About the Author(s)


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

Citation


Mvenene, J. “The waning fortunes of traditional leadership in South Africa: From pre-colonial to apartheid periods.” New Contree 90 (2023): a248. https://doi.org/10.4102/nc.v90.248

Original Research

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

Jongikhaya Mvenene

Received: 15 Feb. 2023; Accepted: 02 June 2023; Published: 20 Dec. 2023

Copyright: © 2023. The Author Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Abstract

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.

Keywords: pre-colonial; kings; chiefs; heritage; power; colonialism; apartheid.

Introduction

Even though traditional leadership was not accorded its place of pride by the colonial governing authorities, missionaries, traders and settlers during the colonial times, it had been recognised by the communities. Some chiefs and kings were at the forefront of the struggle against the white men’s extension of control, power, land and influence into the traditional leaders’ areas of jurisdiction. However, others, such as Rhaxothi (Matanzima) of abaThembu, and Ngqika (c. 1775–1829) of amaRharhabe collaborated with the colonial governing authorities. UNkosi (Chief) Ngqika met Governor Lord Charles Somerset at the Nciba River on 02 April 1817. Ngqika, chief of the amaRharhabe branch of the Xhosa, sought to ‘enlist British help in his current intertribal struggle with his uncle, Ndlambe’1 and made it clear to Somerset:

[T]hat although he did have claims to be primus inter pares of the Xhosa chiefs, he was not recognised as such by most of them, and, in any case, he did not have power to enforce his authority.2

This was accompanied by wars of dispossession that resulted in landlessness, ridicule, loss of power and deposition of hereditary rulers in favour of the compliant junior traditional leaders. African kingdoms and chiefdoms were gradually subjected to annexation by the colonial government.

Colonialists settled in the land of traditional leaders, giving rise to racism, sexism, ecocide, ethnocide and genocide.3 Odora-Hoppers and Richards highlight that the colonised, under their respective traditional leaders, were ‘captured …, their physical assets were taken away … and their minds were colonised’.4 The colonisers either replaced or supplemented beliefs, practices and culture of the aborigines, undermining all that was African.5 For example, missionaries converted some chiefs, such as Ngqika and Dyani Tshatshu of amaGqunukhwebe, and their subjects and accommodated converts in the mission stations. Converts had to discard their culture and traditions. Traditional practices, such as imigidi ceremonies and ancestral beliefs were condemned as heathen practices among the amaXhosa and abaThembu. Thus, missionaries served as participants in the assault on African culture, acting as agents of colonialism.

Gender inequality had characterised traditional practices and issues of inheritance. In the words of Dodo, since pre-colonial times:

[F]ormal leadership has been a domain for men only. It was believed that men were the only people with a capacity to govern and make decisions … and assumed to be stronger and wiser than women.6

However, the changing socio-political landscape caused a change of outlook in non-recognition of women as potential traditional leaders, where women are considered for any available leadership opportunity.7

The question of gender inequality has always reared its ugly head when female heirs were to be given the status of traditional leaders. However, in some societies such as abaThembu, uKumkanikazi (Queen) Nonesi, the daughter of uNkosi Faku and the Great Wife of uKumkani Ngubengcuka, acted as regent on the passing of her son, Mthikrakra, in 1849, leaving his heir Ngangelizwe a minor.8 Rife cases of women being bypassed are of recent years. It is a challenge that is engulfing male dominated arena where some forms of ‘resistance are observable within the male traditional leadership on the appointment of females arguing it as uncultural’.9

In Botswana a woman was selected to take over the reins, but it transpired that ‘she was allowed to rule due to her assumed male qualities and not as her right as human being’.10 Thus, traditional leadership was also fraught with its internal problems of gender inequality and undermining of women during the precolonial and colonial periods.

Traditional leadership, culture and inheritance

The history of the institution of traditional leadership dates as far back as the pre-colonial period and continued to exist during the trying times of colonial and apartheid governments through to the new democratic dispensation. During pre-colonial and colonial times, chiefs and kings – traditional leaders – had been in control of their land and its people, and were, and still are, hereditary local neighbourhood leaders who are selected through rules of succession.11 They gradually lost their power to colonial government-designated headmen and white magistrates during the colonial times. An example in point is when Governor Sir George Grey stripped chiefs and counsellors ‘… of authority and replaced [them] by men who had not participated in the cattle killing’.12 When the Cattle-Killing mania (1856–1857) took place:

[T]he prophecies created bitter conflict between chiefs [of the same lineage], between chief and councillor, and in families. Sarili, the senior Xhosa chief,13 pressed men to obey; Sandile his junior was hesitant.14

Traditionally, a traditional leader has several wives allocated to unequal houses: the Great House (iNdlunkulu), the Right-Hand House (iNdlu yaseKunene), the Support of the Great House (iQadi leNdlunkulu), the Support of the Right-Hand House (iQadi laseKunene), the Seed-Bearer House (iXhiba), uMsengi of the Great House (uMsengi weNdlunkulu) and uMtshayelo of the Great House. The allocation of wives to various houses applies to southern and northern abeNguni communities. Thus, the first wife was not allocated to the Great House, as she was regarded as having removed the white clay from her husband’s initiation. A chief’s or king’s Great Wife15 was chosen from a Royal House by his counsellors and lobola-ed by the nation.16 While the Great House son comes first in the line of succession, the support of the Great House comes second.17 Lewis aptly concludes that as the heir to the chieftaincy was appointed:

