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The Interface between Local Government and Traditional Leadership

In early 2000 the IPT, with funding from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation began a two year research project intended to provide a comparative analysis of the various forms of representative government available to rural people at the regional level. The objectives include the identification and analysis of:

    the role of the traditional system of governance

    specific areas of tension between the traditional system and the regional councils

    unnecessary duplications of government functions

    points of convergence between the traditional system and democratic representation

    alternative models of cooperative governance

    appropriate political boundaries (e.g., Is it appropriate for traditional areas and urban areas to share a regional council?)

Background to the Research

The IPT has a long history of working with the amaKhosi. This goes back to 1994 when the organisation had two rural offices in the north of the province, one in Ulundi and the other in Empangeni which both provided regular and ongoing training with traditional structures. During this time residential workshops were conducted with amaKhosi from both the House of Traditional Leaders and Contralesa and this relationship has been maintained to the present time.

Five years after South Africa's transition to a multiparty democratic government, a carefully thought out policy regarding the role of traditional leaders is still required. Chapter Twelve of South Africa's Constitution recognises "the institution, status, and role of traditional leadership and customary law" but does not elaborate on this status or role nor does it prescribe institutions, although provinces may create Houses of Traditional leaders to serve a mainly advisory role. The Local Government Transition Act of 1994 also failed to explain fully the role of traditional leaders. Consequently, many of the Amakhosi and other traditional leaders in KwaZulu-Natal have complained since then about both their lack of status and powers in the new dispensation as well as the lack of clarity regarding their role.

This policy vacuum has created divisions and debate. On one hand, the legitimacy of traditional leaders has been challenged by civic organisations, political parties, and others who argue that any system of inherited rule by traditional ‘chiefs' is illegitimate, undemocratic, feudal and unnecessary. That traditional systems were encouraged, reinforced and sometimes constructed by the former apartheid government also undermines their legitimacy among some groups. The polarisation of traditional leaders along political party lines has also contributed to the creation of party strongholds which obstructs efforts to create free and fair elections. The question often asked is :

    Is the widespread rural system of amakhosi, indunas, traditional councils, the King, his Council and the House of Traditional Leaders and/or Contralesa, an expensive and unnecessary relic of the past that should be removed? or do they provide necessary and valuable structure in rural areas?

Some have argued that these traditional systems of governance have democratic traditions (e.g., Traditional Councils) and are in the process of converging with multi-party democracy through changes such as elected Indunas (in recent years the Indunas in several traditional areas in KwaZulu-Natal are being elected rather than appointed by the amaKhosi). The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) which is the dominant party among rural traditional peoples has argued for the recognition of the Zulu Kingdom and its system of Customary Law.

In response to this general lack of clarity the IPT began a programme of field research to analyse these opposing views through a comparison of functioning traditional systems such as the Traditional Regional Authority and the institution of Regional Councils established under the Local Government Transition Act of 1993 as part of South Africa's new dispensation. There are seven regional councils in KwaZulu-Natal comprised mainly of rural residents, traditional authorities, and small municipalities. During research that the IPT conducted in 1997 in the South Coast rural areas, regional councils as a system of delivery were severely criticised by some thirty traditional leaders interviewed (i.e., amaKhosi, indunas). These informants argued that the regional councils were:

    too large to be effective (e.g., Region Seven has 260 councillors)

    biassed in favour of urban areas

    not democratic in their composition (the effect of proportional representation)

    inadequately funded from central government for political reasons (the IFP controls 75% of the seats)

    often bypassed by the central government in terms of projects and funds.

It was further argued that

    the role of the regional council is duplicated or bypassed by other forms of governance including traditional councils, development boards, rural development committees, and central government programmes

Many of those that criticised the regional council suggested that this institution constituted a duplication of rural government and could be replaced by existing regional traditional authorities. These are smaller assemblies than the regional council (between 10 and 30 traditional areas vs more than 50 in the regional councils ) and meet more often (sometimes once a month vs quarterly meetings of the regional council).

As of November 2000 the following reports and information are available from this project. A final report will be available in December 2001.

  1. Insight @ ipt Vol2 No5 : The Role of Traditional Leadership and the Demarcation Process
  2. The First Report for the Period Jan 2000 - Nov 2000
See below for links to other sites with related information

South African Local Government Homepage

Demarcation Board

Process of Determining boundaries in Kwazulu-Natal with specific reference to traditional leaders.

Other Research Information

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