Traditional Leaders in South Africa: Custom and Tradition in a Modern State?

By Glenn Ashton · 19 Aug 2010

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Picture: Zizo
Picture: Zizo

The recent announcement by President Zuma that certain traditional leadership positions would be not be continued when the incumbent leaders died was met by a remarkable lack of reaction and discussion in the media. A far more profound level of debate would certainly have happened in the affected rural areas where these chieftainships are to be phased out.

Against the bigger picture this was a cosmetic change to traditional and customary practice in South Africa. Surely we must continue to ask whether traditional leadership per se is not an archaic concept in a modern democratic republic? What place do kings and queens, chiefs and other traditional leaders really have to play in a truly democratic dispensation?

These questions become especially relevant in light of moves toward the final scrapping of one of the cornerstones of the apartheid era, the 1951 Black Authorities Act (BAA), which used divide and rule principles to shatter traditional power structures. There is resistance, not so much around the scrapping of this Act, but to the detail within legislation replacing this abhorrent law.

The Law, Race and Gender research unit at UCT has noted that the Communal Land Rights Act (CLARA) of 2004, the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003, and the Traditional Courts Bill, meant to replace the BAA, collectively perpetuate many apartheid instituted ‘traditions’ and continue to marginalise women and rural communities where over one third of our people still live.

The degree to which these pieces of legislation - meant to regulate traditional rights and governance - are flawed, is emphasised by the fact that CLARA was ruled to be unconstitutional in its entirety in a judgement in May of this year. 

Despite this, the rule of traditional leaders remains unchanged from traditions that are in many cases evolved from apartheid legislation. It is remarkable how tenaciously traditions that suit the narrow interests of certain power blocs like traditional leaders, are defended, no matter how insalubrious their history.

Recent submissions to Parliament around scrapping of the BAA demonstrated many shortcomings in traditional governance around the country. The abuse of the power by traditional leaders continues to negatively affect the rights and lives of rural communities and particularly of women.

Most constitutional republics have rejected outright the very concept of supporting royalty or traditional leadership in governing a democratic, egalitarian society. France disposed of their royals and aristocracy post haste. The USA fought a war to rid themselves of the troublesome and greedy British royalty and landed gentry. 

Conversely, royalty has been tolerated in many diverse nations – Thailand, Japan, Denmark and Spain retain their royal families for largely sentimental reasons, yet permit them no direct interference in legislative or judicial matters. The reason these royal houses have endured is because they have either embraced change, or have been forced to, often negating longstanding traditions. Inherent in the tolerance of royalty is the tacit acknowledgement that nobody is born into leadership positions in democratic states.

Why should South Africa be any different? We pride ourselves on our democratic revolution, on our change from a backward, racist state into a modern African powerhouse. We have spread our influence continentally and to the world at large.

Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of our traditional leadership structures is how these largely conservative bodies relate to the issue of gender. Nelson Mandela highlighted that it was a constitutional contradiction to grant equality to women while failing to recognise women’s role in communities and as traditional leaders. It is only during the past decade or so that a few women traditional leaders have assumed their roles, some under extreme duress.

Hosi Philla Shilubana of the Valoyi in Limpopo is both a political and traditional leader, despite residual acrimony from males within the community. A decade ago in the Eastern Cape, Noiseko Gayilla and Nopharkamisa Mditshwa were elected as traditional leaders. 

Yet a strong bias remains against female chiefs and local leaders. Several have reverted to court to attain their leadership; others have been threatened, or like Nowinase Ngubenani of Mthonjana near Coffee Bay killed by ‘traditionalists’  opposed to being led by a woman. Such traditionalists ignore the fact that women have historically played important roles in leading tribes and clans throughout the region.

Nokhakha Jumba of the Jumba clan of amaThembu, the same tribe as Mandela, has suffered from threats and attempts by her regent to remove her from leadership, either by command or force. She lives in fear of being harmed, itself testimony that male-dominated traditional leadership has a long way to go to before it becomes a legitimate reflection of the new political dispensation.

Further north, in Zululand, things are even more dire.  The modern Zulu nation is cloaked in a veneer of conservative traditionalism. The amaZulu have apparently forgotten that were it not for a woman, Mawa, the Aunt of Shaka and Dingane representing the interests of the exiled Zulu nation and negotiating an agreement with the British to return the amaZulu to their traditional homelands, then things would probably have been very different today for the modern Zulu nation. 

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi likes to present himself as a modernist yet remains, like several traditional leaders represented in the Congress of Traditional Leaders, a reactionary and conservative traditionalist strongly opposed to women assuming a more representative and powerful role in traditional leadership structures. The fact that Inkatha has a Woman’s Brigade but not a man's brigade is revealing.

