Traditional leaders in South Africa

South Africa is a nation fashioned from the fabric of contradictions. These contradictions are visible on every level of life, and politics are no exception.

South Africa is a constitutional democracy – and yet it has traditional monarchs. Nominally, traditional tribal kings and queens are symbolic figureheads with little political power, charged with acting as arbitrators in local disputes and with advising Parliament on issues of customary law through the National House of Traditional Leaders. But in the lives of rural population traditional authority structures retain very real powers.

In July 2010, South African government decided to reduce the number of traditional kingdoms. Six of thirteen traditional monarchies have been scraped. They will not be terminated immediately, but will end when the incumbent ruler dies, with their successors becoming lower-ranking leaders.

The six traditional kingdoms to be phased out are:

  • The Batlokwa ba Mota (Free State)
  • The Bakwena baMopeli (Free State)
  • The AmaRharhabe  (Eastern Cape)
  • The AmaMpondo ase-Nyandeni (Eastern Cape )
  • The AbaThembu base-Rhode in the Eastern Cape
  • The Ndzundza Mabhoko (Mpumalanga)

The seven that remain recognised as kingdoms are:

  • The AbaThembu (Eastern Cape)
  • The AmaXhosa (Eastern Cape)
  • The AmaMpondo (Eastern Cape)
  • The AmaZulu (KwaZulu-Natal)
  • The BaPedi ba Maroteng (Limpopo)
  • The VhaVenda (Limpopo)
  • The AmaNdebele (Mpumalanga)

Prior to this decision, the government conducted a six-year long study into the traditional monarchies. The conclusion was that some of them were artificial creations of the apartheid regime, used as a part of "divide and rule" strategy to weaken black leaders. Phasing them out was presented as correcting the wrongs of the past.

The move was primarily motivated by the desire to curb tensions among rival leaders. It will also have another beneficial side effect: it will mean savings for the South African taxpayer, because each monarchy is subsidised by the government.

Not all of the "deposed" monarchs are ready to accept their demotion. Some of them are taking steps to fight the decision. For example, the Ndamase royal family (from the AmaMpondo ase-Nyandeni in Eastern Cape) is going to court in August 2010.

The reduction in the number of traditional monarchs does not even touch on an issue that is becoming more and more controversial in South African society: the difficulty of reconciling the prerogatives of unelected traditional leaders with the requirements of a modern democratic nation. 

Local media recently reported that forty men and women from remote communities appealed to the Parliament to scrap the powers of traditional kings and queens. They say that the whole system makes it very difficult for "ordinary" people to challenge possible abuses of power. In the words on one man, "we feel as subjects instead of as full citizens", because, "if you are summoned by the chief and you fail to appear before him, then the chief can take away your residential rights or force you to work in his mealie (maize) fields for a certain period", says one man.

Rural women are especially affected. They are denied the right to own communal land. They are also not allowed to speak in traditional courts; instead, they have to be represented by a male relative.

Even some of the people who hold dear traditional customs, like paying lobola or never arguing with elders in public, think that South Africa must do away with traditional chiefs and royal houses. In this day and age, according to them, these institutions serve no purpose and are instead a drain on scarce economic resources and a hinderance to democracry.

And former president Nelson Mandela said years ago: "The reversion to tribal rule might isolate the democratic leadership from the masses and bring about the destruction of that leadership as well as of the liberation organisations".

Image source: Media Club South Africa