Original Research

The waning fortunes of traditional leadership in South Africa: From pre-colonial to apartheid periods

Jongikhaya Mvenene
New Contree | Vol 90 | a248 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/nc.v90i0.248 | © 2023 Jongikhaya Mvenene | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 02 June 2023 | Published: 20 December 2023

About the author(s)

Jongikhaya Mvenene, Department of Humanities and Creative Arts Education, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Walter Sisulu University, Mthatha, South Africa


There is a disturbing trend in the public arena by traditional leaders and their communities that their role and power in the development of their communities have been downplayed by the colonial, apartheid and democratic governments. This article examines a history of traditional leadership and African communities from pre-colonial times to the apartheid period. The traditional leaders’ status, place and role in the development of the communities are examined. It is argued that traditional leadership as a heritage was jealously guarded, strengthened and maintained by traditional leaders and rural communities in spite of successive governments’ assault on chiefs (iiNkosi) and kings (iiKumkani). In the past, traditional leaders worked collaboratively with their communities in exerting pressure on the previous governments to recognise traditional leadership as an institution worth maintaining and treasuring. They were the law-makers. Succession was a criterion for access to positions of power and had the power and the final say in matters of national importance.

Contribution: The purpose of this article is to bring to the surface the fact that traditional leaders collaborated with colonial governing authorities and apartheid government not so much to serve as stooges but for personal interest. Hence, oral sources are also used to delve deep into the dynamics of traditional leadership.


pre-colonial; kings; chiefs; heritage; power; colonialism; apartheid

Sustainable Development Goal

Goal 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions


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