[F]rom the first son of the Great Wife, who was not the first wife … the legitimate heir was often a minor on inheriting his chieftaincy and a regent was appointed, thus extending the rule of councillors [amaphakathi]18 of his father’s generation.19

Adding his voice to the discourse around the origins of traditional leadership, Obediah Dodo states that the institution of traditional leadership had:

[B]een in existence since time immemorial, [and traditional leaders] have been the governing structures on the ground that [they] were solemnized by the spirit mediums of the local areas in consultation with the local elders and the generality of the community.20

Furthermore, Mathonsi and Sithole argue that ‘traditional leadership system has been in existence in African communities before imperial and colonial rule, and it had served good purposes for the wellbeing of citizens’.21

Rugege aptly points out that African societies were ruled by kings who were supported by a hierarchy of chiefs and counsellors.22 Serving as advisors to the Great Place, the counsellors were either the traditional leaders’ close relatives or were selected from their communities on the basis of conspicuous and rare skills and bravery. While occupying a place of respect among the members of their communities, traditional leaders had a multiplicity of responsibilities to execute. To this effect, Houston and Fikeni claim that traditional leaders were charged with a variety of responsibilities.23 Among other responsibilities with which traditional leaders were charged were the allocation of land held in trust, the preservation of law and order, the provision and administration of services at local government level, as well as social welfare administration including the processing of applications for social security benefits and business premises, the promotion of education including the erection and maintenance of schools and the administration of access to education and finance.24

Traditional leaders had enormous powers, influence and authority over land and their subjects.25 There is no denying that the rural communities have ‘always had strong trust in the traditional leadership system … over the years’.26 The traditional leaders could not leave their forefathers’ graves which they valued so much.27 They derived their powers from ‘rights of conquests, control over land, and direct descent from great ruling ancestors, or membership in a particular ruling family’.28 They served as national links with the izinyanya (ancestors) and as conductors of communal worship ‘for such benefits as victory, rain, fertility of lands and herds’29 they were to take major decisions relating to the issues affecting their people, with a view to salvaging the nation.30

Their role and responsibilities ‘stretched from social, economic, moral to political’,31 including catering for the welfare of their subjects ‘by providing with land for agriculture and grazing which was core in the lives of the people economically’.32 Fortifying Obediah Dodo’s argument, Shapera, Bikam and Chakwiriza have this to say:

[T]raditional leaders served all-inclusive roles for the communities, for example, they served as political, military, spiritual, and cultural leaders, and they were considered as chief custodians of the values in societies.33

The traditional leadership system served as a link between the ancestral world and their subjects. They also played the intermediary role between the government and their people. Serving as mediators, judges and advisors, the traditional leaders’ verdicts were highly respected and taken with high esteem. In their capacity as adjudicators in times of conflicts and social disputes, they reduced chances of wars and conflicts among their people and neighbouring kingdoms and chiefdoms. As Obediah Dodo neatly puts it, traditional leaders ‘had to be impartial, fair and effective in their judiciary systems if they really wanted to enforce community order’.34 During precolonial times and colonial periods in present-day KwaZulu-Natal:

[V]arious kinds of levies were collected from commoners, such as death duties, labour levies, judicial fines and occasional gifts to the chiefs. Chiefs were to provide justice, harmony and security to the people. They also had to consult with their counsellors, izinyanya (ancestors) and amagqirha (priest-diviners).35

Being highly regarded and revered by their subjects and having clear roles and responsibilities, traditional leaders did not act arrogantly. However, they acted authoritatively, although they were not expected to act in authoritarian ways. Nevertheless, they consulted their subjects through iimbizo held in the Great Place, in which the day-to-day running of their own affairs were handled democratically. In handing down judgements on cases brought before the Great Place, traditional leaders exercised consultation among the elderly members of the community and integrated it with the views of the people handling the case. In the light of the nature of the traditional leaders’ type of governance, Rugege observes that ‘on the whole, though, it can be said that in much of pre-colonial Africa traditional leaders ruled with the consent of their people’.36

In the same vein, Lutabingwa, Sabela and Mbatha aver that ‘historically, traditional leaders served as governors of their communities with authority over all aspects of life, ranging from social welfare to judicial functions’.37 It is argued that before the advent of colonialism, traditional leadership played a massive role in serving as the bedrock of local governance in many parts of Africa where the communities were led by kings and Queens assisted by chiefs and/or headmen.38 It is fitting to state that during precolonial times, various kinds of levies were collected from commoners, such as death duties, labour levies, judicial fines and occasional gifts to the chiefs. Chiefs were to provide justice, harmony and security to the people. They also had to consult with their counsellors, izinyanya (ancestors) and amagqirha (priest-diviners). Africans’ religious belief that ‘the spirits of the dead chiefs hold the destinies of the tribes in their keeping’39 prompted them to have unquestionable loyalty to their chiefs. Chiefs had to be generous with their subjects and loan them cattle and food as needed.40 Headmen and subchiefs had the obligation of collecting levies and fines.41

