Posted on October 23, 2013
In post-apartheid South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC)-led government has gradually acknowledged the power of traditional leaders (1), giving them more clearly defined and greater roles in local, and more recently, national government (2). Through various pieces of legislation, the amakhosi have been incorporated into the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (CoGTA) and are increasingly subject to bureaucratic procedures, administration and a powerful demand for accountability through the documentary record. In KwaZulu-Natal, where the institution of traditional leadership is deeply entrenched, the realm of custom and tradition now intersects in more direct ways with the bureaucracy and records of the state than it did during the colonial and apartheid periods, exerting a much greater call on the amakhosi to participate in the world of records and record-making.

The amakhosi under colonial government

The available secondary literature on the 'Shepstone System' of indirect rule affords one insight into the documentary regime that underpinned colonial administration in the former colony of Natal. Colonial officials were, overwhelmingly, the producers of the documentary record, typically of court cases and other matters in which they were involved, or where they interacted with the amakhosi or their envoys and spokespeople. However, matters amongst the amakhosi, between them and those they governed, almost without exception, only entered the record at the point at which these matters were relayed to government officials or to other literate interlocutors such as local missionaries (3)

Keith Breckenridge (2008: 14-15) offers details of the Shepstone System's "extreme administrative parsimony", arguing convincingly that it operated with little reference to any kind of registry or archive and very few administrators. He shows the lack of provision for administering laws that were implemented and the "startling absence of documentary bureaucracy" that characterised its fundraising efforts in relation to the local population. It is likely that chiefly authority functioned at a local level with limited or at times, no documentary record.

In his assessment of what he calls the chiefs' "partial incorporation" into the colonial administrative structure, Peter Delius (2008: 224-226) argues that rural people saw chiefly authority as vital to preserving a measure of economic, political and cultural freedom from colonial rule, and points to a degree of autonomy enjoyed by chiefs outside of bureaucratic structures, including those who were officially recognised by the colonial government. Chiefs in Natal realised how much their authority depended on their retention of judicial powers and as Charles Dlamini (1988: 134) writes, they often exceeded their jurisdiction by trying criminal cases and, within the structures of indirect rule, continued to rely on tribute paid by their supporters as well as fines and fees from those who brought disputes to their courts.

Amakhosi during the twentieth century

In the earlier part of the twentieth century, the Native Administration Act (1927) stripped chiefs of much of their independence and the Governor General of South Africa came to prescribe their duties, powers and conditions of service. However, from 1948, the National Party government took a conciliatory approach to chiefs when it realised they fitted in with, and in many cases, later implemented, its segregationist policies (Beall and Ngonyama, 2009: 19). Although subject to the bureaucracy of the apartheid state, there is evidence in the secondary literature to suggest that to a considerable extent during this period the amakhosi continued to function independently of the documentary record.

Delius (2008: 230) writes that given their role in the system of influx control, chiefs were afforded new powers and backing from an increasingly coercive state, one that tolerated instances of maladministration and corruption. He notes, "[P]rovision was made under the Bantu authorities system for proper tribal accounts to be kept, but in most cases tribal financial records were in a shambles or non-existent." Lungisile Ntsebeza (2008: 250 - 251) gives details of the land allocation process under tribal authorities during apartheid, which allowed chiefs to exploit "the lacks of checks and balances" by allocating land without following administrative procedures and illegally taxing those under their jurisdiction. In the KwaZulu bantustan, the "Zulu Chiefs and Headmen Act of 1974" describes how chiefs were required to report to the KwaZulu government important matters such as civil unrest but there is no mention of the their administrative or record-making requirements (Maré and Hamilton, 1987: 230-232). Indeed, Maré and Hamilton's (88-92) account of the chiefs in KwaZulu suggest a disjuncture between them and bantustan bureaucracy, highlighting reports of the chiefs' dissatisfaction with, and rejection of, the KwaZulu administration.

Amakhosi and democratic governance

Amidst early talk of the abolishment of traditional leadership as an institution based on hereditary and patriarchal principles and therefore antithetical to democracy, traditional leaders were ultimately seen as a way for the ANC to reach out to rural populations from its primarily urban bases (Beall and Ngonyama, 2009: 4). While the 1998 White Paper on Local Government offered the amakhosi a consultative role in local government, subsequent legislation like the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003 aimed to reinforce their role in local governance and endorsed the operation of traditional councils (composed of mostly unelected members who included traditional leaders and their appointees) alongside other local government structures (4). More recent legislation has further consolidated the position of traditional leaders in relation to government and paved the way for the establishment of the National House of Traditional Leaders, outlining their new powers, duties and roles (5).

Amakhosi in eThekwini Municipality

In the late 1990s, following the restructuring of municipal borders in Durban, 17 traditional authority areas and their leaders were incorporated into the city and the newly-extended eThekwini Municipality had to accommodate hereditary chiefs alongside democratically-elected ward councillors. The Amakhosi Support Office (ASO), run by Victor Mkhize, was set up in the early 2000s to enable traditional leaders to redefine their roles in a changed political environment and to facilitate working relationships with the municipality. Importantly, it supports the amakhosi's efforts to function within government frameworks and to deal with, and participate in, encroaching bureaucratic demands for record-making across a broad range of digital and non-digital media, examples of which I outline below.

