In the last few months, we have had to bid a sad farewell to two of our country’s most respected traditional monarchs.
The Zulu people recently laid to rest His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu who reigned for half a century. In January, the Bapedi people buried Kgoshikgolo Thulare Thulare III, who passed away less than a year after his inauguration.
With their passing, we have lost champions of the preservation of our heritage, and revered custodians of the histories of their respective peoples.
At the same time, they were vital players in rural development, and were committed to driving programmes to uplift the material conditions of their people.
With the advent of democracy in 1994, it was a priority of the new government to restore the integrity and legitimacy of traditional leadership in line with indigenous law and customs and subject to the Constitution of the Republic.
The institution of traditional leadership continues to play an important role in the lives of millions of people around our country, especially in rural areas. Traditional leaders support and drive development in their communities.
Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in the debate on the opening of the National House of Traditional Leaders, which was concerned with the most pressing issues currently facing the country.
What was particularly refreshing about the robust engagement was that traditional leadership has a keen appreciation of the difficult economic conditions facing our country, and want to be part of addressing the many challenges of underdevelopment and poverty in their areas.
I have consistently said that our economic recovery in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic must be inclusive, and that nobody must be left behind.
The success of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan rests on forging strong partnerships between not just government, business and labour, but also with traditional leadership and other societal formations.
A constant refrain from participants in the debate recently was that they do not want to be dependent on handouts or for their communities to perpetually look to government for financial assistance.
They want to be provided with the necessary support, training and enabling environment to allow rural communities to be self-sufficient.
They want to bridge the urban-rural divide in access to government services and private sector resources.
What they would like to see is for rural areas to become centres of economic activity, industry and employment opportunity. This mirrors the aspirations of the District Development Model (DDM), which was launched in 2019.
Traditional leaders are well positioned to ensure that district plans are informed by and respond to the real needs of communities and that they reflect the lived reality in rural areas.
Just as the DDM supports localised programmes that focus on the needs, strengths and opportunities in specific areas, traditional leaders have pioneered their own approach to local economic development.
They have developed the InvestRural Masterplan, which was launched in North West last month. It is greatly encouraging that traditional leaders have rallied behind the plan and want to work with local authorities to ensure it is a success.
During the debate in the National House of Traditional Leaders it was proposed that a major success factor for the InvestRural programme is that traditional structures are trained, strengthened and capacitated.
A number of participants outlined economic plans that are already in advanced stages of development. These range from agricultural projects to bioprospecting to renewable energy.
What was evident is that the institution of traditional leadership understands that professionalisation is necessary for rural businesses in the form of small, medium and micro enterprises and cooperatives to become part of the mainstream economy.
The traditional leaders who spoke presented their vision of ‘developmental monarchs’, who see themselves as not just custodians of heritage but also as drivers of economic prosperity and progress. They have identified several projects and economic opportunities that will create jobs and improve livelihoods in rural areas.
Traditional leaders have also expressed their willingness to play an active part in the land reform process. Since 2018, traditional leaders have made around 1 500 000 hectares of communal land available for development, and it is hoped this will increase in future.
To develop a coordinated and sustainable strategy, we have agreed to hold a Presidential Land Summit in the next year. This will discuss pressing issues around land reform and its impact on communal land, much of which is located in rural areas.
The tone of the debate in the National House was a fitting reflection of a climate in which economic recovery is foremost among our considerations. At the same time it was a promising signal that traditional leaders appreciate their role in being part of the national recovery effort through being proactive and innovative.
The most fitting legacy of great leaders is that the seeds of development they sow during their tenure grow into mighty trees that protect and shelter their communities for posterity.
As we work together as a country to rebuild our economy, we will continue to count on the support of the institution of traditional leadership, which is an inextricable part of our past, our present and our future.