This is profoundly ironic given the role of women in Zulu history. Shaka's mother, Nandi was instrumental in his rise to power and the consequent regional omnipotence of the Zulu nation. Shaka also recognised and supported female regents, including Queen Langazane. Shaka’s military successes were reinforced by his aunt Mkabayi, whose influence outlasted and possibly eclipsed Shaka in uniting and reinforcing the power of the amaZulu.

Zulu women wielded huge power that was only curbed by laws passed during the Union and apartheid times, when their power was subverted by neo-colonial and racist appointments to ensure both a reliable labour supply and a pliable populace. 

The tragedy is that the potential power of women has been forgotten and that it is now being resisted so strongly by reactionary traditional leaders is constitutionally unacceptable. An unelected and often unrepresentative male leadership is nothing less than an anachronism in our modern constitutional democracy.  

This sexism, further entrenched through the abuse of cultural norms like polygamy, has no place in a society hit so hard by the ravages of HIV and AIDS. It is interesting to examine Botswana, which gained independence nearly half a century ago. Since then it has largely ignored the important historical role of women in maintaining tribal stability in that region.

Until recently Botswana had a hiatus in its selection of female traditional leaders. This is gradually changing through the ascendency of traditional women leaders like Kgosi Mosadi Seboko a Mokgôsi who in 2001 briefly became chairperson of the House of Chiefs and maintains an important traditional leadership role. 

Botswana’s alarming rate of HIV and AIDS infection – estimated at around one in three people by the UN – has been blamed on the patriarchal system and how women may not readily refuse male advances. Only Swaziland, with its profoundly patriarchal traditional leadership system, has a higher rate of infection.

Similar rates of infection are found in KwaZulu-Natal. A strong argument can be made that the culture of male entitlement to women is instrumental in exacerbating the spread of HIV and AIDS pandemic. Given that traditional cultural values are ostensibly retained for the perceived social benefits, we should perhaps consider tossing these perversions of traditional values into the rubbish bin of history.

The continued role of traditional leaders was strongly questioned by the ANC in the lead up to the democratic dispensation. Today it remains a bone of contention within the tripartite alliance. Just as many English believe royalty has no place, modernists in South Africa perceive the continued hereditary power of unelected leaders to be contrary to the democratic ideals underlying our constitution.

It is fine and well having highest proportions of women representing us in parliament but we cannot ignore how the lack of fundamental change in rural areas has stymied progress for a third of our people. The control of all aspects of rural life by unelected traditional leaders is an archaic anachronism in a modern state. 

The government has clearly recognised some shortcomings in traditional structures. Yet there remains a marked tendency by many within government to bow before the pressures of traditions and customs that all too often lie at odds with the ideals of an egalitarian and progressive developmental state.

We can by all means respect traditions, leadership and tribal structures but we do not need to hang on to archaic and anachronistic throwbacks that are not only relics of apartheid but out of sync with our new dispensation. We must remember how our struggle was born out of manifestos and traditions such as the Freedom Charter which envisioned an egalitarian system of governance. We cannot continue to live under two systems, one for the cities and another for the countryside. Either we all live in a constitutional democracy, or we do not.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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20 Aug

Well Said

"Either we all live in a constitutional democracy, or we do not."

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Michael Graaf
20 Aug

Family Ties...

Thanks, Glen. I suspect that much of the pussyfooting around the antidemocratic feudal features of the new SA arises from the fact that the "liberation" movements' leadership came, and still comes, largely from so-called royal families.

Zuma's announcement, as presented in the media, seemed not to be altering the definitions of chiefs and kings, so much as specifying that the number of kings would be reduced by making their posts non-inheritable; presumably their heirs would still be chiefs.

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14 Mar

Forwards Is Backwards and Backwards Is Forward

Anything the white man can do, we must do too...The historic role of monarchy in the west and their traditional and functional roots in Africa are very different. You cannot compare them. Granted there had been a manipulation over time, sometimes to the point of blatant corruption and changing traditional law to suit, but that is the issue at hand - change is necessary but internalised changed within the traditional structure not abolition. This all goes hand in hand with being more secular rather than having a religious or spiritual foundation. Africa is chasing the white man's tail of modernism and failing to see how that modernism has left the white man rich in material wealth, but deplete in morality. Even the west is recognising this now - they want all of what we had that grounded us - whilst Africa is going the other way, running from tradition as if it had no value. Constitutional democracy in the west is the biggest fallacy - it does not exist.

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