Posted on October 23, 2013

From the beginning of the colonial era, throughout the Shepstone system of native administration and the apartheid structure of bantustans, access to resources for African inhabitants of the present-day KwaZulu-Natal region has been determined through reference to loosely defined bodies of tradition and custom, the custodians of which have been amakhosi, recognised by the colonial and later apartheid governments. In the present, claims to custodianship of these bodies of knowledge are contested between amakhosi and local government. There exists a tension between different modes of governance. On the one hand, there is a new modern democracy, which is based on records and emphasises citizens with individual rights and responsibilities, and on the other, chiefly governance based on the traditional and customary, maintained through memory and orality, which conceives of people as chiefly subjects.

What was previously held separately as the domain of the"tribal subject" (custom and tradition) now intersects in more direct ways with the domain of the democratic citizen (legislation, government records and archives), which has resulted in current official systems of record-keeping investing in the notion of indigenous knowledge, a classification that overlaps considerably with the complex array of things rooted in understandings of the past and captured in ideas of tradition and custom.

This investment is evident in the work of the Ulwazi Programme, a web initiative of the eThekwini Municipality in Durban that uses a wiki to facilitate the collaborative recording and sharing of local, "indigenous knowledge", and which has resulted in the proliferation of traditional and customary materials (McNulty, 2013).

Whereas during the apartheid era, the Zulu nationalist organisation Inkatha maintained power in the KwaZulu bantustan through an emphasis on chiefly governance, and the manipulation, control and custodianship of tradition and custom, in the post-apartheid period, by creating a participatory programme like the Ulwazi Programme, which values individual contributions, promotes digital skills enhancement and access to information, the ANC-run eThekwini Municipality encourages the ideal of tech-savvy, informed citizens with all of the rights associated with a modern democracy. This move also suggests that tradition and custom are resources available to the public at large. We can surmise that while the Ulwazi Programme is concerned with the collection and dissemination of local knowledge, the project serves well the ANC's agenda in KwaZulu-Natal, offering a way of engaging in the arena of tradition and custom, long dominated by the Inkatha and Inkatha-supporting amakhosi.

The Ulwazi Programme as custodian

There is evidence to suggest that those involved in the Ulwazi Programme, the Programme Leader and the Deputy Head of the eThekwini Libraries and Heritage Department (ELHD), considered the Ulwazi Programme to be a custodian of local knowledge, history and culture, subsumed under the categories "heritage" and "indigenous knowledge". In their opinions, the chains of transmission of cultural traditions, indigenous knowledge and heritage in the communities in which the programme functions have broken down due to the "falling apart of the older societal structures" and factors like urban migration and death through AIDS. They saw the onus on the Ulwazi Programme and the eThekwini Municipality to act as a custodian and preserver for future generations of indigenous knowledge and heritage (incorporating tradition and custom), allowing participation through supposedly democratising new social technologies (Deputy Head of ELHD, interview, 2009 October 30 and Programme Leader, interview, 2009 October 08).

Amakhosi as custodians

Whereas the Ulwazi Programme and the municipality are mandated by government to engage in practices of custodianship, traditional leaders appeal to continuity through longstanding traditions, as well as policy and legislation, to substantiate their roles as custodians of tradition and custom. In KwaZulu-Natal in particular, the amakhosi embody traditional culture due to the emphasis placed on customary law and governance through chiefship under colonial indirect rule and subsequently under apartheid's homeland policy. During the apartheid era, the ANC mainly steered clear of traditional matters and cultural politics and as a result, the amakhosi have entered the post-apartheid era largely in control of tradition and custom. There are numerous examples from local, provincial and national government in which traditional leaders are cited as custodians of culture, heritage, tradition and custom.

