HAVING travelled deep into the rural areas of our country in recent times, I returned to my city home last week with an appalling realisation: the tribal "homelands" of the old SA are still what that fanatical segregationist, Hendrik Verwoerd, intended them to be - Bantustans.

As I drove through what was once the Ciskei and the rolling grasslands of the old Transkei - land so lovely as to make an Alan Paton sing of it - the sad truth of that realisation struck home. For little has changed there. Agricultural activity is still limited to a handful of tiny market gardens and one sees only occasional groups of cattle and goats.

True, the little round mud-daub huts with their thatched roofs have given way to more substantial, if less picturesque, dwellings. But for the people, life is unchanged. They don't own those homes. They don't own the land on which they are built. Most of them own nothing. They are vassals of the paternal chiefs who control their lives.

They live in what is essentially still a labour reservoir of migrant workers.

As I looked out upon this reality, I felt a sense of outrage. The borderlands of this part of the Eastern Cape are my place of origin, where I was born and spent my youth. It is historic land, where, in the century before my birth, nine wars and a dozen rebellions were fought between my ancestor settlers and the Xhosa people. Heroic, blood-soaked land. It is also the birth land of latter-day heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu and the Mbekis.

My memory went back to the days when I sat in the Press Gallery of the old parliament listening to Verwoerd's two-hour perorations on the philosophy of separateness, of how, as he put it, "we must take this system so far that no one in the future will ever be able to reverse it".

How could we let him triumph posthumously in this way?

In its first year, the Mandela government passed the Restitution of Land Rights Act, which gave back the land from which black owners had been forcibly removed during apartheid. In 2003, Thabo Mbeki's government passed the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act, which entrenched the tribal boundaries of the old Bantustan system and deemed the existing tribal authorities to be t raditional c ouncils, 40% of whose members should be elected.

The traditional leadership lobby opposed the bill but were mollified when, in the run-up to the 2004 election, the Communal Lands Rights Bill gave control of the land to those chiefs who co-operated with the framework a ct, while elected structures were established in areas where they did not.

Thus the basic building blocks of the Bantustan system of local government were re-established, and many of the traditional leaders who had supported that hated system were rewarded with control over large areas of land. It meant ordinary people living on that land continued to do so at the pleasure of the chiefs. They had no security of tenure, nor any incentive to develop land that was not theirs. Small wonder, then, that it remains undeveloped to this day.

Not surprisingly, the Constitutional Court found this to be at odds with our democratic constitution and struck down the Communal Land Rights Act.

Welcome though this was, the 2003 framework act remains in place, which resuscitates the tribal boundaries created by the 1951 Bantu Authorities Act, thereby consigning about 17-million South Africans to the status of tribal subjects.

Now, perversely, President Jacob Zuma's government wants to try once again to empower the chiefs. The reason, obviously, is that the grateful chiefs can require their captive subjects to obey them politically on pain of punishment. So a brace of new laws is pending - the Traditional Courts Bill, already raising a storm of protests, and the draft National Traditional Affairs Bill, yet to be officially unveiled, to amend the 2003 framework act.

The Traditional Courts Bill aims to establish traditional courts, each presided over by the officially recognised senior chief, or his delegate, in each defined tribal area.

That chief has the power to decide what the traditional law is on any specific issue, he can summon people to appear, preside over hearings and hand down sentences. A law-maker, policeman, prosecutor and judge all rolled into one.

He can sentence people to forced labour, cancel their land rights, expel them from the community, demand tribal levies, settle disputes and decide on any number of civil claims. He can also summon or punish anyone who challenges his version of customary law, which means there can be no process of appeal.

It is outrageously undemocratic and I have no doubt the Constitutional Court will strike it down too.

Meanwhile, the suspicion is that the new National Traditional Affairs Bill will try to circumvent the quashing of the Communal Land Rights Act by empowering the minister of land affairs or justice to delegate powers to chiefs without enacting new laws.

One can understand the wish to preserve traditional values and institutions, which is all part of a yearning for an imagined golden past that was cruelly crushed by colonialism and apartheid. The longing for an African renaissance. But a renaissance is a rebirth, not a reversal; the Italian Renaissance was evoked by a wish to recapture the spirit of a classical past but it was also the birth of a new creative awakening that propelled Europe into the modern era.

The new SA is a modern, complex industrial state, a democracy with a progressive constitution. By all means let us revere the past, but let us build modern institutions based on the spirit of that past, which in African tradition was essentially democratic. Colonialism and apartheid distorted that, turning chiefs into the lackeys of the politics of oppression and exploitation.

Let us have institutions of traditional leadership and customary law, but in democratised form with elected traditional councils that can adjudicate the allocation of customary land and drive development at village level.

It is surely unacceptable that while Zuma keeps complaining about the slow rate of land redistribution and threatening to revoke the "willing buyer, willing seller" rule, all this arable rural land should be lying fallow, its inhabitants largely workless.

It belongs to the state, so why not give it to the people living there in the same way houses in Soweto were once given free to long-term lessees?

As the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto, has noted, that would give them title deeds, which they could use as collateral to raise loans to start enterprises and launch themselves into the economy for the first time in their lives.

It would also bring huge amounts of what De Soto calls "dead capital" to life, which in itself would propel this country to a new level of economic activity and reduce the unemployment rate.

But instead of thinking along such lateral lines about how to benefit the rural poor, Zuma is fixated on strategies to ensure he wins another term as African National Congress president at Mangaung in eight months' time, and his African National Congress insiders on how to stay close to the cookie jar until Jesus comes again.

. Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.