Locally, power does grow from the barrel of a gun

An encounter with a KZN induna and his armed henchmen reminded Ryland Fisher why so much is at stake at the municipal elections.

Last week I encountered first-hand how traditional authorities assert power over rural communities and realised why so much is at stake at the municipal elections, to the extent that people are prepared to kill to safeguard positions, as has already happened in some areas.

I was in Empangeni in northern KwaZulu-Natal, interviewing and photographing a psychologist who had benefited from a bursary scheme sponsored by an overseas foundation. With help from this foundation, he qualified and went back to rural KZN where he initiated a project to provide psychological services to more than 550 000 people.

The photographer asked whether we could take a picture of him in a rural setting, so we drove out to a small village, about 10km outside town. We took some pictures at the village entrance and drove further inside to take some more photos, with the backdrop of the rolling KZN hills.

After parking our cars next to a gravel road, we were preparing for the photo shoot when two big 4X4 vehicles pulled up and out jumped three guys armed with what looked like submachine guns and Uzis. I’m not an expert at guns but the men looked ominous. And nervous, which made them more ominous.

A big man (in a physical sense) in one of the vehicles asked us what we were doing there and when we explained, they asked why we had not asked permission from the “tribal authority” before we began taking pictures. We assumed he was the induna of the area because he said he needed to know what to tell people if they asked him why people were allowed to take pictures in their villages.

After much negotiation, under the beady eye of the armed men, they agreed that we could continue with our photo shoot.

Later we saw several blue-light brigade vehicles driving into the town and the photographer remembered he had heard that one of the political parties was announcing mayoral candidates or candidate lists for the municipal elections on that day.

This might explain the twitchiness of the induna and his men. They may have been nervous we were journalists wanting to write a negative story about their village. But even that would not have given them permission to stop us from taking photos and to display their guns in a threatening manner.

The experience left us shaken, even the psychologist and photographer who’d both grown up in rural communities and experienced the power of traditional leaders.

It was my first such experience and I realised why traditional leaders initially opposed succumbing to elected municipal leadership. It would appear that in some of these smaller communities, traditional leaders are considered close to gods. No one questions them and no one does anything without them knowing.

For someone who has always lived in a big city this is difficult to understand. But I understand power is important to most people and the traditional leadership structures ensured people subjected themselves to power. This might also explain why the ANC leadership quickly caved in to the demands of traditional leaders and began paying them after 1994.

In the 1980s, most of us involved in the Struggle never expected payment or positions, but times have changed. With power comes jobs and remuneration. And councillors and traditional leaders earn a reasonable amount of money, especially if one had nothing before.

Things have also changed and most people no longer get involved in politics because they want to make a difference to society. It appears most people get involved because they see some potential benefit for themselves.There are many communities, not only in rural areas, where one cannot do anything without the permission of leaders, some of whom are self-appointed. Naturally, these “leaders” always stand to benefit from whatever happens in “their” communities.

The concept of a “captured state” probably extends to “captured comrades” in a much broader sense. People in public service often put their interests ahead of the interests of the people they are supposed to serve. This is probably why most people in government employment don’t speak out about the problems in society. It is ,therefore, up to civil society organisations and ordinary members of political parties to instil values of selfless service into party and government structures. This, of course, is easier said than done. As a result we will probably have to live with gatekeepers and selfish political leadership for a long time.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 9 July 2016)