Female amakhosi say they are here to stay despite prejudice
Just 16% of KwaZulu-Natal chiefs are women but they are clearing paths for those to follow
Every Tuesday, Inkosi Thembekile Cele holds court in rural Izingolweni, in the south of KwaZulu-Natal, surrounded by her cabinet and presiding over disputes among her subjects.
She became a chief after her husband, Chief Khandalesizwe Cele, passed away eight years ago. Their son and heir to the throne, Simphiwe, was only 12 years old when his father died and was, therefore, too young to take the reins of power.
The cases she presides over range from domestic violence, territorial disputes, and accusations of cattle and stock theft, to claims of witchcraft.
KwaZulu-Natal has 264 chiefs, and 37 of them — about 16% of the total — are women. Inkosi Cele is one of these female traditional leaders who are breaking the bonds of tradition and taking control of their people’s future.
The family decided to appoint Cele to take over as a regent until her son comes of age. She is due to hand over power at the end of 2018.
The past eight years have been an eye-opener and a challenge for her, she says.
First, it was in the area of Izingolweni, over which her chieftaincy has jurisdiction, that the infamous Shobashobane massacre of Christmas 1995 took place. Impis supporting the Inkatha Freedom Party attacked families believed to be ANC supporters, leaving behind corpses, burnt homes and mourning relatives. Hundreds of people were injured and 19 people lost their lives on that day.
Cele says the area is still suffering from the aftermath of that massacre. "But we are doing our best to counsel people and ask families who fled to come back. Over the years, they have been coming back to rebuild their homesteads."
Her biggest achievement, she says, has been working with the local municipality to build RDP houses in the area.
"As a result of the political and factional violence, people are still predisposed to violence. You see many cases of domestic violence here. I was instrumental in opening the trauma centre at the local Izingolweni police station, and it is helping women and young children to overcome trauma," she says.
When she assumed the position, some men did not take kindly to being ruled by a female chief, she recounts.
"They felt that this was a job that was suited to a man. I suffered many prejudices, some of the local power brokers and izinduna [headmen] clearly undermined me. But I prevailed because I felt I had been called upon to bring stability to this clan and make a positive contribution to the development of the people," she says.
Female chiefs face a number of challenges, says Inkosi Phathisizwe Donatus Hastings Chiliza, chairman of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial House of Traditional Leaders. The body has had to intervene in several instances when female chiefs have been undermined.
"Traditionally, the role of inkosi was hereditary. But … some situations now force there should be female amakhosi. You find that an inkosi dies and the heir is too young and an alternative is sought, which is often the wife of the late inkosi.
"Once the families of amakhosi have decided to choose a female to take over the reins, that person is introduced to the local house of traditional leaders and inducted. We have special courses that we put them through at the University of KwaZulu-Natal," he says.
These courses teach them about leadership and the transformation from a queen to a chief who will preside over everyone in the village.
"The district managers are also on hand to assist female amakhosi in any challenges that they may encounter.
"I am very proud to say some of the female amakhosi are doing an excellent job, even surpassing their male counterparts," he says.
Some high-flying female chiefs include Inkosi Victoria Dube, the inkosi of the amaKholwa tribal community in eNtumeni outside Eshowe.
Four years ago, she was elected as the first chairwoman of the uThungulu local house of traditional leaders. She is also one of the three representatives of the KwaZulu-Natal traditional community in the National House of Traditional Leaders.
Dube’s rise to the chieftainship in her community has been nothing if not dramatic. Just like the late former ANC president and Nobel peace prize winner Albert Luthuli, Dube belongs to the amaKholwa tribes, which were communities that fell under Christian missions in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The missionaries allowed these communities to elect their own chiefs. This practice is still prevalent today. Dube’s community, eNtumeni, is a Christian community and has about 900 households with a population of about 7,000 people.
Dube’s husband, Xolani, was elected in 2002 for a five-year term, but he died suddenly in 2003 after a short illness. Some people lobbied for her to run for the chieftaincy.
"At first I was reluctant. But some people did not only insist, but they also put forward my name to stand for an election. Three villages and the church nominated me," she says.
The other nominee, a man, saw defeat looming and withdrew his candidacy. Dube became the community’s first female chief.
She has used her term of office to drive several projects. "I’ve worked with other amakhosi of the area to facilitate the massive electrification of the area," she says.
She has also been at the forefront of bringing projects under the Expanded Public Works Programme to her community. "Poverty in rural areas is very rife. Townspeople cannot appreciate the difference that [these projects make to] poor people’s lives.
"We had one recently and the results are there for anyone to see. You see vans coming from town in Eshowe with beds, fridges. That is why we are calling on government to bring more of these projects in our areas," she says.
She would like to continue in her chieftaincy role "if people are still happy about my role and elect me for a third term".
Inkosi Nelisiwe Winfrieda Mbhele, of the eMabheleni tribe on the province’s south coast, will probably lead her clan until her death.
She took over from her husband, Inkosi Mandlakhe Mbhele, who died in 2008, and she does not have a male heir.
"Before my husband died, he wrote a letter to the provincial capital, Pietermaritzburg, informing government officials that he would like to see me take over as he was very ill," says Mbhele.
The challenges she has encountered include being undermined by her male subjects. "But you have to be strong; be fair, but firm when presiding over a case.
"What I have noticed is that my male subjects have changed their attitude towards me and they now accept me.
"Women of this village now have more faith in the traditional system because they know that their matters will be handled with fairness," she says.