Traditional Leaders in South Africa: Custom and Tradition in a Modern State?


The recent announcement by President Zuma that certain traditional leadership positions would be not be continued when the incumbent leaders died was met by a remarkable lack of reaction and discussion in the media. Against the bigger picture this was a cosmetic change to traditional and customary practice in South Africa. Surely we must continue to ask whether traditional leadership per se is not an archaic concept in a modern democratic republic? What place do kings and queens, chiefs and other traditional leaders really have to play in a truly democratic dispensation?

These questions become especially relevant in light of moves toward the final scrapping of one of the cornerstones of the apartheid era, the 1951 Black Authorities Act (BAA), which used divide and rule principles to shatter traditional power structures. The Law, Race and Gender research unit at UCT has noted that the Communal Land Rights Act (CLARA) of 2004, the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003, and the Traditional Courts Bill, meant to replace the BAA, collectively perpetuate many apartheid instituted ‘traditions’ and continue to marginalise women and rural communities where over one third of our people still live. Read more