The colonial factor in traditional leadership

However, the setting in of colonialism brought in its train socio-political and cultural assault on the African communities. In the words of Obediah Dodo, ‘the coming of colonialism ushered in a new dispensation as far as leadership, authority and accountability are concerned’.42 It is worth observing that the colonial governing authorities used the traditional leaders as puppets and pawns in their hands.43 In the 19th century, Cape Governor Lord Charles Somerset recognised uNkosi Ngqika as having authority over all the amaXhosa east and west of the Nciba River, although he was junior to uKumkani Hintsa. Furthermore, traditional leaders were treated as means of communication between the colonialists and their subjects. In similar fashion, the Cape governors used the missionaries to relay their messages to the traditional leaders, who held the missionaries in high esteem.44

Junior traditional leaders were promoted to chieftainship on account of their collaboration with the colonialists. Commoners who had no trace of traditional leadership and chieftaincy were imposed on the nations in order to drive a web into the communities and channel oppression through the imposed leaders.45 This practice was a government’s strategy to disempower and weaken chiefs and kings and to usurp their power and influence among African societies.

The introduction of headmen by the colonial governing authorities in the 1850s dealt traditional leadership a heavy blow. During the tenure of Cape Governor Sir George Grey (1812–1898), headmen were introduced to weaken the traditional system of justice and render the traditional leaders impotent. Having been selected from men who had not participated in the cattle-killing delusion (1856–1857), headmen were accountable to the resident magistrate.46 They did not only play the role of collecting the hut tax but also apprehended people who broke the colonial law, and kept the white magistrates informed about those threatening the colonial order in the iilali.47 As Majeke observes:

[I]n the payment of headmen, the Government drove a wedge, not only between them and their chief, but between them and their people. They, too, in serving a new master [white magistrate] could be used to betray their people. Grey’s immediate purpose, however, was to undermine the power of the chiefs.48

Resistors of colonialism were rendered ineffective through dethronement, ridicule and punishment.49 This ill-treatment of non-collaborative traditional leaders continued into the post-colonial phase. Be that as it may, Lutabingwa, et al. further declare that the traditional leaders did their duties although colonial regimes were hell-bent on discrediting and destroying them.50 So their role is traceable from the womb of history.

It is noteworthy that traditional leadership had gradually diminished in its status because of colonialism. As Peires correctly concludes about traditional leadership both in South Africa and Africa during the colonial times:

[C]hiefs in South Africa, as elsewhere in Africa during the colonial period, have long depended on the government rather than their people for both political recognition and financial support. They cannot be regarded as a ‘traditional’ ruling class because they have entirely ceased to represent the dominated remnants of the pre-colonial social order, although this fact has been deliberately obscured for ideological purposes.51

Under colonial rule, the power of the traditional leaders was not only crushed but their culture, customs and traditions were also undermined as ‘heathen’.52 Notwithstanding the traditional leaders’ loss power, prestige and authority to white magistrates, their judicial power was retained. The power was, however, subject to the right of appeal to white magistrates.53

Having fought against colonialism and land dispossessions, many of them had been deposed, banished and victimised.54 For example, uNkosi Maqoma was taken to Robben Island where he died in 1873, UKumkani Hintsa was brutally killed by Richard Southey in Nqabarha, Willowvale, in 1835, uKumkani Ngangelizwe was deposed in 1875 and re-instated in 1876 by Cape Governor Philip Wodehouse. To be more precise, the late 1850s saw chiefs and kings:

[R]educed to satraps of the government, vulnerable to the slightest whim of the imperial administration …. All of the chiefs had been reduced to various states of penury and humiliating dependence upon imperial officers.55

Price points out that:

[O]f all the leading chiefs of the era, only Sarhili [c. 1815 – 1892], the Gcaleka chief and formal paramount of the Xhosa …, managed to escape the grip of the imperial maw …. Sandile [c. 1820 – 1879], chief of the Rharhabe branch of the Xhosa people, bobbed and weaved around the tentacles of the imperial monster, … until his luck ran out in the last frontier wars, 1877–8, when he was killed by Mfengu mercenaries.56

Traditional leadership and the formation of the South African Native National Congress in 1912

Traditional leadership is no stranger to association with the liberation movements in South Africa. The link between traditional leaders and the Ruling Party dates back from the colonial periods to the present day. Traditional leaders had – and still have – strong ties with the then South African Native National Congress (SANNC) which was formed in 1912, and ‘became the chief standard-bearer and articulate voice of African nationalism’.57 The SANNC was formed as a country-wide organisation with the purpose of posing resistance to Union government policies of racial segregation, oppression and inequality.

The formation on 08 January 1912 of the country-wide organisation charged with taking ‘the lead in uniting the African people for effective struggle against white domination’,58 the SANNC (later shortened to African National Congress [ANC] in 1923) was initiated by Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a newly qualified advocate,59 who had invited traditional leaders and other professionals, such as teachers, clergymen and clerks, businessmen, journalists and builders, all educated in missionary schools in the 19th century to participate in the discussions leading to the establishment of the organisation.60 Being part of the delegates that attended the founding meeting of the SANNC, traditional leadership wore leopard skins that marked their status as traditional leaders.61 The traditional leaders were robed in traditional chiefly dress (a leopard-skin cloak) as well as in traditional kingly dress (a lion-skin cloak).62

