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South Africa Proposes National Traditional Leaders Bill, Indigenous Leaders Cautious

Indigenous Peoples in South Africa have reacted with cautious optimism to President Jacob Zuma's announcement of a National Traditional Leaders Bill. The bill is a first in the way of government recognition of Indigenous Peoples in South Africa and while Indigenous Peoples say they remain unclear about the government's intention in initiating such a bill, they say they will back the bill for now.

When Zuma made the announcement, Indigenous Peoples leaders were in attendance in a show of support for the government initiative. Zuma said that the new National Traditional Affairs Bill provides for participation of Khoi-San leaders in municipal councils. The bill also provides for the establishment of an advisory committee that would investigate and make recommendations on the recognition of Indigenous Peoples including the communities of the Khoi, San, Nama, Korana, Griqua and their leaders.

The president said that the intention is to introduce the bill into Parliament towards the end of this year after several sessions of consultations across the country. Zuma said the government was looking at honoring indigenous leaders of the past, including marking their graves as many had been buried in unmarked plots and forgotten.

Cecil le Fleur, is a member of the national Khoi-San Council and a trustee of the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (IPACC); the latter is a network of more than 155 Indigenous Peoples' organizations in 22 African countries. Le Fleur said that the struggle by the Khoi San people to be recognized as South Africa's Indigenous Peoples has been a long and constant struggle.

He said that the Khoi-San are undoubtedly the first people’s of South Africa but that the South African government had been dragging its feet in ratifying the International Labour Organization number 169 which deals specifically with the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. Once a country ratifies the Convention, it has one year to align legislation, policies and programs to the Convention before it becomes legally binding. Countries that have ratified the Convention are subject to supervision with regards to its implementation.

Given this background, le Fleur added that the support for governments new National Traditional Leaders Bill among Indigenous Peoples was not a given.

“We argued in the National Khoi-San Council about this bill. If we accept it, it would bind the government to the bill, if not as Indigenous Peoples but then as traditional leaders. We can then use the bill to fight for our rights as Indigenous Peoples. As the council, we accepted the bill and we will work towards having it passed,”?Le Fleur said. “To a certain extent” he was optimistic about the bill and its potential for Indigenous Peoples recognition. “This is the beginning of what we have been fighting for,” he explained.

Le Fleur added that the bill is in front of cabinet and he didn't want to preempt their government Minister’s deliberations on the bill.

Meanwhile, the speaker of the Khoi and Boesman Assembly Zenzile Koisan believes that the bill as it stands needs to be rewritten while at the same time asserting his optimism at the potential the bill represents for Indigenous Peoples in South Africa. “The bill itself in its current form has to be significantly revisited. The mechanic for instituting the recognition of the Khoi-San is not clearly laid out. The bill needs to speak to how the process of recognition will be effected. How will the Khoi-San be accommodated? The question of recognition must speak to restitution; how to restore communities dispossessed by colonialism and Apartheid?” he pointed out.

Khoisan also raised the concern that in multilingual South Africa that boasts 11 official languages, none of the indigenous languages have been recognized as an official language. The South African coat of arms has the motto “diverse people unite” inscribed in the Xam language of the Khoi-San.

“There has been a basic consultative process about the bill. There has been input from throughout the country. I have to be optimistic. We are standing on the cusp of a new day. I have to stand with optimism,” said Khoisan.

Pedro Dausab, Nama language expert and teacher working with The Pan South African Language Board (PANSAB) said that he hoped the bill would allow for the history of the Indigenous Peoples of South Africa to be easily accessed in institutions such as libraries and even places of worship. He felt that the history of the Indigenous Peoples was slowly and steady being forgotten. Dausab said he too was optimistic that the bill would lead to the recognition of Indigenous Peoples and the promotion of their culture; a factor seriously lacking in contemporary South Africa.