As raging floods in KwaZulu-Natal dominated the media space, a little story on the rape and murder of Emile Tukani, 12 years old in a village near Mthatha in the Eastern Cape went almost unnoticed. It is perhaps worth noting that it has received the least attention, as incidents of gender-based violence in the Eastern Cape, including against young girls and boys, are tragically high.
I happened to be at the Emilhle memorial service and was surprised by what was highlighted about the event in the media compared to my experience. For the most part, there seemed to be a focus on the gruesome details of the crime, followed by an emphasis on the drug problem in the villages. What the reports lacked was the context in which this crime occurred and the resilience and resources that were mobilized within the community on very short notice.
Emihle’s home village of Mputhi, part of Bhaziya Traditional Council in King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality, is about 45 minutes from Mthatha. The landscape is painfully beautiful, with colorful huts scattered on hills, against the backdrop of the blue mountains of Bhaziya. Mist rises from the mountains early in the morning, giving the villages a deeply peaceful atmosphere.
My team and I spent several weeks in these villages, going from house to house trying to better understand the relationship that people have with their traditional leader in relation to a series of problems.
While we were there, the tragic death of Emilhle occurred. We first heard about it from Nkosi Minenkulu Joyi, the senior traditional leader of the Bhaziya Traditional Council. This was not the only story of unimaginable violence we heard during the weeks we were in King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality, but it is the only one in which such swift action was taken.
Nkosi Joyi interrupted his university studies at the age of 25 when his father died, and he was forced to assume the position of traditional leader of the traditional council. In his 10 years as a traditional leader, he worked hard against near impossible odds to bring resources and development to his community.
Jumba’s traditional council is near Bhaziya, and here Nkosi Nokhaka Jumba, one of the women to take on the leadership role, is similarly striving to change the circumstances of the people she serves while transforming the institution from within to become more gender sensitive.
The ancient homeland of Transkei remains one of the least developed regions of our country. The unemployment rate is around 70% and the level of dependency on social assistance is high. Small-scale agricultural activities are affected by weather conditions, including several years of drought followed by unusually heavy rains last summer.
Drug and substance abuse is very high. As we slipped and slid down the muddy gravel roads, we encountered young men who were obviously intoxicated at all times of the day. The assumption is that without anything better to do, turning to drug addiction is inevitable. The assumption is further that once ‘high’, involvement in criminal activity, including gender-based violence, is also inevitable.
On the surface, causal links can be assumed. But in reality, these things are much more complex. It has become almost taboo on popular platforms in South Africa to talk about the legacy of apartheid. But I don’t think we can begin to unravel the high levels of gender-based violence in the villages of the former Transkei without talking about the legacy of apartheid: the tearing apart of families through forced migrant labor, the absence of fathers, the emasculation of black men, the systematic underdevelopment of the old homelands, and the resulting disruption of social order.
I was in the Eastern Cape as part of a research team, led by the University of Ghana and in partnership with the University of Pretoria, which was studying women traditional leaders across the continent. During our meeting with traditional chiefs, women and men, we became aware of how their authority has been systematically reduced without anything else replacing it.
The subject of the diminishing power and authority of traditional chiefs is the subject of another article, but suffice it to say here that where traditional chiefs have played a vital role in holding the social fabric of one community, rural communities are now floundering without direction. When speaking to household members, one senses that there is a sense of abandonment under the “new dispensation”.
In this context, when the terrible story of the death of Emilhle Tukani emerged, what was significant was not the horrific details of her death, but the fact that the community took action. Led by Nkosi Joyi, within days of the tragedy, critical actors from all sides were mobilized to address the issue. Grassroots civil society organizations, religious leaders, political party leaders and members of the South African Police, including at the provincial level, were present.
Several traditional leaders in King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality have set up foundations to raise funds to support their development work. But beyond trying to lift their communities out of poverty, these leaders are also tackling the sense of directionlessness and abandonment in rural villages of former homelands.
Four days after Emilhle’s death was reported in the media, News24 reported on the 38.5 million rand spent over the past 10 years planning and designing a government complex in Bisho which is still “just an empty lot”.
In our conversations with traditional leaders, we heard very few complaints about the government or the lack of funding provided to support the work of traditional leaders. What we heard is what the dreams of these traditional leaders are in terms of community development that they know and understand well.
Nkosi Joyi, for example, dreams of creating a center near the Royal House (instead of 45 minutes to Mthatha – an impossible distance for people living on R350 a month) where domestic affairs, leisure facilities and workers social could be established to address community issues as they arise.
Nkosi Jumba sees traditional courts being able to respond more quickly to problems before they escalate once the Traditional Courts Bill is passed.
If there is meaning to be drawn from a tragedy like the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, then let’s make sure we work actively to prevent it from happening again. The locals reminded us time and time again that we were in the region where our great leaders, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu came from, but their home communities have been forgotten.
Emilhle’s death is not some strange rural event, it is a direct symptom of apartheid and the deep inequalities that we continue to maintain, and thus becomes the responsibility of each one of us. DM
The fieldwork referred to is part of a continent-wide research project on women traditional leaders and political representation, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and led by a team from the Legon Center for International Affairs and Diplomacy from the University of Ghana in partnership with the universities of Pretoria and Makerere. The cases under consideration include those from Ghana, Liberia, Botswana and South Africa.