Inkosi Khetha Makhanya, whose office is complete with record-making technologies like fax machines, photocopiers and computers, explained that he is now required to write birth and death certificates, keep records of births, deaths and cases tried at his adjoining traditional authority court (Inkosi Khetha Makhanya, interview, 2011 April 01). Another inkosi, Kusakusa Mkhize lamented: "The power of amakhosi comes from tradition. The power of the amakhosi is now controlled by the government." (Inkosi Kusakusa Mkhize, interview, 2011 January 20). This is evidenced by the fact that CoGTA, in conjunction with the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, now certifies the status of the amakhosi. The 'Isuccession' Programme is another clear indication of how a system of record-keeping has influenced chiefly practices. It is a new mechanism introduced by the ASO whereby amakhosi are required to record in print their direct lineage in order to avoid future conflicts over succession. According to Victor Mkhize, they need "to list their sons and say, the eldest son is so and so, followed by so and so. Let them be written down." (Victor Mkhize, interview, 2011 June 15) Amakhosi in the eThekwini Municipality are further expected to keep diaries, write monthly reports, check Groupwise email accounts and are monitored and evaluated based on the records they produce (Victor Mkhize, interview, 2011 June 15). Whereas in the past amakhosi functioned, to a great extent, independently of the documentary record, as notions of tradition and custom have been integrated into a legislative and policy environment, there are clear indications that the authority of amakhosi, in the eThekwini Municipality at least, is increasingly subject to a system of documentary administration and accountability.

End Notes

(1) Terms like traditional leaders, traditional authorities and chiefs are contentious and are the focus of contemporary public debate. Bearing this in mind, I use the Zulu terms inkosi (chief) and amakhosi (chiefs), as well as the English terms chief/s and traditional leader/s as they are used by those I encountered during my period of research in KwaZulu-Natal, including government officials, subjects of my study and incumbents of these positions.

(2) The extent to which the current ANC-led government is accommodating of the institution of traditional leadership is evident in the current parliamentary debate over the proposed Traditional Courts Bill, which seeks to regulate the traditional courts to bring them in line with the Constitution. Critics claim that the Bill, which seeks to give traditional leaders judicial powers over those within Traditional Authority areas, amongst other things, undermines the rights of women and bolsters the powers of the traditional leaders and their ability to create and enforce customary law within the areas under their jurisdiction. See for example articles written by Aninka Claassens, a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town, opposing the Bill in different forms in 2008 and 2012.

(3) That is not to say that there was a lack of awareness about record-making amongst the inhabitants of Natal. In the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Natal Africans became increasingly aware of the significance of the documentary record and attempted to make use of it in a variety of ways. There are signs that many of James Stuart's interviewees were keenly interested in having their views recorded in print by him (Hamilton, 2011: 331). Magema Fuze, a print technician at Bishop John Colenso's Ekukhanyeni Mission Station published regularly in the Zulu-English newspaper, Ilanga laseNatal, and wrote a book on the history of the clans that settled in the colony of Natal entitled Abantu Abamnyama Lapa Bavela Ngakona (1922), later published in English as The Black People and Whence They Came (1978).

(4) Beall and Ngonyama (2009) argue that the Act significantly entrenched the authority of traditional leaders, particularly in conjunction with the Communal Land Rights Act (CLRA) of 2004, which dealt with the transfer of ownership of communal land in the former homelands from the state to communities and gave a central role to traditional councils in the allocation and administration of this land.

(5) See the National House of Traditional Leaders Act (Act No. 22 of 2009) and the National House of Traditional Leaders Amendment Act (Act No. 23 of 2009).

Works Cited:

Beall, J. and Ngonyama, M. 2009. Indigenous Institutions, Traditional Leaders and Elite Coalitions for Development: the case of Greater Durban, South Africa, Crisis States working paper no. 55. London: London School of Economics.

Breckenridge, K. 2008. Power Without Knowledge: Three Nineteenth-Century Colonialisms in South Africa. Journal of Natal and Zulu History. 26: 3 "“ 31.

Claassens, A. 2008. What's wrong with the Traditional Courts Bill? Available: [2012, October 25].

Claassens, A. 2012. The Traditional Courts Bill is a Legal Travesty. Available: [2012, October 23]

Delius, P. 2008. Contested terrain: land rights and chiefly power in historical perspective. In Land, Power and Custom. A. Claassens and B. Cousins, Eds. Cape Town: UCT Press. 211 "“ 237.

Dlamini, C.R.M. 1988. The role of chiefs in the administration of justice in Kwazulu. Ph.D. Thesis. University of Zululand.

Hamilton, C. 2011. Backstory, Biography, and the Life of the James Stuart Archive. History in Africa. 38: 319 "“ 341.

Maré, G. and Hamilton, G. 1987. An Appetite for Power: Buthelezi's Inkatha and the politics of 'Loyal Resistance'. Johannesburg: Ravan.

Ntsebeza, L. 2008. Chiefs and the ANC in South Africa: the reconstruction of tradition? In Land,Power and Custom. A. Claassens & B. Cousins, Eds. Cape Town: UCT Press. 238 - 260.

Grant McNulty is a Doctoral Research Scholar in the Archives and Piblic Culture Initiative at the University of Cape Town.