South African Bill Evokes Apartheid Era

The Traditional Courts measure, which gives power to local chiefs, threatens to undermine democracy.

Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

(The Root) — Imagine being subject to a separate law because of your ethnic group. Imagine having no choice over who your leaders are. Imagine not being allowed to have a lawyer at a legal hearing. Imagine being told that your case can’t be heard because you’re a woman and your victory would “make women disrespectful” to their husbands. Imagine being sentenced to forced labor. And imagine that you can’t opt out of this system.

Apartheid tumbled in South Africa in 1994. But if the proposed Traditional Courts Bill (pdf) makes its way into South African law, the above may become a reality for an estimated 17 million South Africans — all of them black, most of them poor and living in rural areas formerly defined as “homelands” for black South Africans under apartheid.

The bill has been bouncing around since 2008 and is now wrapping up hearings at the provincial level, where chiefs who stand to gain status and power have been enthusiastic supporters. It is expected to gain approval from the council of provinces; from there it will go to the National Assembly for a vote.

The bill is a reprise of the Black Administration Act 38 of 1927 (pdf), which put black South Africans under the rule of traditional leaders established by proclamation, not parliament. That law was part of a parcel of hateful apartheid-era legislation that made blacks second-class citizens in their own country.

The proposal says the new bill is intended to prevent conflict and maintain harmony in communities through traditional courts that can hear civil and criminal cases. There is some merit there: South African courts are overburdened and this bill would allow the government to unload some of its caseload. The traditional courts should provide quicker resolutions and should respect local customs. And from a policing standpoint, community disapproval can be a strong deterrent to crime — except when it strays into vigilantism, as it has all too often in South Africa’s slums. In fact, the disturbing trend of vigilantism has been blamed by at least one think tank on the homeland system.