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Defying the norm

Nkosikazi Mhlauli’s appointment comes at a crucial time for South Africa given its commitment to eradicating gender inequality by the year 2030, says the writer. Picture: South African Government News/Facebook

Nkosikazi Mhlauli’s appointment comes at a crucial time for South Africa given its commitment to eradicating gender inequality by the year 2030, says the writer. Picture: South African Government News/Facebook

Published Feb 9, 2022

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By Dimpho Takane Maponya

The election of Nkosikazi Nosandi Mhlauli as the first woman chairperson of the National House of Traditional and Khoisan Leaders has been one of the most defining historical moments for South Africa.

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To put this moment into context, the National House of Traditional and Khoisan Leaders has never been under the leadership of a woman since the formal recognition of traditional institutions in South Africa in 1993.

This simply means that the traditional House of Leaders has been, for the longest of times, occupied by men and, since its inception, led by men – a demonstration of the extent to which patriarchy continues to entrench itself, not only in our society, but also in institutions that govern us.

Against this backdrop, Nkosikazi Mhlauli’s appointment comes at a crucial time for South Africa given its commitment to eradicating gender inequality by the year 2030 – a goal that requires the participation of every stakeholder in the society, and more so, that of traditional leaders.

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Nkosikazi Mhlauli’s election is a step towards transformation, representation and inclusion.

Traditional leaders in South Africa play a very important role. They played and continue to play the role of merging various aspects of traditional and modern society. Their role extends beyond simply defending indigenous knowledge and traditional systems.

Traditional leaders are tasked with constantly seeking ways in which African traditions and knowledge are carried forward, especially in a society that is still navigating its way through decolonisation. According to the national government website: “The mandate of the House is to: promote the role of traditional leadership within the constitutional dispensation; promote nation-building; promote peace, stability and the cohesiveness of communities; develop, preserve and promote culture and traditions of communities; consider Parliamentary bills referred to it by the Secretary; participate in intergovernmental structures and advise the national government and make recommendations on any matter that the government may require."

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As a society that is aspiring to decolonisation, indigenous knowledge and African traditional systems should be explored and engaged carefully and not forcefully.

This is to allow us to negotiate a balance in a world that is, in so many ways, anti-African and anti-women. As a result, the role of Nkosikazi Mhlauli becomes increasingly significant, not only as a figure that defies the norm, but also as an individual who brings to the House a perspective that has, for centuries, been marginalised – a perspective of black African women.

The perspective of African women in traditional affairs cannot be divorced from the brutal history of exclusion that was imposed by colonialism on African people. This perspective cannot be separated from an inherited system that considered and treated Africans as lesser humans.

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Even worse, African women were right at the bottom of this hierarchy. Due to this history, Nkosikazi Mhlauli’s appointment as chairperson of a House that is instrumental in redressing some of these past injustices becomes an even more victorious moment. It means that Africans are slowly repositioning themselves in a world that denies them humanity. And most importantly, African women are slowly becoming drivers of this transformation.

Nkosikazi Nosandi Mhlauli is a stark reminder that women are equally human and equally able to lead. She is essentially continuing in a path that was laid by great and courageous female leaders that came before her – Queen Modjadji, Nzinga, Nandi, Mbuya Nehanda, Mkabayi kaJama, Mmanthatisi and many others. And it is rather unfortunate that the colonial enterprise has sought to downplay, undermine and, in some instances, eradicate the role that these phenomenal women played in history.

Nkosikazi Mhlauli is a beacon of hope for many African women – young and old. She represents the voiceless. She is simply a depiction of those who have been spoken for, and through her the struggles of African women will be brought to the fore.

In essence, Nkosikazi Mhlauli stands in a position of privilege because, for the first time, she will provide the House of Traditional Leaders with a perspective that has been disempowered by both colonialism and, in many respects, African traditional systems.

It will, for the first time, have some insight into the struggles faced by African women in a post-colonial dispensation. Nkosikazi Mhlauli will thereby present the House with an opportunity of addressing social issues more comprehensively and not exclusively.

While “traditional” is often mistaken for patriarchal and unchanging, Nkosikazi Mhlauli’s appointment has made it clear that change is inevitable. And although it may be unsettling to some, it is a critical aspect of what it will take for Africans to construct just societies.

All things considered, if there is anything to appreciate about the project of decolonisation is that, while it is an exercise of deconstructing colonial structure, it is also a process of constant reflection and assessment of our very own traditional structures and systems.

A process of evaluating what works and what does not while also exploring ways in which we all become part of the change.

Phambili Makhosikazi Phambili (forward with women, forward) – the time is now!

*Maponya is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Johannesburg.

Related Topics:

Gender

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