African Customary Law and its Place in South Africa’s Constitutional Framework: A Case Study

Following news that President Ramaphosa is considering the release from prison (or pardon) of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo – Aah Zwelibanzi!!! – a thought that I had at the time of the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal in Dalindyebo v S (090/2015) [2015] ZASCA 144; [2015] 4 All SA 689 (SCA); 2016 (1) SACR 329 (SCA) (1 October 2015) and, subsequently, the Constitutional Court, re-emerged in my mind: Why is a King being charged under the Common Law for conduct that some, including the King, consider as falling under Customary Law?

The King was convicted of arson, kidnapping, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm and defeating the course of justice. The conduct that formed the basis for these convictions is deplorable. About that there can, in my view, be no quibbling. But what role, if any, did Customary Law play in the courts’ assessment of the applicable law?

In a 43-page judgment, the Supreme Court of Appeal (the SCA) uses the phrase “customary law” on only 4 occasions. On all four occasions the SCA uses the phrase with a view to dismissing the King’s argument that the King’s conduct was done in accordance with customary law.

But not once is there a teleological treatment of the body of law that is Customary Law in the judgment. A passing reference is made to

“Professor Digby Sqhelo Koyana [testifying for the State] that customary law demanded that a King ensures the maintenance of law and order, protects the life and security of his people, act compassionately with due regard to the dignity of his subjects.”

The Constitutional Court dismissed the King’s application for leave to appeal against the judgment of the SCA. It does not appear to have heard oral argument on the substance of the body of law that constitutes Customary Law that had received no substantive treatment in the SCA.

Section 39(2) of the South African Constitution enjoins every court, tribunal or forum to promote the spirit, purport and objects of the Bill of Rights

“when interpreting any legislation, and when developing the common law or customary law”.

But what does that mean in practical terms? The common law is contained in actual texts dating back more than a thousand years. It has also received considerable teleological treatment in court judgments over hundreds of years. So, developing something one can touch and feel – and which has been the subject of debate among lawyers, judges, law students, law professors, legislators, and ordinary people – is not too difficult.

But what is the touch and feel of Customary Law? There have been frightfully few cases, since the South African Constitution came into effect on 4 February 1997, in which the subject of Customary Law has come up and received substantive judicial consideration in comparison to the common law. Why? The South African Constitution does not, on the face of it, create a hierarchy of laws between the common law and Customary Law. So, why is so there so little teleological treatment of Customary Law in our courts? Was section 39(2) of the South African Constitution, by its reference to the development of customary law alongside the common law, merely part of the CODESA settlement arrangement, intended merely to make Customary Lawyers and those who subscribe to it feel good about themselves and nothing more?

In the hope of finding some answers, given the back-handed treatment that Customary Law appears to have received from our courts over the years, I have decided to invite a teleological treatment of Customary Law from all South Africans, especially from those who care deeply about the development and mainstreaming of Customary Law. Young lawyers and students are especially encouraged to take up this invitation.

The assignment

  • The topic is: African Customary Law and its Place in South Africa’s Constitutional Framework: A Case Study.
  • The case of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo (aah Zwelibanzi!!!) and the VaVhenda Kingship case should serve as a central point of reference as regards how Customary Law is treated by our courts. You will have to read. (1) the High Court judgment and the SCA judgment in the King Dalindyebo (aah Zwelibanzi!!!) case, and the High Court judgment in the VaVhenda Kingship case.
  • Explore also what constitutional grounds, if any, arise in each case, and whether the Constitutional Court was correct in dismissing the King’s application for leave to appeal on your appreciation of the role that Customary Law should rightfully play in South Africa’s constitutional jurisprudence.
  • Obtain the papers filed in all 3 courts in the King’s case, and consider whether the grounds advanced on behalf of the King for the challenge were good or bad and why in each case. What would you have done differently? What case would you have put up in relation to the interface between Customary Law and Common Law in modern-day South Africa? Did the courts do justice to Customary Law, or did they ignore it?
  • Take note: what is required is not a mere critical analysis of the court judgments. That is only part of the task, and from a Customary Law perspective. The bigger task is to breathe life into Customary Law as you think it should have been applied by the courts in these two cases, and show whether in your view Customary Law has been accorded its rightful place in the South African constitutional landscape by reference to these two cases. If your thesis is that Customary Law has no role in South Africa’s constitutional landscape, develop your argument with reference to specific examples of Customary Law provisions that you consider to be inconsistent with specific provisions of the Constitution, bearing in mind the principle that where a law is capable of both a constitutional and an unconstitutional interpretation, the courts are enjoined to adopt the interpretation that saves the law from unconstitutionality.
  • I shall pick the paper that satisfies me most on (1) content, (2) style, (3) language, (4) quality of research output, (5) length (5000 is the absolute maximum. If you can make a compelling case in less, then by all means do so but not less than 3000 words. This is a research paper, not a blog). For your guidance on writing style see examples on this website. Click on the “Ngalwana Judgments” tab and the “Analysis and Reviews” tab.
  • Ensure that you use proper referencing and acknowledge your sources. Plagiarism will not be tolerated.
  • The ultimate object of the exercise is to elevate the status of Customary Law within our constitutional framework, and ultimately influence a constitutional process in giving practical effect to that object.

Terms and conditions

  • My decision on the winning paper is final.
  • Only the author of the wining paper will receive an award of R10,000 (Ten Thousand Rand).
  • If your paper has not been chosen, that does not mean your writing is poor. I can only pick one paper.
  • I reserve the right to pick more than one paper and merge them in “settling”. In that event, the award of R10,000 (Ten Thousand Rand) will be shared equally among authors of the selected papers.
  • No feedback will be given on papers not selected.
  • The winning paper will be “settled” by me and the terms of that will be discussed with the author. That means I reserve the right to edit your paper, either stylistically or substantively, or both.
  • The winning paper will be published on this website. It will bear the name of the author.
  • The deadline for submission of the final paper is 31 October 2019 at Midnight.
  • This invitation for expression of interest closes on Sunday 30 June 2019 at Midnight.
  • Expressions of Interest must include a proposed outline of the paper.
  • Only the first 20 expressions of interest will be considered
  • I reserve the right to adjust the deadlines
  • Expressions of interest must be submitted at this email address: anchored@anchoredinlaw.net and addressed to “The Editor”
  • The winning paper will be announced on this platform on 30 November 2019.
  • No correspondence will be entered into with individual authors of papers not selected.
By |2019-05-01T12:10:37+00:00May 1st, 2019|Blog, General, News|0 Comments

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