In the Upper House of chiefs were eight paramount chiefs (kings), namely Letsie II of Lesotho (Basutoland) and president of the House, Dalindyebo of abaThembu, Montshiwa of the Barolong, Lewanika of Barotseland (part of Zambia), Khama of Botswana, Marelane of Mpondoland, Moepi of the Kgatla, Dinizulu of amaZulu (who had been deposed by the British and exiled to the Transvaal) and uKumkanikazi Labotsiben of Swaziland who passed on in 1926. UKumkanikazi Labotsiben’s grandson, Sobhuza II, was crowned uKumkani (king) of Swaziland in 1921. He continued to pay membership of the ANC. The involvement of the traditional leaders helped to extend the organisation to the masses.63 According to Meli, traditional leaders represented ‘the rural masses who were the majority of the people at the time and the section most affected by land robbery’.64

Furthermore, one of the prominent members and office-bearers of the ANC was uNkosi Albert Luthuli, who was elected as ANC President from 1952 until his tragic death in 1967. A teacher and a preacher, uNkosi Luthuli became iNkosi of the Groutville Reserve (part of KwaDukuza) in 1935. In September 1952, he was ‘dismissed as a chief because he had refused a government demand to resign as ANC Provisional President’.65 He was among those who were suspected of having plotted against the apartheid government and were arrested on charges of treason between 1956 and 1961. UNkosi Albert Luthuli was the first African to be awarded leadership honours in the form of Nobel Peace Prize ‘in 1960 and two earlier awards’,66 for his non-violent stance to fighting against apartheid.67 UNkosi Luthuli was one of the recipients of the ANC’s Isithwalandwe/ Seaparankoe Award, the ANC’s highest honour awarded for outstanding contribution to the liberation struggle.68

The executive members in the Lower House of commoners were Revd John Langalibalele Dube (the first President-General), Pixley ka Isaka Seme (who was elected Treasurer), and Solomon Thekiso Plaatje (who became Secretary-General). Holland points out that Plaatje was ‘an interpreter from Kimberley who, despite a Standard Three education, had translated five Shakespearian plays into Setswana and was the first black to have written a novel in English’.69

Four Vice-Presidents were elected, namely Alfred Mangena, Revd Walter Benson Rubusana, Meshack Pelem and Sam Makgatho. Thomas Maphikela was elected the Speaker, George Montsioa the Recording Secretary, Revd Mqoboli became the Chaplain-in-Chief with Revd H.R. Ngcayiya as Assistant Chaplain.70

Oliver Tambo, the then President of the ANC, presented the ANC vision of South Africa in his address to the FRELIMO National Convention in Maputo by declaring that:

[W]e conceive of our country as a single, united, democratic and non-racial belonging to all who live in it, in which all shall enjoy equal rights, and in which sovereignty will come from the people as a whole, and not from a collection of Bantustan and varied tribal groups organized to perpetuate minority power.71

The ANC continued to cultivate cordial relations with the traditional leaders. This was echoed by Nelson Mandela on many occasions. Addressing a political rally at Mthatha on 22 April 1990, Nelson Mandela showed respect for traditional leaders when he said:

[T]he ANC has always respected the chiefs as our traditional leaders, as an important part of our community, some of whom have played and continue to play a crucial role in the freedom struggle.72

However, nowhere do the leaders of the ANC spell out clearly what the position, status and role of chiefs would be in a democratic and non-racial South Africa beyond recognising their important role in the liberation struggle. The ANC’s position as contained in the Constitutional Guidelines for a Democratic South Africa stipulates that ‘the institution of hereditary rulers and chiefs shall be transformed to serve the interests of the people as a whole in conformity with the democratic principles embodied in the constitution’.73

The 1993 Constitution is also based primarily upon notions of liberal and consociational democracy.74 Von Kessel and Oomen argue that the ANC has been roundly criticised for dispensing too much power to traditional leaders to exercise control over allocation of land and exercise of power in their villages.75

Apartheid assault on traditional leadership

The Black Administration Act, 1927 (Act No. 38 of 1927) and the Bantu Authorities Act, 1951 (Act No. 68 of 1951)

The coming into power of the National Party (NP) in 1948 with its apartheid policy was preceded by the Union government. The latter enacted its own segregation legislations directed against black people, that is Indians, mixed race and Africans. Formed in 1910, the Union of South Africa passed the Black Administration Act (No. 38 of 1927). The Act made provision for the Union government to select and appoint traditional authorities. It also bestowed upon the Union government authority to designate or relocate the traditional authority’s areas of jurisdiction. The Act was enacted to give limited powers and roles to traditional leaders. To that effect, the Governor-General was made the supreme chief of all traditional leaders in the Union of South Africa.

