Changing culture III: Ndebele justice system

OUR emphasis is on showing how foreign culture has invaded and in some cases, supplanted the Ndebele culture.

In the last article we discussed the naming of children where English and Bible names have been preferred over Ndebele names.

The English names have been taken as they are, like Steveson or have been recast into Ndebele forms like Amoni. Some names have been coined from English like Bhiziwekhi ( for Busywork). And obviously many such names do not make much sense, like Thatshilayini Tshili. (Touchline) We ended the article on a happy note because current names in Ndebele are becoming more common.

The biggest casualty of culture change or rather the erosion of Ndebele culture is the justice system.

In this case the change has been mandatory and there is legislation spelling out the changes that were to take place. One of the major differences between the Ndebele legal and the Western system is the structure and composition of the justice system.

Broadly speaking, the Ndebele legal system is made up of the chief, his deputy (ies), the chief’s council and the general public. There is no magistrate or judge, no prosecutor, no lawyers and no what.

It does not take a magistrate or a lawyer to understand that someone has committed rape or theft nor does it require them to prove that someone stole an ox.

Nor does it take a judge to prove that a man waylaid his adversary and knocked out his brains? But the white man said no, you don’t know how to do it. You are more likely to convict the wrong person; you do not give a fair trial and your judgment will not suit the crime. Really?

When the Ndebele court convenes the chief sits with his council and the general public. The complainant is given time to state his case in full.

Questions may be asked by the chief, or council or public for clarity. Similarly the accused is given a chance to explain or defend himself without interruption and again questions may be asked for clarity.

From the Western eye, the Ndebele way of trying a case may be considered crude and uncouth, but so is the Western trial system from the Ndebele eye. The Ndebele system also has witnesses who are given ample chance to testify and by its simplistic set-up and procedure is less intimidatory.

There are no delayed cases. Every case, no matter how complicated, is concluded within the day of trial and judgment is quick, short and sharp. In other words justice is not delayed. No victim languishes in jail and obviously there is no bail system even for obvious criminals.

In the Western System even when the suspect hands himself in to the police and pleads guilty handcuffs are immediately applied and he is thrown into prison to languish there for goodness-knows-how-long before he appears before a magistrate who will set a trial date.

Then it’s back to prison. What “civilised” torture. Why not be done with it right away? They, the Westerners, say that justice delayed is justice denied. Are they serious?

Take the case of a drunken man who comes back home and fights his wife over a dish of uncooked porridge (imboza). He picks up his induku wanting to knock sense into her dull head. She ducks and he cracks the skull of the baby on her back. What is a full trial for and for days on end?

The police, the lawyers, the magistrate, witnesses, court interpreters, court officers, the lot — all gather together to display their lack of understanding of justice. Or take the case of a man sleeping with his girlfriend. In the middle of the night she visits the toilet. The man pulls out his gun and shoots her dead “mistaking her for an intruder”.

Then there is a sophisticated trial for the next 24 months! Not the Ndebele way, surely the case would be over within hours. Kakudlalwa phela. Even the dictum that “justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done” is fully accounted for in the Ndebele system.

The so-called “investigations” by the police are no more than delaying tactics and an opportunity for some clever people to “cook up” means to escape the case.

The Ndebele way of judging cases was different from what we see nowadays. The chief summarised the opinions of the court and consulted his councillors.

Everybody present usually saw for himself what the problem was and anticipated the judgment whether guilty or not guilty. Kawusadli ekhaya; ususidla ngaphi? Umkakho usekumangalele. Imbuz’ezimbili. You found a neighbour’s ox in your maize field and you wounded it with an axe. Ugangile. Lala phansi!

Here is a scenario: A woman is gathering wood in the bush. A man stalks her and pounces upon the unsuspecting woman. He rapes her and then cuts her throat to hide the evidence. As he is escaping from the scene, he is seen by Nyathi looking for his stray bullock. After he is finally arrested he is brought before the chief who quickly convenes a court.

CHIEF: Bobaba labomama, kwake kwenzakala umhlolo onje? Angithi lonke selizizwele? Laye uyavuma. Lithi ngithini ngesiga esinje?
ILIZWI EMADODENI: Baba, Nduna yethu, thina sesisesaba lokusikhangela isikliwi esinje.
INDUNA : Msuseni.

Quick, sharp and short. Capital judgment for capital punishment. No justice delayed. No trauma for anybody. It’s done and over with. The rapist-murderer is dragged away not to be seen again. Finish.

It should be noted that public execution was not practiced by the Ndebele.

The victim was dragged far away to a secluded spot beyond that hill. That is to say that the Ndebele people abhorred public display of cruelty. But flogging was meted out in public as a lesson to others and also for the offender to suffer public shame.

It was meant to be a deterent.

One cannot project the Ndebele justice system as a pananea for other justice systems. It has its shortcomings. However, it makes an interesting exercise to put it parallel with the Western systems objectively and see how it compares. Did the Ndebele lose or gain by having their system changed?

Do you agree or not and why?

  • The Ndebele justice system is so transparent that there is no room for corruption.
  • You can subvert the Western system through manipulation, but you cannot sabotage the Ndebele justice system by any means.
Our Partners:   NewsDay   The Independent   TheStandard  MyClassifieds