Tradition and custom as political resources

Following the restructuring of municipal borders in Durban, the eThekwini Municipality and amakhosi operate as different parts of cooperative local government. Yet, in many cases, they function in competing roles. Due to the re-organisation of local government and the further subdivision of local and metropolitan municipalities into electoral wards, elected ward councillors and amakhosi now perform similar roles in rural and peri-urban areas. Through programmes like Ulwazi, the eThekwini Municipality is positioning itself as a custodian of heritage and indigenous knowledge (which includes tradition and custom) and there is mounting pressure on the amakhosi to defend and preserve their roles as the primary custodians of tradition and custom, which, to a large extent, determines their authority. While the amakhosi's performed and embodied custodianship of tradition and custom is defined by its fluidity and malleability, there are demands to bow to an administrative regime that calls for protocol and the production of documentary records.

A focus on the amakhosi of eThekwini Municipality and the Ulwazi Programme has begun to illuminate something of the ways in which tradition and custom are political resources and how exertion of custodianship over these bodies of knowledge is pertinent to the operations of power in KwaZulu-Natal, and a contested source of that power between amakhosi and government. Through projects like the Ulwazi Programme, claiming custodianship of heritage and indigenous knowledge for all, the eThekwini Municipality strives to create modern, informed citizens, as part of its efforts to develop rural and semi-rural areas. The amakhosi's claims to custodianship of tradition and custom form the basis of their authority over land and their constituencies. The balance of power has shifted to the ANC and the amakhosi realise that an important body of knowledge they still command, indeed embody, as living descendants of lineages with direct access to the ancestors, is tradition and custom.

Chiefly commune with the ancestors continues to have a bearing on everyday people's lives and the rituals and practices that the amakhosi perform form an important connection with the past, regulate interactions between different clans and effect psycho-spiritual healing. This is a body of knowledge of the past that the ANC government is beginning to gain access to and officialise through projects like the Ulwazi Programme. In spite of this, the amakhosi (including those who are ANC-aligned) remain the primary determiners of the meaning of tradition and custom, and in a non-institutionalised environment, the custodians thereof.

End Notes

(1) An open source website designed to enable contributions and modifications from multiple users.

(2) Former mayor of Durban, Obed Mlaba stated: "We value the role of traditional leaders. They are the custodians of our culture, heritage and customs." (City of Durban, n.d.) Similarly, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, former Chairman of the House of Traditional Leaders of KwaZulu-Natal, felt that the amakhosi were: "The custodians of our heritage, watching over the treasury of our customs, traditions, culture, history and way of life" (Buthelezi, 2001). Former Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture, Ms N.G.W Botha, noted: "Legislation that has been promulgated recognizes the role of traditional leaders (amakhosi and headmen) in communities and acknowledges that they are the custodians of indigenous culture" (Botha, 2006). In a presentation on heritage and cultural tourism as a means of economic development for rural areas, the National House of Traditional Leaders touted traditional leaders as "custodians of land, language, cultures and customs of people in most rural areas" (National House of Traditional Leaders, 2010). Recent legislation, the National House of Traditional Leaders Act of 2009, also tasks traditional leaders with "the preservation of the culture and traditions of communities" (National House of Traditional Leaders Act, no. 22 of 2009, 2009: 12).

Works Cited

Botha, N.G.W. 2006. Address by Ms N.G.W Botha, Deputy Minister of Arts and Culture at the Gender Justice. Cape Town, 27 September 2006. Available: [2012, June 07].

Buthelezi, M.G. 2001. Address and presentation of H.M the King by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, MP, Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu nation, Chariman of the House of Traditional Leader (KwaZulu-Natal) and National Minister of Home Affairs. KwaDukuza, 22 September 2001. Available: [2012, June 07].

City of Durban. n.d. Amakhosi looking for bigger role. Available: [2012, June 06].

McNulty, G. 2013. 'Archival Aspirations and Anxieties: Contemporary Preservation and Production of the Past in Umbumbulu, KwaZulu-Natal.' South Africa Historical Journal. 65: 44 - 69.

National House of Traditional Leaders. 2010.Heritage and cultural tourism as a means of economic development for rural areas [Seminar Paper]. Durban. July 27.

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