Thus, the Act, write Pampallis and Bailey, ‘gave the [Union] government powers to take arbitrary action against Africans’.76 It further gave authority to the Governor-General, as the supreme chief of all Africans outside the Cape Province, ‘to move individual Africans or even whole tribes from any place to any other place in the country’.77 In this way, the passing and implementation of the Act, as well as the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951, was instrumental in rendering traditional leaders powerless and puppets of the government.78

The division of South Africa’s bantustans into regions was a provision of the Bantu Authorities Act (No. 68) of 1951. The Nationalist Party sought to keep South Africa white, using the Bantu Authorities system. The Act was designed to ‘abolish the Native Representative Council …, and to substitute councils – based upon tribal and ethnic groups – whose members would be largely selected by the [apartheid] government’.79

The Transkei General Council (TGC) accepted the Act in 1955. In the bantustans, for example, the division was implemented as from 1956, starting with the Transkei bantustan. The Act was a measure to divide Africans on ethnic lines, and it provided for a hierarchical form of regional administration in the bantustans. At the top was the Territorial Authority comprising members from the Regional Authorities, which made up the middle tier, with the Tribal Authorities making up the lowest level. Authorities consisted of local chiefs and headmen who were appointed to the Tribal Authorities by the Minister of Bantu Administration and Development, who could depose them at any time.80

Under the Act Transkei was divided into nine Regional Authorities: Gcalekaland, Mfenguland, Nyanda, Qawuka, Emboland, Maluthi, Mzimkhulu, Dalindyebo and Emigrant Thembuland. In terms of the Bantu Self-Government Bill of 1962, the Gcalekaland Regional Authority was made up of Xhorha (Elliotdale), Dutywa, Gatyana and Centane districts. Gcuwa, Ngqamakhwe and Tsomo districts formed the Mfenguland Regional Authority.81 Areas that were administered by Territorial Authorities came to be known as bantustans or homelands. In these areas, a white government official had power not only to veto decisions but also to remove or appoint chiefs and counsellors.82

The Bantu Authorities system conferred vast powers on the traditional leaders and further ‘empowered the [apartheid] government to appoint and remove chiefs without consulting their subjects’.83 In this connection Beinart and Bundy’s contention seems appropriate:

[B]y the early years of this [20th] century, … traditional leaders, hereditary chiefs and headmen … continued to conduct traditional courts cases, to collect tributary fees and dues, and to exercise considerable authority over the distribution of land.84

They argue that ‘if commoners had previously viewed chieftaincy as a means of retaining local political forms they could cope with’,85 the Bantu Authorities programme, which strengthened ‘betterment’ and ‘rehabilitation’ policies, ‘represented a more overt and coercive form of control’.86

Opposition to the Bantu Authorities Act took shape in Zululand, Zeerust, Sekhukhuneland, Thembuland and Mpondoland in the 1950s and 1950s.87 It smacked of betterment planning, which was unwelcomed to the rural people of South Africa.

Thus, the ascendance of the NP to power in 1948 had serious and far-reaching implications for the institution of traditional leadership. It came with measures to extend their control over traditional leaders and one such measure was the Bantu Authorities Act (No 68 of 1951). However, in terms of ‘Section 17 of Act (No. 102 of 1978), the word “Bantu” was substituted with the word “black” or “blacks” as the context in question may require’.88

Under the provisions of the Act, traditional leaders assumed the central position of leadership not only at a tribal level but also at regional as well as territorial levels. The white government official continued to supervise and direct the activities of the Act, however. The Act became a springboard for the establishment and creation of ‘self-government’ and later ‘independent’ bantustans.89

The bantustan (homeland) system that the apartheid government created had far-reaching implications for traditional leaders. While some of the bantustans (homelands) that came into existence were led by legitimate chiefs, others were led by government-created chiefs. Chiefs supporting the bantustan system were parachuted to be paramount chiefs, such as Paramount Chief Kaiser Matanzima, and Paramount Chief Botha Sigcawu of Eastern Mpondoland. Yet, they were not born in the lineage of the paramount chief in their respective nations.

The Transkei ‘independent’ bantustan was ruled by uNkosi Kaiser Daliwonga Matanzima; Ciskei by uNkosi Lennox Wongama Sebe and uNkosi Patric Mphephu held reigns in Venda. UNkosi Lucas Mangope was in the saddle in Bophuthatswana and uNkosi Gatsha Mangosuthu Buthelezi ruled Zululand as a ‘self-governing state’. This is undoubtedly evidence of abuse of the institution of traditional leadership by the apartheid government, in which chiefs and kings were used as pawns of the apartheid government. However, some chiefs and kings stood their ground and sought a free, democratic, united and non-racial South Africa. For example, uNkosi Victor Poto Ndamase of Western Mpondoland and uKumkani Sabata Dalindyebo of Thembuland opposed the implementation of Bantu Authorities Act, ‘self-government’ and ‘independence’ of Transkei.

The Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei (TBVC) bantustans were the products of apartheid policies. The bantustans, argues Govan Mbeki, ‘consist[ed] of 260 small and separate areas scattered throughout the country [South Africa]. They [were] … soil-eroded and underdeveloped, lacking power resources and without developed communication systems’.90

The chiefs were deliberately put in front by the apartheid regime for its own benefit. In this way, the homeland system tainted the image of the institution of traditional leadership. It tarnished the image of traditional leaders, as they were viewed as agents of the apartheid government. However, some chiefs such as Gatsha Mangosuthu Buthelezi refused the granting of ‘independence’ to their homelands.

The most important characteristic of the colonial, Union and apartheid period was the government’s political and cultural assault on traditional leadership, thereby weakening and undermining the powers of traditional leaders. Even so, during the apartheid era, traditional leaders were in charge of the welfare of their subjects, albeit under the surveillance of the government. They were in control of, and had authority over, their areas of jurisdiction under the Bantu Authorities Act (No. 68 of 1951).91 Traditional leaders exercised authority over their subjects in terms of customary law. Local government was not operational in rural areas, however.

