Jacob Zuma, the South African president, has issued a ringing endorsement of traditional courts, saying that problems should be resolved “the African way, not the white man’s way”.
Mr Zuma, a proud Zulu who himself subscribes to traditional practices such as polygamy, said that those living in rural communities in South Africa found the traditional justice system a better way of resolving their disputes.
“Prisons are done by people who cannot resolve problems,” he was quoted as saying by South Africa’s Times newspaper.
“Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man’s way. Let us not be influenced by other cultures and try to think the lawyers are going to help.
“We have never changed the facts. They tell you they are dealing with cold facts. They will never tell you that these cold facts have warm bodies.”
His comments have caused consternation among lawyers, opposition politicians, civil society groups and women’s’ formations in his own party who have slated the Traditional Courts Bill currently making its way through parliament.
It seeks to formalise a system whereby 18 million people living in rural areas fall under the jurisdiction of tribal chiefs and village councils who will rule on civil and criminal matters, issuing penalties including forced labour and fines of sheep, cattle and food. In some cases, they will be able to strip offenders of “traditional benefits” such as access to land, thereby denying them food and shelter.
The bill is championed by the influential Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, which has hinted that its support for a second term for Mr Zuma at the ANC’s December elective conference depends on it.
But it has been staunchly opposed in a series of public consultations because it bases traditional court jurisdictions along the apartheid-era “tribal homeland” boundaries, forces people to accept customary laws which are currently consensual and denies them the right to legal representation enshrined in South Africa’s constitution.
Lulu Xingwana, Mr Zuma’s Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, has called for it to be redrafted altogether amid concerns of how women will be treated given traditional patriarchal rules.
“It’s oppressive to women and discriminatory,” she told a parliamentary hearing in September. “Why are we taking our people back to the dark ages?”
In an official speech on Wednesday to the National House of Traditional Leaders, which sits beside MPs in parliament, Mr Zuma acknowledged “genuine concerns” raised about the bill in public consultations.
He called for the bill to be strengthened to protect the rights of women and ensure all South Africans had access to all forms of justice.
But in unscripted comments made after the speech, he made clear his preference for an “African” courts system.
Desmond Lesejane, of the Alliance for Rural Democracy which has called for the bill to be withdrawn, said the president’s comments did not surprise him.
“The Ministry of Justice has made clear that it will ignore much of what came from the public consultations and this would explain why their officials are so insistent on this,” he said.
The alliance, which brings together some of South Africa’s biggest civil society groups in opposition to the bill, claims the bill even ignores traditional cultural practices, by doing away with the old tiered system of traditional courts to give one person, often a political appointee, unilateral power.
“President Zuma can push for tradition but this is a corrupted version of cultural practices,” he said.