Flames of SA’s apartheid past broil Vuwani by Philile Ntuli (BDlive), 11 May 2016
THE "ethnic fires kindled by the republican government will spread until this continent is destroyed irrevocably", said Gazankulu chief minister Hudson Ntsanwisi on May 9 1984.
He was responding to the apartheid government’s proposed spatial boundaries that had fuelled ethnic tensions between the Tsonga and Venda groups.
It is a matter of wondrous irony that the flames that incinerated state institutions in Vuwani last week and the commemoration of 20 years since the adoption of our Constitution should coincide. Fire certainly commands itself as a great mediator between destruction and renewal. The frustrations of the people of Vuwani and elsewhere in SA are consequential expressions of an intimacy between the destructive politicisation of ethnicity by apartheid strategies and the postapartheid government’s betrayal of the Constitution’s promises of regeneration.
Postapartheid legislation such as the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act 41 of 2003 (Framework Act), the Communal Land Rights Act 11 of 2004, the Traditional Courts Bill of 2008 and provincial traditional leadership laws enacted pursuant to the Framework Act in 2005-06, have all reinforced "tribal" geographical boundaries and governance cultures of dominance inherited from apartheid.
Thus, the underlying ethnic tension between Venda-and Tsonga-speaking groups as a result of the demarcation of spatial boundaries manifests the perverse legacy left by apartheid’s divide-and-rule strategies for people who had previously coexisted without ethnically conscious conflict. Tensions between Venda and Tsonga groups was heightened in 1963, when, guided by the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act (1959), an ethnic border was installed through the Levubu River, creating separate homelands for groups of people living together under the Mashangana Territorial Authority. Schools, churches, clinics and arable land were reserved for Venda chiefs and their subjects.
In many schools, Tsonga teachers were replaced as Venda became the medium of instruction.
Moreover, in 1973, when the Shiluvane Mission Hospital was to be allocated to the Bantustan of Gazankulu, the then chief minister of Lebowa responded by removing all Northern Sotho patients and staff to Sotho hospitals. This resulted in Tsonga speakers being forced to travel 60km further to the nearest Tsonga hospital to avoid ill-treatment in the Sotho hospital.
This historical context is critical to the analysis of last week’s protests in Vuwani. It highlights continuing tensions between urban development and rural transformation. As a result of these historical dynamics, the demarcation of municipal boundaries in the postapartheid era cannot be considered without an account of the historical nuances of its socio-psychological relationship with apartheid law. Such discussion, however, cannot be considered outside the framework of the Constitution.
Essential to the 20th-year review of the Constitution, therefore, must be our collective reflection on whether ordinary South Africans, particularly the majority who are poor and living in rural communities, have the resources to use the Constitution as a tool to review both material and figurative boundaries drawn by the divisive system of apartheid. Furthermore, ordinary South Africans must engage and pressure the state continuously to create the necessary policies and institutions that will further assist all communities to lay claim to their rights.
The measure of the success of this process would be determined by how far the state, civil society, private sector and society in general are willing to consider the socio-psychological effects of colonialism. Only from a systematic engagement with these factors can the 21st century be the era in which SA faces up to the challenges of transformative consitutionalism. Until then, ethnic fires will continue to burn.