Thus, in South Africa, traditional leaders functioned in their dual capacity as custodians of the tribal values and customs and also as support pillars of the grand designs of apartheid. While serving within the confines of the apartheid structures, the traditional leaders accumulated power and material wealth as they had become salaried servants of the state. While in charge of their subjects, traditional leaders were, writes Oomen:

[F]rom the early 1950s under the apartheid government, the development of legislative and administrative structures in the bantustans saw traditional leadership used in increasingly cynical ways and implicated chiefs ever more deeply in apartheid government.92

Mathonsi and Sithole argue that the apartheid government utilised traditional leadership ‘to entrench the apartheid policy in rural areas referred to as bantustans’,93 while von Kessel and Oomen state that traditional leaders were used as puppets of the apartheid government.94 Traditional leaders who were opposed to ‘separate development’ and also refused to be used as pawns in the hands of the apartheid were demoted and replaced by supporters of apartheid.95

The institution of traditional leadership was thus used by the apartheid government to advance and implement the vicious policies of separatism in rural areas, using traditional leaders as its puppets and stooges. This had the effect of tarnishing the concept of traditional leadership among the freedom-loving people, who had been engaged in the struggle for a democratic South Africa. This eclipsed the role played by some traditional leaders and their counsellors in vigorously resisting the policies of apartheid with catastrophic repercussions.96 For example, uNkosi Victor Poto Ndamase, uNkosi Mbalwa and such leaders as Mngqingo Pikani, Solomon Madikizela, Theophilus Tshangela, Hargreaves Mbodla, S Mpini, N Ntshangase and Anderson Ganyile participated in the Mpondo revolt of 1960 directed against betterment scheme and Bantu Authorities Act. In Thembuland, uKumkani Sabata Dalindyebo, ooNkosi Twalimfene Joyi and Bangilizwe Joyi, McGregor Mgolombane and Jackson Nkosiyane openly resisted the Bantu authorities system.

Conclusion

The position and status of traditional leaders had been subjected to various dispensations, from colonial through Union government to the apartheid government. While some traditional leaders collaborated with the governments, many were indeed responsive to their followers and in the forefront of opposition to colonialism and apartheid overrule. Furthermore, a significant proportion of the chiefs and kings were either autocratic, unresponsive to the economic and political needs of their polities and were divisive in their actions. It is also worth pointing out that traditional leadership is characterised by many scholars as being highly paternalistic. Indeed, the position of women in pre-colonial African society is seen as being one of suppression.

Acknowledgements

I owe debts of gratitude to Walter Sisulu University Directorate of Research and Innovation for financial support towards the publication of this article.

Competing interests

The author has declared that no competing interest exists.

Author’s contributions

J.M. is the sole author of this article from conceptualisation to conclusion. No one else has contributed towards the writing up of the article.

Ethical considerations

This article is the outcome of my original research. All sources cited are acknowledged in the text and the list of references.

Funding information

This research received funding from Walter Sisulu University Research and Innovation Directorate.

Data availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this article as no new data were created or analysed in this study.

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Footnotes

1. R. Price, Making Empire: Colonial Encounters and the Creation of Imperial Rule in Nineteenth-Century Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 239.

2. Price, Making Empire…, 239.

3. W. Mignolo, “Delinking: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality, and the Grammar of Decoloniality,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2 (2011): 512; and J. Mvenene, “Embedding Chiefs’ Bulls and Iminombo in Decolonising South African History in the Further Education and Training Phase,” Indilinga: African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 18, no. 1 (2019): 29.

4. C. Odora-Hoppers and H. Richards, Rethinking Thinking: Modernity’s “Other” and the Transformation of the University (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2011), 73.

5. Mvenene, “Embedding Chiefs’ Bulls and Iminombo…,” 30.

6. O. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems and Gender Recognition: Zimbabwe,” International Journal of Gender and Women Studies 1, no. 1 (2013): 29.

7. Ibid., 32.

8. J. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People from Earliest Times to 1920 (Stellenbosch: African Sun Media, 2020): 51.

9. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 31.

10. S. A. D. Kamga, Eradicating Cultural Based Violence against African Women: The Role of Traditional Leaders (Pretoria: University of Pretoria, 2009), 14.

11. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 30.

12. L. Switzer, Power and Resistance in an African Society: The Ciskei Xhosa and the Making of South Africa (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1993), 95.

13. A word for senior chief, ukumkani, existed. See J. A. Chalmers, Tiyo Soga (Edinburgh: Longman, 1877), 379. Tiyo Soga, a Ngqika, recognised Hintsa’s heir, Sarhili, as head of both the Gaikas [amaNgqika] and the Galekas [amaGcaleka].

14. M. Wilson, “Co-Operation and Conflict: The Eastern Cape Frontier,” in The Oxford History of South Africa: South Africa to 1870, vol. 1, ed. M. Wilson and L. Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 258.

15. Traditionally, the king’s or chief’s Great Wife (great because she is heir-producing) is chosen from the royal house by his counsellors and is lobola-ed by the nation. His first wife is not allocated to the iNdlu eNkulu as she is regarded as umosulimdaka, that is, the one who has removed the white clay (or ingceke) of his initiation and thus is not heir producing. Her son is the first born and not an heir. Hence, he is termed imvelatanci.

