The proposed Traditional Courts Bill, which seeks to align community justice with the Constitution, will only entrench the inequality of rural women, a senior researcher said on Tuesday.
“There is no provision for making women members of the court. Seeing as though 59 percent of the rural population are women, it seems like quite a legitimate request,” said University of Cape Town researcher Sindiso Mnisi-Weeks.
She said the bill as it stood meant women would have to abide by patriarchal customary laws, which excluded them from attending proceedings in so-called “sacred spaces” and required a man to speak on their behalf.
“What we need is greater inclusiveness, not less. It fails to reconcile that which it should reconcile.”
Mnisi-Weeks was speaking at a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) briefing in Cape Town.
The bill was first introduced in the National Assembly in 2008, but was withdrawn after an outcry from civil society.
A broad alliance of civil society organisations, known as the Alliance for Rural Democracy, rejected an amendment approach and called for new legislation to be drafted in line with the Constitution.
However, the bill was reintroduced to the National Council of Provinces in January, without amendments.
It allows for a traditional leader to be the sole presiding officer in a traditional court, conducting hearings for offences like theft, malicious damage to property, assault without grievous bodily harm and crimen injuria.
The presiding officer has the discretion to order any person, not just parties to the case, to perform unpaid labour or deprive people of customary entitlements.
These entitlements could include banishing people from a community or depriving them of land rights.
Public hearings are taking place across the country for input on the bill, which could affect between 17 million and 21 million rural citizens.
Mnisi-Weeks said she was shocked by reports that people were being excluded from these public hearings, with the excuse that they were “only for traditional leaders”.
It was inexcusable for copies of the bill to be available only in English and not in all official languages.
The people tasked with translating the bill often did so incorrectly or with a hidden agenda, she said.
The bill gave too much power to single traditional leaders, the leaders' powers were too extensive, and there was no provision for people to opt out of the traditional court system.
“It enables corruption of traditional leaders who are corrupt, and shields the abuse of power,” she said. - Sapa