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Traditional leadership in KwaZulu-Natal has always been associated with, and dominated by, men, but Victoria Dube has broken through that barrier.
Dube’s unprecedented election as the first woman to chair the uThungulu House of Traditional Leaders earlier this month has been welcomed as a major move towards defeating the demon of patriarchy and moving towards gender equality in traditional leadership.
The rise to power of traditional leaders is not through a popular mandate, but as a result of hereditary successions, and has mostly been reserved for men.
However, the election of Dube, the inkosi of the amaKholwa tribal community in eNtumeni outside Eshowe, has defied the traditional patriarchal system.
Her rise to the chieftainship in her community has been as dramatic as her election as the chairwoman of the uThungulu House of Traditional Leaders and as one of the three representatives of the KwaZulu-Natal traditional community in the National House of Traditional Leaders.
This is, indeed, a first for KwaZulu-Natal and it probably points to the fact that things are beginning to change in this province which is still deeply steeped in tradition and patriarchy.
Dube’s election is more significant because one of the contending amakhosi for the position was the stalwart of traditional leadership politics, Mpiyezintombi Mzimela, formerly chairman of the National House of Traditional Leaders and the uThungulu local house.
However, because the balance of forces in favour of Dube was so strong Mzimela declined the nomination and supported the candidacy of Dube instead.
Her election has already been roundly welcomed by many, including gender organisations, as a move in the right direction.
The Commission for Gender Equality said: “Dube’s election comes at a critical time when patriarchy is being cited as one of the drawbacks towards the attainment of gender equality in the country. It is only fair to salute men and women of the uThungulu House of Traditional Leaders who have significantly contributed to the progressive future for women.”
The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal also sees her rise to power as a major development.
“That male amakhosi can choose to elect a woman to lead them is also indicative… that the gospel of non-sexism espoused in our country’s constitution is permeating every sphere of life in our society,” says ANC KZN secretary Sihle Zikalala.
A former professor of history at the University of Zululand, Jabulani Maphalala, says this trend marks a change of attitude among the young “progressive” amakhosi who are influenced by the “congress” tradition as propagated by the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Traditional Leaders (Contralesa).
“Previously and historically all amakhosi were males. But we now have a number of female amakhosi who took over after the death of their husbands as caretakers until such time as their sons are old enough to take over.
“But in line with the new thinking of gender equity and achieving a 50/50 balance, these female amakhosi are playing a bigger role,” says Maphalala.
There are currently 27 female amakhosi among the more than 200 amakhosi in KZN. But Dube does not owe her rise to power to hereditary succession, as she is one of the few amakhosi who get to be democratically elected.
Like the former ANC president, Albert Luthuli, she belongs to the amaKholwa tribes which were communities that fell under Christian missions in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Maphalala says because Christian missionaries did not understand African culture and tradition, residents of those missions were given an opportunity to elect their chiefs (amakhosi).
In the case of Dube, she belongs to the amaKholwa community of the eNtumeni Mission, outside Eshowe. In the eNtumeni Mission, elections are held every five years for the chieftainship position.
This community has about 900 households with a population of close to 7 000 people. Her husband, Xolani Dube, was elected in 2002 for a five-year term but died in 2003.
“Some people put forward my name and suggested that I should stand for an election. Three villages and the church nominated me and the second person who was nominated (a man) withdrew and I was eventually elected the chief,” says Dube.
At the time she was a full-time councillor in the uThungulu district municipality – an advantage that put her in a good position as she was now schooled in community development.
Last year, there were more elections and she was nominated.
“This time around it was very tough as the men really wanted the position. There were five men and I was the only woman standing, but I won another five-year term,” she says.
But how is she received by the community as a female inkosi?
“Today it all depends on what you do for the community and they judge and accept you on this basis. But the community at large has accepted that a woman can do a good job even if there are those men who are still resistant to women leadership,” says Dube.
Also as the chairwoman of the amaKholwa traditional council, she sits in the executive of the uThungulu House of Traditional Leaders.
“I have been part of this executive as the lone woman since 2007. I must say that I work very well with my male colleagues,” she says.
She is very happy about her new position as the chairwoman of the uThungulu House of Traditional Leaders.
“I am delighted, but there are so many challenges that I need to face and deal with. I hope other amakhosi will support me so that I work successfully,” she says.
Her tasks as the chairwoman are to facilitate good working relationships among the district municipality, the Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Department and the traditional communities.
“The biggest challenge is to bring development to rural areas and I am passionate about this.
“Water also remains a top priority. We have water, but it has not reached all the communities.
“There is a need to generally uplift the life of rural communities, particularly rural pupils who finish matric but have no further training,” says Dube.
She also wants to uplift the status of ubukhosi (traditional leadership) and the service it renders to rural communities.
“I really hope there will be a change in the way amakhosi conduct their business, but the government is busy redefining their role and providing some support in terms of training.
“Already, the government has started to improve our working environment by providing better structures from where we operate,” Dube said.
She was born in KwaHlabisa in 1953, where she finished her high school education before moving to Amanzimtoti College for training as a teacher.
After obtaining a teacher’s certificate and doing a teaching diploma in Pretoria, she taught for 22 years.
In 1996, Dube became a part-time councillor in Eshowe and became a full-time councillor and executive committee member in the uThungulu district in 2000.
On the committee she was the chairwoman of the community services portfolio committee which was charged with dealing with sports, gender issues community development and tourism.
“This community involvement prepared me well for the work I am doing now as the traditional leader,” she says.
“Once I had been elected as an inkosi, I was in a better position to move swiftly to address the issue of water and bring into fruition other plans for community amenities such as sports facilities and community halls.
“This is what has led people in my tribal community to elect me to this position,” Dube says.
Now, having been elected one of three amakhosi to represent KZN traditional leaders in the national house of traditional leaders, her status and her role have increased.
“The strategic objective is to make traditional leadership relevant and to be the key driver of development in rural communities.
“It has to be in tune with modern times and be relevant and responsive to the needs of the rural communities,” she says.
There is a Zulu adage which will refer to Dube as Indoda emadodeni, literally meaning “man among men”. But in reality she is indeed a “woman among men” in the rapidly changing KwaZulu-Natal world of traditional leadership.