16. S. G. Millin, The People of South Africa (London: Constable and Company Ltd, 1953), 264.

17. J. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 5.

18. Amaphakathi were drawn usually from the traditional leader’s age-mates and chosen from the richer homestead heads; as senior members of the commoner clans, they were not only the mediators between the chief and his subjects but were also the main decision makers in the Great Place (Komkhulu). Their authority was derived from the people. For more on this aspect, see Switzer, Power and Resistance in an African Society…, 36.

19. J. Lewis, “Materialism and Idealism in the Historiography of the Xhosa Cattle-Killing Movement 1856–7,” South African Historical Journal 25 (1991): 251.

20. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 34.

21. N. Mathonsi and S. Sithole, “The Incompatibility of Traditional Leadership and Democratic Experimentation in South Africa,” African Journal of Public Affairs 9, no. 5 (2011): 28–42.

22. S. Rugege, Traditional Leadership and Its Future Role in Local Governance (Cape Town: University of the Western Cape, 2003), 172.

23. G. Houston and S. Fikeni, Constitutional Development and the Issue of Traditional Leadership in Rural Local Government in South Africa: Aspects of the Debate on the Draft of the New South African Constitution (Johannesburg: Konrad Adenauer Stifting, 1996), 3.

24. Houston and Fikeni, Constitutional Development …, 3.

25. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 170.

26. Y. Amoateng, “Traditional Leadership Gone and Forgotten?,” HSRC Review 5, no. 4 (2005): 8; B. Oomen, Chiefs in South Africa: Law, Power and Culture in Post-Apartheid Era (Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2005), 89; and F. S. Khunou, “Traditional Leadership and Governance: Legislative Environment and Policy Development in a Democratic South Africa,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 1, no. 9 (2011): 274–286.

27. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 30.

28. G. Lutz and W. Linder, Traditional Structures in Local Governance for Local Development (Longman: Berne, 2004), 14.

29. D. Williams, “The Missionaries on the Eastern Frontier of the Cape Colony, 1799–1853,” (Ph.D, University of Witwatersrand, 1959), 294.

30. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 83.

31. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 31.

32. Ibid., 34.

33. I. Shapera, Handbook of Tswana Law and Custom (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), 68; and P. Bikam and J. Chakwiriza, “Involvement of Traditional Leadership in Land Use, Planning and Development Projects in South Africa: Lessons for Local Government Planners,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 4, no. 13 (2014): 138–152.

34. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 32.

35. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 60–61.

36. Rugege, Traditional Leadership…, 174.

37. J. Lutabingwa, T. Sabela and J. S. Mbatha, Traditional Leadership and Local Governments in South Africa: Shared Governance Is Possible (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2006), 74.

38. B. Tshehla, “Here to Stay: Traditional Leaders’ Role in Justice and Crime Prevention,” Crime Quarterly 11 (2005): 15; Khunou, “Traditional Leadership and Governance…,” 278; Bikam and Chakwiriza, “Involvement of Traditional Leadership…,” 145; and B. Kompi and C. Twala, “The African National Congress and Traditional Leadership in a Democratic South Africa: Resurgence or Revival in the Era of Democratisation?,” Anthropologist 17, no. 3 (2014): 984.

39. Cape of Good Hope Blue Book on Native Affairs, G. Secretary for Native Affairs to Colonial Secretary, 1878–1885, (885), 32.

40. S. Redding, “Sorcery and Sovereignty: Taxation, Witchcraft and Political Symbols in the 1880 Transkeian Rebellion,” Journal of Southern African Studies 22, no. 2 (1996): 250.

41. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 46.

42. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 31.

43. J. C. Ribot, Decentralization, Participation, and Accountability in Sahelian Forestry (Berkeley, CA: Institute of International Studies, University of California, 1999), 32; and Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 60.

44. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 45.

45. D. Beke, “Modern Local Administration and Traditional Authority in Zaire: Duality or Unity? An Inquiry in the Kivu,” in African Chieftaincy in a New Socio-Political Landscape, ed. E. A. B. Van Rouveroy and R. Van Dijk (London: LIT Verlag Munster-Hamburg, 1999), 16; and D. I. Ray and P. S. Reddy (eds.), Grassroots Governance? Chiefs in Africa and the Afro-Caribbean (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2003), 8.

46. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 60.

47. Switzer, Power and Resistance in an African Society…, 95.

48. N. Majeke, The Role of the Missionaries in Conquest (Cumberwood: APDUSA, 1952), 67.

49. Dodo, “Traditional Leadership Systems…,” 31.

50. Lutabingwa et al., Traditional Leadership…, 76.

51. J. B. Peires, “The Implosion of Transkei and Ciskei,” African Affairs 91 (1992): 384.

52. J. Mvenene, “A Social and Economic History of the African People of Gcalekaland, 1830–1913,” Historia 59, no. 1 (2014): 56–68.

53. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 120.

54. Meli, A History of the ANC…, 39.

55. Price, Making Empire…, 234.

56. Ibid., 260.

57. R. H. Du Pre, The Making of Racial Conflict in South Africa: A Historical Perspective (Johannesburg: Skotavile Publishers, 1992), 37.

