South African Court Rules for Female Chief in Tribal Succession Case

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 1, 2009

NWAMITWA, South Africa -- There was nothing remarkable about the case before Hosi Nwamitwa II, chief of the Valoyi tribe that lives in the lush hills here. A villager said his brother's wife had failed to show up for a hearing on an accusation that she insulted neighbors. The accused pleaded guilty and was fined $30, and the case was closed.

What was unusual was the person mediating the dispute. For only the second such court session to date, the chief -- whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather had also led the Valoyi -- was a woman.

"This insulting must come to an end," Phyllia Tinyiko Nwamitwa, a 69-year-old in a beaded headband, gently told the defendant one recent morning. "You are from the same family."

Nwamitwa knows something about family feuds. Last year, her six-year battle with a cousin went to South Africa's top court. The cousin said the 70,000-member tribe's tradition of male leadership gave him the right to be hosi, or chief. The court disagreed, citing the Valoyi royal family's decision to give Nwamitwa the throne, and she assumed the job full time last month.

The ruling has made Nwamitwa a phenomenon. Her case has become required reading for students of the clashes between tribal customs and democracy. Women's rights activists hailed it as a victory over patriarchal traditions. Constitutional-law scholars described the decision as a "huge, huge" development, as the University of Cape Town's Thomas Bennett put it.

Nwamitwa reacts to all this mostly with modesty. She said her inauguration last summer, which drew scores of villagers, dancers and dignitaries, "was okay," if overwhelming. Nevertheless, she said quietly over tea and egg-and-tomato sandwiches in her office, "that was a breakthrough case. A case that was a leverage to all the women of South Africa. Even abroad."

Nwamitwa, a keen gardener who reads the newspaper to relax, is one of the very few women among South Africa's 750 or so traditional leaders. A tiny number of tribes pass authority from mother to daughter, and some women lead as placeholders for underage sons. But the dominant succession tradition, written into law by colonial governments in many African nations, is father to firstborn son.

That became problematic for the Valoyi in 1968, when Nwamitwa's father died without a male heir. It was inconceivable at the time that a woman would take the job, so it went to his brother, Richard. But after South Africa transitioned from the racist apartheid system to a liberal democracy in 1994 -- complete with a constitution guaranteeing equal rights for women -- the Valoyi traditional authorities and royal family, including Hosi Richard, declared it only right to restore the throne to its original bloodline and make Nwamitwa the next leader.

The Challenge

That did not go over well with Hosi Richard's firstborn son, Sidwell Nwamitwa. When Hosi Richard died in 2001, his son went to court, arguing that royal authorities had no right to alter tradition. Crowning Nwamitwa, he said, would mean that the next chief would not be fathered by a hosi, causing "chaos and confusion in the community."

For her part, Nwamitwa, by then a retired teacher and member of South Africa's Parliament, argued that she would have become hosi had equal rights existed in 1968 -- and, perhaps, if she had lived hundreds of years ago. Generations back, she said, the Valoyi had female chiefs, proving that customs were dynamic. The Constitutional Court agreed, knocking down two lower-court decisions.

"The decision of the Constitutional Court was extremely revolutionary, and it was also transformational, because it celebrates gender equality in chieftaincy succession disputes," said Obeng Mireku, dean of the University of Limpopo law school, not far from the town of Nwamitwa.

If so, the revolution seems to have been quickly absorbed in Valoyi territory, a swath of villages shaded by palms and pines. The battle divided the community, Nwamitwa acknowledged, and in interviews, residents said some resistance to the idea of a female chief lingered. But most sounded like true believers in equal rights.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company