Traditional Leadership and the fight against Covid-19

by Stella Sigcau

29 April 2020

The traditional leaders have an important role to play in particular in the rural areas working with various stakeholders including government to contribute in the fight against Covid-19. This to also ensure that safety and health measures are put in place in the villages and that rural people adhere to the lockdown measures and regulations. They command respect as customary heads in these areas and preside over vast communities. These communities even though subscribe for example to diverse religions, political affiliations, interests and so forth live a communal lifestyle guided by customs and traditional leaders serve as unitary figures. This means they are able to reach out and communicate with their communities, understand the traditional way of communication in the languages of their constituencies. This also ensures that there is no ambiguity in getting the message across.

South African government has played a commendable role in addressing this pandemic. Government representatives also held meetings with various stakeholders including Traditional Leaders. According to the Presidential spokesperson Khusela Diko, “the engagement with traditional leaders forms part of a series of consultations the President held with various stakeholder constituencies to ensure that the national effort to combat and contain the virus is inclusive and enjoys the support of all stakeholder groups.

President Ramaphosa on the 23 April 2020 went at great lengths to update South Africans on developments and on the various levels in place to fight this virus. Traditional leaders have thus an essential role to play in ensuring that this message reaches and is understood by their constituencies as they are more closer to the rural people. One of the challenges is to make people understand the gravity of this virus. The other is that rural people are used to doing and conducting their lives in certain ways guided by custom. The situation the country is in entails that certain things have to be compromised.

The role of Traditional Leaders is thus instrumental in assisting government’s mandate and efforts with regards to this virus including in the enlightenment of people about its nature using the relevant platforms and technologies. As the point of contact with regards to death notification in the rural areas they also have a statutory mandate to fill the relevant forms to be processed by the Department of Home Affairs in order for the death certificates to be issued.

A different approach in handling of such matters during this pandemic may be necessary to adhere to the relevant safety measures. This necessitates amongst others  for the traditional leaders to be equipped with for example response safety kits when attending or serving members  of their communities and to be in constant touch with the health officials so that they are notified if the deceased had shown symptoms associated with the virus.

Their role also includes sensitizing the communities about the importance of postponement, or suspension of cultural activities in compliance with lockdown regulations. This include cultural festivals, commemorations, religious ceremonies, iintlombe, for funeral services to adhere to regulations and precautionary measures. This is not an easy role as it entails advising people to refrain from their way of life. This requires working with relevant stakeholders.

To reach out to diverse audience it is thus imperative for traditional leaders to also use vigorously platforms such as radios, televisions, social media since traditional platforms like imbizo or iinqila cannot be used during lockdown to get the message across and to create awareness, coming with strategies on how to communicate the message to their communities in the light of lockdown, getting the relevant skill in this regard, ensuring the smooth process of food parcel deliveries as well as encouraging communities to test for the virus when symptoms are identified, self quarantine to mention a few.

The Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leadership in an effort to combat this virus is reported to have issued a communique that all those who arrive from other provinces should be presented before traditional leaders and the government to be tested and urged everyone to work with the government and obey the measures. This is also an effort to encourage people to join in the fight to combat this virus. This may also require traditional palaces to serve as testing spots as well as distribution centres and be equipped accordingly including with safety masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, soaps and so forth to be distributed to members of communities. Congress of Traditional Leaders of South  Africa (Contralesa) has also reported on the suspension of winter initiations during this lockdown.

Cases of corona virus are becoming more visible in the rural areas one of the recent cases being that of Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape. Some people have continued to congregate in churches as reported in the media and some not adhering to the regulations with regards to funerals. Funerals seemed to also being a source of the spread in rural areas. There seems to be a need for more vigorous  efforts to create awareness in these areas as it seems there is a lack of understanding on the gravity of this virus in some areas.

South Africans are approaching winter season when in most rural traditional societies it is time for example for harvesting (ukuvuna).  The national lockdown coincides with this period of where communities assist each other during this period in what is called amalimo (working in groups to harvest). Due to social distancing and other lockdown measures rural harvesting may not be done as before. Lockdown means its not business as usual and communities have to be patient and willing to compromise.

In the words of  President Ramaphosa "it is a time for caution. It is a time to act responsibly. It is a time for patience. There are times when we must endure hardship and difficulty, so that we can enjoy freedom and prosperity into the future." In these times the role of traditional leaders is thus imperative working in partnership with relevant stakeholders to contain the spread of this virus.