58. J. Pampallis, Foundations of the New South Africa (Cape Town: Maskew Miller Longman, 1991), 67.

59. H. Holland, The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress (New York, NY: George Braziller Inc., 1990), 39.

60. M. P. Sithole and S. M. Ndlovu, “CODESA at the Centre of a Complex Moral Question: Traditional Leadership in Negotiated Political Settlement,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, ed. S. M. Ndlovu (Pretoria: UNISA Press, 2013), 1344; and Kompi and Twala, “The African National Congress…?,” 986; A. Odendaal, Vukani Bantu! The Beginning of Black Protest Politics in South Africa to 1912 (Cape Town: David Philip, 1984), 45.

61. Holland, The Struggle…, 40.

62. Mvenene, A History of the abaThembu People…, 186.

63. Pampallis, Foundations…, 68.

64. F. Meli, A History of the ANC: South Africa Belongs to Us (London: James Currey, 1988), 39.

65. Pampallis, Foundations…, 197.

66. Daily Dispatch, 13 October 2011, 7.

67. G. Nattrass, A Short History of South Africa (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017), 190; and J. Pampallis and M. Bailey, A Brief History of South Africa: From the Earliest Times to the Mandela Presidency (Auckland Park: Jacana Media, 2021), 138.

68. Pampallis, Foundations…, 317–318; Mathonsi and Sithole. “The Incompatibility of Traditional Leadership…,” 37.

69. Holland, The Struggle…, 41.

70. Pampallis, Foundations…, 69.

71. A. Chilivumbo, “The Question of Chiefs in a Future South Africa: A Comparative View” (Paper delivered at the 1991 Conference on the Place of Traditional Leaders in a Future South Africa, Mthatha, July 1991), 22–23.

72. N. Mandela, “Mandela speaks”, Daily Dispatch, 22 April 1990, 2.

73. J. C. Bekker, “Tribal Government at the Crossroads,” Africa Insight 21, no. 2 (1991): 45; and J. C. Bekker and C. C. Boonzaaier “Traditional Leadership and Governance,” in Introduction to Legal Pluralism, ed. J. C. Bekker et al. (eds.), 2nd ed. (Durban: Butterworth, 2006), 121.

74. L. Bank and R. Southall, “Traditional Leaders in South Africa’s New Democracy,” Journal of Legal Pluralism 28, nos. 37–38 (1996): 409.

75. I. Von Kessel and B. Oomen, “One Chief, One Vote: The Revival of Traditional Authorities in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” African Affairs 96 (1997): 561.

76. Pampallis and Bailey, A Brief History of South Africa…, 90.

77. Ibid., 10.

78. Khunou, “Traditional Leadership and Governance…,” 279.

79. G. Mbeki, South Africa: The Peasants’ Revolt (Penguin: IDAF, 1964), 39.

80. D. A. Joyi (Chief of the Bhaziya Village, Mthatha), interview, J. Mvenene (History Lecturer, Walter Sisulu University [WSU], Mthatha Campus), 06 March 2010; J. D. Mtirara (Chief of the Sithebe Village, Mthatha), interview, J. Mvenene (History Lecturer, WSU, Mthatha Campus), 05 February 2013; Z. S. Mtirara (Chief of the Qulugqu Village, Ngcobo), interview, J. Mvenene (History Lecturer, WSU, Mthatha Campus), 30 March 2012.

81. X. M. Sigcawu (uKumkani [King] of amaXhosa nation, Nqadu Great Place, Gatyana), interview, J. Mvenene (Principal, Maboboti High School, Centane), 19 November 2000; N. Fazi (District magistrate, Butterworth), interview, J. Mvenene (History Lecturer, WSU, Mthatha Campus), 13 August 2013.

82. Pampallis and Bailey, A Brief History of South Africa…, 204.

83. T. Simpson, History of South Africa: From 1902 to the Present (Cape Town: Penguin Books, 2021), 173.

84. W. Beinart and C. Bundy, Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa: Politics and Popular Movements in the Transkei and Eastern Cape, 1890–1930 (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1982), 11.

85. Beinart and Bundy, Hidden Struggles in Rural South Africa…, 40.

86. Ibid.

87. Pampallis and Bailey, A Brief History of South Africa…, 240.

88. Black Authorities Act (No. 68 of 1951).

89. S. Khan and B. Lootvoet, “Tribal Authority and Service Delivery in the Durban Uni-City” (Paper presented at Gouvernance et Gouvenement urbainen Afrique Australe, Lusaka, November 2001), 3.

90. Mbeki, South Africa…, 16.

91. M. H. Shabangu and T. Khalo, The Role of Traditional Leaders in the Improvement of the Lives of Communities in South Africa (Pretoria: Van Schaik, 2008), 329.

92. Oomen, Chiefs in South Africa…, 45.

93. Mathonsi and Sithole, “The Incompatibility of Traditional Leadership…,” 37.

94. Von Kessel and Oomen, “One Chief, One Vote…,” 561.

95. K. George, The Role of Traditional Leadership in Governance and Rural Development: A Case of the Mgwalana Traditional Authority (Cambridge: NMMU, 2010), 108; and Khunou, “Traditional Leadership and Governance…,” 278.

96. L. Ntsebeza, Democracy Compromised: Chiefs and the Politics of Land in South Africa (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2005), 67.



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