Parliament. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

FOR a second day, parliamentary hearings yesterday heard a barrage of objections to the Traditional Courts Bill, with the government being accused of scoring points with traditional leaders even though it realised the bill was unconstitutional.

The proposed legislation has been widely criticised as being unconstitutional for creating a parallel justice system for rural people and for entrenching gender inequality. It seeks to entrench traditional leaders as the heads of traditional courts and has also been slammed for returning to old apartheid bantustan boundaries.

Commenting on the bill, the director of the Women’s Legal Centre, Jennifer Williams, said: "The proposed bill is infected with the racist divisions of the past, and riddled with contradictions, and questions that cannot be resolved. This is not a genuine attempt at reconciling customary law with the constitution, but a shoddy piece of politicking, trying to score points with traditional leaders, while knowing that this law will fail constitutional muster.

"It neither answers the needs of people who choose to live under customary law, or the choices of those who do not.

"The government is trying to score points with its constituencies, while covertly relying on activists to ensure this muddled mess doesn’t become law."

In her formal submission to the hearings of the select committee on security and constitutional development, Ms Williams also challenged the consultation process of the bill, saying "this bill intimately affects the daily lives of almost 17-million South Africans. Most of them live in rural areas; many of them are women. The nature of the legislation is such that special care should be taken to ensure that the people affected have been given a meaningful opportunity to be heard in the making of this law. The views of rural women are needed before it can be said that there has been meaningful participation in the passing of this bill into legislation."

The day’s hearings were characterised by a barrage of emotional submissions on abuses suffered at the hands of traditional leaders. At one stage this threatened to derail the hearings.

When women began telling their stories of abuse, some members of the committee tried to get them to direct their remarks solely at the content of the bill.

The women reacted furiously, saying that their "lived" experiences had absolute relevance to the powers which the bill would entrench for traditional leaders and threatened that if the committee wanted to rubber-stamp the bill then they should leave because they were wasting their time. Many testified that traditional leaders had sold them property on which they built houses but they never were given title deeds, so were vulnerable to eviction.

Solomon Mabuza said the tribal authority in his area was standing in the way of development. "The tribal authority is selling land that it does not own, is charging levies but not providing services to the people, and is using foreigners to act as chiefs."

An emotional submission from Bafana Khumalo, of the Sonke Gender Justice Network, said: "The bill will not only adversely affect women but will also negatively affect certain categories of men within rural communities. These categories of men include gay men." He said many traditional leaders were homophobic.