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Jill. E. Kelly, South Africa: How a chief defied apartheid and upheld democracy for the good of his people

The Conversation

Originally Posted: August 20, 2019

Disclosure statement

Jill E. Kelly’s research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies (2015) and Fulbright (2010-2011, 2018-2019).

The recently released report of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s advisory panel on land reform, and the latest efforts to force through two controversial traditional authority bills, point to the continued legacies of changes to the relationship between traditional leaders, their followers, and land in South Africa’s history.

The panel calls for a resolution to the “contending philosophies around land tenure” — those of individual rights and those of communalism. But as traditional leaders fight to continue their control over communally held land, there also needs to be a recognition that there are contending philosophies of traditional leadership. At times, these overlap.

This was evident at the meeting between a delegation from the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) and the then exiled African National Congress (ANC) in Lusaka, Zambia 30 years ago – on 18 August 1989.

The meeting released a joint memorandum. In it the parties called upon traditional leaders in South Africa to refuse to implement apartheid. The document recognised the profound effects of apartheid on South Africa’s traditional leaders:

From leaders responsible and responsive to the people, you are being forced by the regime to become its paid agents. From being a force for unity and prosperity you are turned into perpetrators of division, poverty and want among the oppressed. The so-called homeland system, land deprivation, forced removals and the denial of basic political rights – all these and more are the anti-people policies that the white ruling clique forces the chiefs to implement on its behalf.

Contending views of chieftancy

The ANC and the Contralesa delegation called on a historical understanding of traditional authority in which a leader’s authority came from their followers. This understanding is embodied by the isiZulu proverb inkosi yinkosi ngabantu (a chief is a chief by the people who khonzahim, or pay allegiance to him). Ukukhonza is a practice of political affiliation. It is one that binds chiefs and their subjects and allows for accountability.

Colonialism and apartheid sought to make traditional leaders accountable to white officials by tying them to land. Historian Percy Ngonyama called this inkosi yinkosi ngendawo (a chief is a chief by territory). Doing so effected territorial segregation. It also allowed white officials to govern through a mimicry of pre-existing political structures.

Colonial officials came to interpret ukukhonza as a practice of subservience. But in fact, historically, this was a reciprocal practice. Paying allegiance to a chief came with expectations of physical and social security.

My recent book, To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence and Belonging in South Africa, 1800 – 1996, is a history of ukukhonza. It shows how even as colonialism and apartheid sought to break down personal bonds of ukukhonza, people used knowledge about the practice to make claims on land and on their leaders.

In the case of Inkosi Maphumulo, the claims were for physical security in times of violence. READ MORE