By Susan Tolmay Chief Toka Letsie is one of two chiefs that sits on and represents the other chiefs in the 22-person Quthing District Council, as determined by local government legislation in Lesotho. Most chiefs and councillors at the district level are men. However, Letsie inherited his chieftaincy from his mother – the reason, perhaps, why he is more open to having women play a role in the decision-making of the community. Traditional authorities are a powerful force at the local level in Namibia, South Africa and Lesotho. Their relationships with local government and the gender implications of this are complex. Case studies of the three countries (along with Mauritius) were conducted as part of research for “At the coalface: Gender and local government in Southern Africa”, published by Gender Links, a Southern African non-governmental organization specializing in gender, governance and the media. In each of the three above-mentioned countries where strong traditional systems still operate, the influence of chiefs arose as a particular concern. The study set out to draw lessons on increasing the representation of women in local government in a way that minimizes conflict, increases participation and leads to a more equitable, responsive government at the coalface of delivery. There has been considerable tension between the chiefs and local councillors, especially women councillors, in Lesotho since the 2005 local elections. Relationships between the chiefs and the councillors are fraught with conflict, and in many instances are barriers to women councillors being able to perform their duties effectively. One interviewee noted, “There is confusion within communities regarding roles; they do not know where to go with their issues. Some chiefs still think that women should not have opinions with regard to governance.” Letsie does not share these views about women. On the contrary, he believes that having women in local government is good, “because we should share everything, including work. And it is important for women to be there because they are exposed to many life experiences and they are flexible and they are all over.” Letsie believes in Lesotho’s quota system ensuring at least 30 percent representation of women in local government, “because it is a step towards gender equality and all sections of society are being given a chance to exercise their ability in decision-making,” he says. He does not believe, as others do, that it is necessarily unfair, “as the government simply pulled up a section of society that was suffering from marginalization for a very long time.” Both in South Africa and Namibia, the chiefs virtually ran rural local government under previous regimes and worked closely with the apartheid authorities. In South Africa, chiefs vehemently opposed the clause in the Constitution subjecting customary laws to the Bill of Rights. However, both the new African National Congress (ANC) and Swapo Party governments were careful not to alienate the chiefs. The institution of chieftaincy is deeply entrenched in Lesotho. The recent introduction of elected local government is a direct threat to the authority of the chiefs and has been the source of considerable tension. Mosiuoa Buno, a male councillor from Lesotho, says that a core problem is that “people don’t have a clear understanding what local government is all about and some councillors are challenged, especially with regard to grazing land.” He went on to explain that for a long time the chiefs and the men have controlled the grazing lands. In women’s only constituencies, when women try to control these lands, the men challenge them. Buno said that while male councillors also face challenges from the community and traditional leaders, these are relatively minor compared to those faced by women. “With the men councillors, it is just the naughtiness of boys stealing away at night and taking the cattle to graze in preserved grazing areas and hiding or running away, but for women councillors they do it in the daylight and let the cattle graze on preserved land.” Another woman councillor in Lesotho, Pulane Ranooe, alleges that she faces resistance from some of the men who work closely with the chiefs. One of the biggest problems she faces is the poor turnout at pitsos (public gatherings), where she gives people information. She relies on the chief to send out invitations and organize the meetings. She is convinced that the chief is not sending the invitations out on time. Poor participation hinders her ability to perform optimally. South Africa is the only country in the region that has introduced legislation to ensure women’s representation in these parallel traditional structures. The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act (2003) stipulates that women must comprise 33 percent of traditional councils and that 40 percent of its members must be democratically elected. A criticism of the Act is that it makes provision for women to succeed to positions of traditional leadership, without saying how. While there are some instances of women traditional leaders, this is rare. Letsie admits that there is resistance from chiefs to local government, but says that he believes in local government and strongly supports it. “In the beginning there was friction due to misunderstandings and the fact that chiefs felt threatened.” However, he maintains that a series of workshops with councillors and chiefs have helped to clarify roles and mandates. He believes that this new system works because previously chiefs had limited resources and mandates to access all areas of people’s lives. Letsie says that there has been a change since the increase in participation of women at local level because women now feel more confident to exercise their ability. Letsie welcomes the fact that women councillors are seen as role models. He adds that there have been changes in service delivery; for example, there are now village nurses who help with basic health services and assist pregnant women. However, culture continues to play a big role. According to Letsie, “The minority status of women and cultural practices still limit women from accessing decision-making structures. People in the urban areas understand about gender equality, but people in rural areas and villages still treat women as minors and this will take some time to change.” One of the key findings of the Gender Links study was that a growing number of Southern African countries are showing that gender equality in local government means a real difference in people’s lives on the ground. However, if women are to play their vital role in this sphere of decision-making – the “coalface” of service delivery – there is a great need to strengthen local government and integrate gender considerations into its work. The challenge, according to the chief, is for government and other stakeholders that are involved in making and implementing laws to inform and educate citizens and councillors, especially in rural areas, and translate the laws from English into Sotho. Despite the challenges facing women from traditional leaders and men, as illustrated in the case of Chief Letsie, not all men are the same. Despite resistance in some circles, attitudes are slowly changing. – Susan Tolmay is the Gender and Governance Manager at Gender Links. This article is an excerpt from ‘At the coalface: Gender and local government in Southern Africa”, as part of a special series for the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.