Traditional Leaders Grappling For Relevance In A Developmental Local State
During the colonial and the apartheid eras, the institution of traditional leadership was sidelined and only became useful to the system when they were exercising political control of their communities at the behest of their masters – the colonial government. In the period following the establishment of South Africa’s new government in 1994 and the passing of the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act in 2003, a great deal of attention was focused on issues and questions over traditional leader’s roles and responsibilities. Yet the broad deliberations that ensued achieved very little in terms of clarifying traditional leaders roles when it comes to the delivery of
services in tribal areas or the development in rural areas.
The role of traditional leaders was limited to mobilising their communities to complement the efforts of the central government in the provision of services. However, following the failure of the neo-liberal reform agenda, the role of traditional leadership with regard to the provision of services at the local level has come to occupy centre stage in development thinking on the continent. Local communities, through their chiefs and other stakeholders are being called upon to play increased roles in the development of their communities although the dominant role is being played by the state. The state’s approach to service delivery is duly informed by the Municipal Service Partnerships.
According to the ECA (2007), traditional leaders should play the role of upholding the values and administer the affairs of their communities. They are meant to work with municipalities to identify the needs of their community and be involved in municipal affairs, including shaping IDPs (Integrated Development Plans) and participating in service delivery. They should also play a role in disaster management and the promotion of indigenous knowledge systems. Traditional leaders are meant to reject tribalism, promote peace, foster social cohesion and contribute to the system of cooperative governance.
National and provincial government departments may also allocate to traditional leaders roles in land administration, agriculture, administration of justice, safety and security, health, welfare, arts and culture, tourism, registration of births, deaths and customary marriages, and the management of natural resources. Among other key interventions, traditional leaders should provide leadership in ensuring that communities utilise available land productively to increase agricultural output and enhance food security so as to alleviate the challenge of poverty and underdevelopment in rural areas.
Chief Phathekile Holomisa, President of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) and Chairperson of the SADC Council of Traditional Leaders, argues that traditional councils are ideally placed to facilitate the delivery of services to rural communities. According to him, the councils or their subsidiaries, the headmen, are much closer to the people they serve. To this effect, the process of service delivery would greatly be facilitated if government departments and other organs of State established offices and relevant personnel in the Council establishment. Thus, rural citizens will be accorded the same rights and privileges that their urban counterparts currently enjoy. In the words of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, “We are the local government.” Traditional authorities have a potential role to play in ameliorating some of the administrative difficulties that the poor in the rural areas encounter in their attempt to access their entitlements, such as social security benefits from State agencies (ECA, 2007).
However, as the case of South Africa illustrates, the State appears to have a different view with regard to the integration of the two structures of governance. For instance, consistent with his view of the complementary role of traditional leaders, the Executive Manager of Traditional Leadership and Institutions clearly had in mind the idea of the coexistence of the two structures as opposed to integrating them. He outlined the essential features of the envisaged partnership between the two structures in the following way:
• Municipalities and traditional councils sharing resources;
• Joint IDP compilation processes – including Local Economic development plans and activities with municipalities;
• Allocation of functions to traditional councils through service delivery agreements by government departments;
• Traditional councils and municipalities identification of community development needs in rural areas;
• Signing of service delivery agreements by traditional and municipalities for certain services to be rendered by the traditional councils;
• Constant sharing of information on matters of mutual interest; and
• Government departments having to allocate roles and functions to traditional leadership in terms of legislation.
The Need for Structure
Sithole (2005) traces what is ‘traditional’ about traditional leadership as something that ties their pragmatic social responsibilities to their citizens with the notions of identity and moral responsibilities to their people. This essentially means the interconnectedness of people and the shared responsibility for each other in ways that would be vulgarised as nepotism in Western contexts. The African setting seeks to be tied by identity rather than shying away from it, to a point where joining a new traditional authority jurisdiction is regarded as expressing a wish to be honorary related to its people. After examining the operational circumstances of traditional leadership, Sithole concludes then that an appropriate approach to traditional leadership would be to support traditional leaders with relevant tailor-made education and procedure or protocol formation. Prioritise issues of land management with respect to forming core focal areas for traditional authorities. To establish a good working relationship between these leaders and the various other departments whose work overlaps with roles of traditional leaders – even while the unresolved legislative matters around inheritance of position and democratic election are pending, and attempt to establish a system of accountability in the traditional leadership system and procedural means of accountability with various departments.
Having this form of structure may be valued because they provide a sense of continuity and stability in an era of great change. Williams (2004) suggests that they can serve as intermediaries to ensure that change occurs in an orderly and familiar way. Yet at the same time, traditional leaders have also displayed impressive flexibility, adapting to meet the needs of the day in an effort to preserve or enhance their position within local communities (Van Kessel and Oomen 1997: 561).
Keulder (1998) states that the institution of traditional leaders and its procedures of governance is not only a simpler form of government, but also a more accessible, better understood, and a more participatory one. It is more accessible, because it is closer to the subjects than any other system of government. Subjects have more direct access to their leaders, because they live in the same village and because any individual can approach the leader; decision making is based on consensus, which creates greater harmony and unity. It is transparent and participatory, because most people may attend tribal meetings and express their views directly, not through representatives. And lastly, harmony and unity prevail, because the interests of the tribal unit, rather than an individual or group of individuals, are pursued and expressed.
South African traditional leaders are adamant therefore that they constitute local government and therefore require a greater and more effective role in local governance. For example, on the question of public service delivery, the position of the traditional leaders is that traditional councils are ideally placed to facilitate the delivery to rural communities. Thus the councils or their subsidiaries, the headmen, are much closer to the people they serve. They believe therefore that the process of service delivery would greatly be facilitated if government departments and other organs of State established offices and relevant personnel in the Council establishment, and in the process accord rural citizens the same rights and privileges that their urban counterparts currently enjoy (Mengisteab, 2006).
It is clear that there is continuing importance of the institution of traditional leadership in the social organisation of African societies. While the resilience of the institution and its attendant duality of the institutional culture in Southern Africa has come at a cost in the form of tension between it and existing state structures, the fact remains that the two structures complement each other. This means that modernising influences such as formal education by chiefs and their retainers have largely contributed to the resilience of the institution through renewed legitimacy. The state should assist in the process of transformation by providing the required resources and further training to enhance traditional leaders’ role in service delivery at the local level.
• Economic Commission for Africa, 2007. Harnessing traditional governance in Southern Africa: ECA/SA/TPUB/GOVERNANCE/2007/1
• Keulder, Christiaan. 1998. Traditional Leaders and Local Government in Africa: Lessons for South Africa. Pretoria: HSRC.
• Mengisteab, K. (2006). Relevance of African Traditional Institutions of Governance: A Concept Paper. Submitted to the Development Policy Management Division, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
• Sithole, M.P. (2005) ‘The Secular Basis of Traditional Leadership in KwaZulu-Natal’ in Alternation: Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of the Arts and Humanities in Southern Africa No.2 pp102-122
• Van Kessel, Ineke and Barbara Oomen. 1997. “One Chief, One Vote: The Revival of Traditional Authorities in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” African Affairs 96: 561-585.
• Williams, J. Michael. 2004. “Leading from Behind: Democratic Consolidation and the Chieftaincy in South Africa.” Journal of Modern African Studies 42 (1) : 113-136.