report compiled by Motlanthe and his parliamentary colleagues will not be tackled by the lower house until after next year’s poll.
Brian Liggett, from near Lisburn, Northern Ireland, lives on tribal land in Kwanzim village, southern KwaZulu-Natal, where he runs an NGO called the Network Action Group.
He told The Irish Times that his experience of the tribal system was positive, and said the ANC could face a backlash at the ballot box if it tries to undermine traditional chiefs.
“Myself and my wife decided we wanted to live in the community we worked in, so with a chief’s assistance we secured a plot. I’ve not encountered any corruption and I think the informal tribal system is good,” he said.
Liggett (36) described how he received a receipt from the chief and an official letter to say the family could occupy the land on a 40-year lease after paying a registration fee of 800 rand (€51 ) and meeting the locals to see if there were objections to the arrangement.
“We don’t pay annual rent. If we want to sell the house we built on our plot that can be done through a private cash sale,” he explained. “People also borrow from banks against their lease for personal loans, which partially negates the need for title deeds.”
Under the traditional system, people are not required to pay rent when leasing residential plots, but de Haas says there are many examples of corruption at the level of the Ingonyama Trust in relation to this.
“In some areas, the trust gets people who do not know their rights to sign leases to pay annual rent. If they default on this they may face removal,” she said.
Mining is another problem for some communities, because of incentives offered to chiefs by companies who want locals removed from areas that miners want to explore.
“It can be very dangerous for people to oppose mining,” de Haas said, as they are “threatened, intimidated and sometimes killed for doing so”.