Reconciling Traditions with Democracy

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KAE ON FRIDAY Kae Matundu-Tjiparuro Two callers to the NBC Otjiherero Language Service call-in programme, Indjo Kepu, made interesting, pertinent and divergent observations of concerns recently. The observations are particularly pertinent in the context of the court case between factions of the Ovambanderu and the verdict thereof, which Judge Collins Parker handed down on April 13 but against which the Ovambanderu Chief and the “Mbanderu Royal Authority” have just given notice of appeal to the Supreme Court. One caller opined the need for opposition politicians, for some reasons, to attend to the seeming lack of democracy within our traditional structures. The other countered seeing such an advocacy heralding the beginning of the end of traditional structures. These different views may seem confined to a limited audience (the Otjiherero-speaking), parochial and not of national interest or consequence. However, they go to the root of the democratic dispensation that on March 21 1990 we embarked upon. The important and common thread running through the two seemingly divergent concerns is whether tradition is necessarily or inherently undemocratic, or that tradition and democracy are two different ends of a continuum? In the final analysis, this is the question that the Ovambanderu Constitutional Challenge case sought answers to. This is granting other hidden considerations and ambitions that may be motivating the two respective sides to this challenge. The substantive issue in this matter was whether the “democratic” channels were followed in the adoption of the Ovambanderu Constitution? And whether the abortion or speeding up of this process, depending on the way you may want to look at it, by the Chief of the Ovambanderu was democratic or not. This is the very same question the two callers seemed to be raising looking at the broader picture of the relationship between traditions, culture or custom, however you may wish to refer to it, on the one hand, and democratic values on the other hand. Some of the legal arguments presented at this hearing could have frightening consequences depending of course on the final verdict of the Supreme Court that would now be seized with the dispute. They seem to be in the very same mould fuelling the view that traditional structures are undemocratic by nature. A view that holds that a Chief has a final say in a matter such as a Constitution that is to run the lives – as customary as they may be – of a community, does not do much to help entrench democratic values. Can the two callers in the face of such reasoning then be blamed for feeling that tradition and democracy are incompatible? Such a reasoning and submission is to say the least, devoid of any democratic sensitivity and at most disastrous for the growth and nurturing of democracy. Whoever thinks that the two do not belong together must have a wrong understanding of how traditions/customs and democracy interplay or are supposed to interplay, or does not have an understanding of how democracy mechanizes itself within our traditional systems. I have been privy to many a traditional meeting and I have been impressed to say the least. Openness seems to be the hallmark of such systems with all and sundry participating. In such meetings in my experience everyone is somebody and any point is taken on its own intrinsic value and not because of the social standing of anyone. This to me is but one living testimony to the democratic nature of our traditional systems. The Traditional Authorities Act may not be vocal on to what extent the traditional systems are expected to adhere to democratic principles but it is loud and clear that “any custom, tradition, practice or usage which is discriminatory or which detracts from or violates the rights of any person as guaranteed by the Namibian Constitution, or any other statutory law which prejudices the national interest shall cease to apply”. There is thus an expectation and prescription for traditional structures, and by extension leaders of such structures, to keep within the democratic spirit of the Constitution. Thus our traditional systems of governance are subject to more than just customary laws. I don’t even know of any customary laws that vest any traditional leader or authority with absolute powers that cannot be circumscribed by or subordinated to the supreme law of the country. Or the will of the people for that matter, the people in this instance being that particular community. Please, if there is anyone out there who is aware of the existence of such laws I would be most obliged to learn a thing or two from her/him. Besides, I don’t see our traditional systems being threatened in any way by adherence to democratic principles. If at all such principles are there to enhance such systems. I think one thing giving rise to such fears is the succession debate within our traditional systems or the method of appointing our traditional leaders, especially the Chiefs. Do we elect them or appoint them? I think normally we tend to confuse two things. Chieftainship succession operates through two modes. Either through the genealogical route or through election or consensus for that matter. When it comes to royal houses, succession is normally through genealogy, while with respect to a traditional community, succession is through election or acclamation for that matter since usually such communities are not governed by genealogy. I think it must be understood that genealogical chieftaincy can only rule over a traditional community with the democratic assent of that community not as a matter of divinity. This is in contrast to ruling over his own clan where succession is through lineage. Even in that case a democratic process unique to this clan’s way of choosing its leaders is at play. The Traditional Authorities Act is even clear on this. So in a nutshell, I don’t see any antagonistic friction between tradition and democracy. Instead, the problem to me lies with those who are unable to reconcile traditions with democracy. This is often a matter of the generational gap and education. Either the younger and educated generation can better leave the old guard to their old ways and traditions as they wish without labouring them with modern trappings like democracy or what-have-you until the old guard comes to appreciate that the old must exist alongside the new. Equally the young and educated generation must bear with our elders who may not all the time be familiar with democratic principles, at least in modern parlance. I don’t know what is your take on this? My own view is that our education becomes meaningless if it is of no use to our communities, including refining our traditional systems.