While the rest of us are busy bickering about whether or not to grant the governing African National Congress (ANC) the additional five years it is busy campaigning for, to bring its stay in power to an effective 30 years at the end of the next term, Justice and Correctional Services Minister Michael Masutha has quietly added a rather important file to the growing inbox on President Ramaphosa’s desk. unnamed

It’s an important file to many because it contains the Minister’s considered recommendations for a presidential pardonfor the imprisoned abaThembu King, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo.

Who is King Dalindyebo?

The said king, some will recall, was incarcerated for an effective 12-year jail term in 2015 following the striking down of his marathon attempt for an appeal of his 15-year sentence by the Supreme Court of Appeal.  He had been convicted in 2009 for offences that included kidnapping, assault, and defeating the ends of justice.

The president is under pressure by an entity calling itself the Land Party, on the one hand, and by the National House of Traditional Leaders, on the other. The former is threatening a national shut down if the king is not released before the elections and the latter’s threat is more nuanced.

A caller representing the house called into a CapeTalk radio show over the weekend to lament the continued incarceration of Dalindyebo. I almost sympathised with the call for clemency when the radio host first introduced the topic, provided the king met all the requisite legal conditions for such a pardon, and not because of who he is, but I changed my mind when I listened to the ridiculous reasons given by the caller.

Essentially, he began by making an appeal to some archaic arrangement that ensured that kings should never be imprisoned, as there should be a separate legal system for them. In as far as the caller was concerned, it was appalling for a “black government” in a “black country” in Africa to be following Roman Dutch Law and not traditional African law, which would ensure that a separate system is in place for dealing with rogue kings and other members of royal families instead of treating them like commoners. He didn’t use the word “commoners” as such, but he made a clear distinction between African royals and the rest of society.

If president Ramaphosa fails to release Dalindyebo before the elections, the caller threatened not so directly, a meeting of all members of the National House of Traditional Leaders, their followers and subjects would be called and an open discussion would be had about how they would vote in the coming elections.

Traditional appeals galore

Also simmering elsewhere in the background are, on the one hand, the matter concerning the Xolobeni Community’s continued resistance against Mining Minister, Gwede Mantashe, to stop harassing them and, on the other hand, the highly controversial Traditional Courts Bill which has quietly made its way to the point where president Ramaphosa is expected to sign it into law; preferably before the elections.

The Amadiba Crisis Committee added its voice to that of the Umgungundlovu Traditional Authority by lodging an appeal with President Ramaphosa to stop Mantashe from visiting Xolobeni, where there has been a raging dispute over keeping the area pristine for, e.g.  tourism – something preferred by the local community – and free from mining – a push by Mantashe. But he seems to prefer using the more generic, yet loaded, “development”, instead of mining.

Will Ramaphosa oblige, with one eye on the elections?

It is unclear how President Ramaphosa will respond to all of this pressure and if he will do so ahead of the elections.

He has already spent a lot of time, since taking over from Zuma, wooing people like the Zulu King, in front of whom he was once photographed kneeling, and other members of the broader traditional authority, whom he has painstakingly visited, presumably to obtain their permission ahead of visiting the communities falling under their leadership.

A lot of capital has gone into ensuring that support for Ramaphosa and his party is secured in those areas. The controversial Traditional Courts Bill has been making the rounds for more than ten years and has consistently been pushed back by civil society movements, with reason, as it seeks to subject many rural communities under the jurisdiction of traditional courts and away from the common and statutory law that applies to citizens living in urban areas.

The latest version is reported to have regressed to pre-2017 drafts following resistance by traditional leaders who are opposed to several progressive amendments that sought to provide broader protections to affected communities by promoting a number of constitutional rights that would shield them from potential despotic rule by traditional leaders.

If Ramaphosa gives in to any of the above pressure ahead of the elections, he would be proving once again that he considers the ANC to be more important that the country and the interests of its citizens. Dalindyebo should not be given a status under the law that is different from other citizens who find themselves in the same situation, and the Traditional Courts Bills is simply wrong, as it seeks to create a parallel justice system for fellow South Africans and to subject them to the will of unelected, undemocratic, and archaic chieftains which have no room in a modern constitutional democracy wherein all citizens are equal before the law.

If anything, and to avoid sending the wrong message that the ANC will do anything to win elections or that he would be bending his knee before the people holding knives to his throat, President Ramaphosa should place the interests of South Africa ahead of all else just this once, and defer decisions on these matters for proper consideration after the elections.

He is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief not of a fledgeling political party, but of our national armed forces, and will not be pressured into short-term decisions to please the egos of misplaced interest groups.