Thursday, June 4, 2009

Customary breakthrough

'[T]hat was a breakthrough case. A case that was a leverage to all the women of South Africa. Even abroad.'

So said Phyllia Tinyiko Nwamitwa (left), speaking about a judgment issued a year ago today. In it the Constitutional Court of South Africa (logo below right) upheld a tribal decision to name her Hosi Nwamitwa II, the 1st woman chief of her Valoyi people in memory. (photo credit)
The decision had been made by her uncle, to whom the title of chief shifted in 1968, when the then-ruling chief, or hosi, her father, had died without a male heir. Her uncle chose to restore her to the line of succession in light of the 1994 adoption of South Africa's post-apartheid Constitution, which guarantees gender equality. Upon the uncle's death his son, her cousin, sued, and -- in last year's judgment in Tinyiko Lwandhlamuni Philla Nwamitwa Shilubana et al. v. Sidwell Nwamita -- lost. "[T]he law and practice of customary leadership" is to be exercised in accord "with the Constitution," Justice Johann van der Westhuizen wrote in ¶ 75, on behalf of a unanimous court.
And so, as detailed in this Washington Post profile by Karin Brulliard, it is Phyllia Tinyiko Nwamitwa, a 69-year-old former Member of Parliament, who is now hearing disputes within the 70,000-member tribe and otherwise ruling as hosi. She "is one of the very few women among South Africa's 750 or so traditional leaders."

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