Zuma says South Africa needs traditional courts

image source, AFP
image captionJacob Zuma argues traditional courts would improve South Africans' access to justice

South African President Jacob Zuma has said some legal issues in the country are better resolved by traditional justice.

"Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man's way," Mr Zuma told traditional leaders.

The South African parliament is considering a bill that would give local chiefs wide-ranging legal powers.

But Mr Zuma said there were flaws in the bill as currently drafted which need to be corrected.

Traditional courts have always existed in South Africa, as in much of Africa.

But the president wants a single legal system for these courts unlike during apartheid when each rural "homeland" had its own system.

The Traditional Courts Bill would allow local chiefs to act as judge, prosecutor and mediator, with no legal representation and no right of appeal.

It has been widely criticised for being unconstitutional, especially by women's groups, which argue it would take South Africa "back to the dark ages".


But Mr Zuma, speaking in parliament at the opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders, said the bill would allow greater access to justice for many of the some 18 million South Africans who live in areas overseen by traditional chiefs.

"Traditional communities of South Africa find the traditional justice system more accessible and flexible in resolving their disputes," he said.

"Our view is that the nature and the value system of traditional courts of promoting social cohesion and reconciliation must be recognised and strengthened."

Mr Zuma indicated that his government would seek to introduce greater checks on the legislation to prevent abuse of the traditional system.

The minister for women, Lulu Xingwana, has proposed an opt-out clause where plaintiffs or defendants can choose to go to a magistrate's court.

"In cases of eviction or domestic violence, traditional courts are not equipped or have the necessary expertise to handle these cases," she has argued.

Gacaca courts

In 2001, Rwanda decided to use its traditional courts, usually used to rule on minor issues, to speed up the legal process after the 1994 genocide.

Hearings at the so-called gacaca courts were deemed necessary because of the huge numbers of prosecutions and the inability of a shattered legal system to process the tens of thousands of detained prisoners.

The courts have been praised by some for delivering justice and reconciliation but have also been criticised for the lack of legal representation and having no trained judges.

A 1998 report by the Penal Reform International aid agency concluded that informal and traditional modes of settling disputes were widespread throughout Africa.

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