The Recognition Syndrome


Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro Recently, various public figures have been in unison in their chorus of worry about the increasing phenomenon of communities seeking recognition and its omen of splitting up these communities. I am reluctant to jump onto this bandwagon of seeming worry. In fact, I find it strange that especially the Government should be the one to cry over this matter. It is the very same that has visited this situation upon itself, of course indirectly through the Kozonguizi Commission that enquired into the recognition of traditional leaders in 1991, and subsequently laid down before the Government various options. “The Commission having found that the traditional system is not only necessary but also viable, recommended that it be retained within the context of the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia, and having regard to the integrity and oneness of the Namibian Nation as a priority,” reads the Commission’s recommendation in its 1991 report. The folly does not lie in the various options the Commission blended for the Government. They were just take and leave options. The Government had before it the leave option of doing away with the whole system of traditional hybrids. It equally was presented with the option of taking on board the system. However, it decided that perhaps because of political sensitivity, the first option was a non-starter. So to speak, it opted for a seemingly modified and updated version of the pre-colonial status quo of chieftaincy. My issue is not so much about whatever advice from the Commission the Government opted for, wrongly or rightly, but the extent to which it has appropriately applied itself and its mind to the matter after the fact. Granted that the Government may have rightly opted to accommodate the traditional system in view of the historical centrality of the system, it equally had the opportunity to put the system on a completely different footing and in its rightful place. That is to put the system completely out of public domain into its legitimate realm, which is dealing with purely traditional matters. In fact, confusion still seems to reign supreme within both the Government and the upholders and custodians of the system, namely the traditional leaders, as to the nature and essence of the system. Thanks to the foresight of the menders of our Constitution, the system can lay claim to a constitutional existence if not historical. Among the constitutional bases for the existence of this system is specifically Article 102 (5) of the Constitution: “There shall be a Council of Traditional Leaders to be established in terms of an Act of Parliament in order to advise the President on the control and utilization of communal land, and on all such other matters as may be referred to it by the President for advice.” This article puts the system rightly back into the public domain. However, I don’t think this article is fundamental to this system. In fact articles 19 and 21 (b), and (d) are more fundamental to the existence of the traditional system. Article 19 entitles anyone to “enjoy, practice, profess, maintain and promote any culture, language, tradition or religion”. Article 21 (b) allows for “freedom of thought, conscience and belief” which I also interpret to mean traditional belief. Article 21 (d) guarantees the right to “assemble peaceably and without arms”, which I again interpretatively extend to assembling with regard to traditional matters. Thus, more than anything else, I think the two articles I have just cited fundamentally give credence and legitimacy to the traditional system. Be that as the case may be, I don’t understand why the system needs extra recognition by the Government? If the Constitution already allows anyone to enjoy her/his culture and organise culturally, why does anyone need special recognition by the Government to do so? That is simply because the raison d’ÃÆ’Æ‘Æ‘ÃÆ”šÃ‚ªtre of the system has been misdirected and overstretched beyond the purely cultural. Should it be like that? Shouldn’t the traditional system simply deal with cultural or traditional matters whatever they are? In that event, the issue of recognition shall be irrelevant, immaterial and superfluous. Any traditional authority must purely be what it is and supposed to be, that is protecting, promoting and preserving the culture of its people and administering to the cultural needs or wants. Should that be the case, recognition shall not be relevant as no culture shall be more important than the other as currently seems to be the case under the present traditional regime. I thus think the problem has not been so much communities applying for recognition but the essence of recognition itself. There is currently inconsistency in the Government’s approach to the issue of recognition, born out of a lack of foresight. I shall want to distinguish between a “hereditary” clan – the so-called royal blood or blue blood clans – and a traditional community. The former may exist out of a handful of individuals. Still, yes they have as much a right to enjoy their culture. For that they do not need any recognition above and at the expense of other similar clans. In fact, in most cases these hereditary clans are not inclusive and purely exist for the benefit of their seemingly good blood cast. On the contrary, the traditional community that extends beyond any cultural parochialism and self-centredness seems to be riding rough in terms of the recognition regime with their members subjected to their more privileged so-called hereditary cast. This is not only highly undemocratic but also totalitarian and autocratic. My cursory observation is that in some sections of our rural communities – members of the unrecognised traditional communities – have been in most cases in the majority. How democratic and just is it to subject them to hereditary traditional rule. Is democracy not partly about majority rule? I think if our public figures are really concerned about splitting up communities, they should approach the matter in its proper perspective and pay due regard to the recognition syndrome. Therein lies the problematica. Ideally, issues of governorship should not be in the realm of the traditional system. Should governance wisdom and practicality demand an implementing agency at rural levels, then regional structures have the necessary wherewithal that can be deployed for this purpose.