Professor Lungisile Ntsebeza’s name is associated with land reform, which is appropriate given that he grew up in a rural area and was banished to the small town of Cala in the Eastern Cape during apartheid.

He is now the holder of the National Research Foundation research chair in land reform and democracy in South Africa, as well as the AC Jordan chair in African studies and director of the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Ntsebeza’s research in the area around his home town of Cala, where he was born in 1954, played a crucial role in a landmark decision by the high court in Bhisho in 2015 and has affected the lives of South Africans living in rural areas under tribal authorities.

He got his first degree, a BA in philosophy and political science, in prison.
He was jailed at the age of 22 for five years for organising study groups that examined the political situation in South Africa and alternatives to apartheid — an activity that helped to develop his abilities in analytical thinking.

His path to academia was influenced by his parents, who were teachers. They encouraged him from a young age to read newspapers and listen to the radio news. This, he says, gave him a sense of what was happening in his country and the world and influenced him towards his studious habits.

“I grew up as a reader. This was an influence of my parents and siblings,” says Ntsebeza. “I remember my father religiously bought and read the Daily Dispatch newspaper and listened to the radio. He also had his own library, which was open for all to use. There was always something to read at home.”

When he was banished to Cala, Ntsebeza revived a bookshop belonging to his parents, both of whom had died — his mother while he was in prison and his father soon after his release. The bookshop was another step in his intellectual preoccupations.

In 1987, Ntsebeza registered for an honours degree in African studies at UCT. After completing a master’s degree at the University of Natal and a PhD in sociology at Rhodes University, he returned to UCT and became a professor in 2007.

Now he is addressing economic and social justice with research on land reform and democracy.

Research that’s relevant

Ntsebeza’s research centres on three main areas at the interface of theory and practice: democratisation in South Africa’s countryside; land and equity in the context of the struggle against poverty; and social movements in the land sector.

He argues that recognition by the government of traditional leadership, coupled with the establishment of traditional councils, which are modelled on apartheid-era tribal authorities, compromises South Africa’s democracy. In both traditional leadership and traditional councils, the majority of members are not elected.

“This gives rise to questions about the meaning of democracy for people living in rural areas under the jurisdiction of traditional authorities,” he says.

On the subject of land and equity, Ntsebeza has focused on the land reform programme.

“I’ve not only looked at the limitations of the South African Constitution — particularly section 25, the property clause — and the land reform programme, but also the broader question of whether access to land makes a difference to the livelihoods of South Africans, both rural and urban,” says Ntsebeza. “My research has shown clearly that those people with access to land, regardless of its extent, are better off than those without.”

His interest in social movements also relates to land reform. “Until 2013, I had been arguing that one of the reasons the land reform programme in South Africa was proceeding at a snail’s pace was that social movements in the land sector were weak,” says Ntsebeza. “However, the historic farmworkers’ and farm-dwellers’ revolt towards the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013 compelled me to reconsider.

“Subsequently, I am more optimistic about the prospects of ‘change from below’.”

A landmark case

Ntsebeza’s expertise and research have taken him around the world. But his research in the Cala area, which was used in the high court case, that has made its mark.

The case dealt with the succession of headmen — administrative officials in tribal authorities below the level of chief.

The story unfolded in 2013 in the Cala Reserve and began with the resignation of Jongilizwe Hamilton Fani, headman of the reserve, who had served the people there since 1979.

Following Fani’s resignation, the Cala Reserve residents proceeded to elect a successor, as was their custom. At a meeting, the majority present elected a sub-headman and Fani’s de facto deputy as their new leader. But the amaGcina traditional council rejected their choice of headman, apparently because he was not a member of the royal family. The head of the traditional council, Gecelo, imposed his own choice, an unelected clansman, on the residents — much to their dismay.

Gecelo cited the Eastern Cape Traditional Leadership and Governance Act, which, he said, instructs the royal family to elect headmen, and told the Cala residents: “Nokuba niyathanda okanye anithandi na, yiroyal family ethata izigqibo ngokubekwa kwenkosana [Whether you like it nor not, it is the royal family that decides on the headman].”

The Cala residents responded by writing complaints to the premier of the Eastern Cape, the member of the executive council for local government and traditional affairs, and the Qamata regional traditional council. When these complaints were rejected, they turned to the Legal Resources Centre, which launched an application on their behalf in the high court against the decision of the premier.

During 2014, the court found in favour of the Cala Reserve residents and declared that customary law requires its headman to be elected by the people of Cala. The premier appealed.

The decision, taken by a full Bench of the high court to dismiss the premier’s appeal, represented a landmark win for democracy in the countryside. The effect of this decision is reverberating across South Africa, and Ntsebeza’s research was critical in determining the outcome of the case.

A force for democracy

Having conducted extensive research over the course of 20 years into the history of traditional authority in the Xhalanga district, which includes the Cala Reserve, Ntsebeza was able to provide the court with a detailed account of the area’s history of electing headmen.

Importantly, his evidence included written records that corroborated the oral testimonies he had collected. Ntsebeza also drew attention to a provision in national legislation, the Traditional Leadership Governance Framework Act, stating that the royal family can only appoint a headman after taking into account the practices of the people.

The practice in the Cala Reserve, as he showed, was to elect their own leaders.

“Both the lower high court of Bisho and the full Bench agreed that the task of appointing headmen resided with the royal family,” says Ntsebeza.

“However, both courts pointed out that the law required that the royal family should take into account the custom of the community concerned. This is where my evidence proved decisive. Indeed, the judgment has already been instrumental in igniting a movement across rural areas of the Eastern Cape that poses the very same question I raise about the meaning of democracy for people living under the jurisdiction of chiefs.”

Following the judgment, rural residents in the Eastern Cape began to request workshops on the Cala Reserve case and its possible implications for rural areas outside Xhalanga.

This led to a series of workshops, and a civil society-led campaign on the meaning of democracy for people who reside in the rural areas of former Bantustans is gathering momentum.

More to come

Ntsebeza is nearing retirement but remains committed to addressing economic and social injustice. His research work has grown in prominence and provides essential reading on the debates about the future of land and the institution of traditional authorities and social movements.

He is working on a sequel to his book Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of Land in South Africa that will include new information drawn from his involvement in the events following the Xhalanga case.

“I am currently exploring the implications of the high court judgment, as well as the social movement it has given rise to, for the meaning of democracy for residents of rural areas that are under the control of traditional authorities.”