Traditional authority is one of the three forms of authority identified by sociologist Max Weber's tripartite classification of authority, alongside charismatic authority and rational-legal authority. The authority in traditional authority is derived from custom, tradition, or divine right as pre-ordained by God, on conquest established by Feudalism. Those who rule and govern in such as system are Traditional leaders. Most of the representatives of any dynasty ruling for more than one generation (kings, emperors, sultans, etc.) would fall into that category. Thus, majority monarchies and some autocracies, oligarchies, and theocracies would be ruled by traditional leaders.
A monarchy is a form of government in which a person, the monarch, is head of state for life or abdication. The political legitimacy and authority of the monarch may vary from purely symbolic (crowned republic) to restricted (constitutional monarchy) to fully autocratic (absolute monarchy) and can expand across the domains of the executive, legislative and judicial. A monarchy can be a polity through unity, the personal union, vassalage, or federation. Monarchs can carry various titles such as emperor, king, queen, raja, khan, caliph, tsar, sultan, shah, or pharaoh.
In most cases, monarchies' succession is hereditary, often building dynastic periods. However, elective and self-proclaimed monarchies are possible. Though not inherent to monarchies, Aristocrats often serve as the pool of persons to draw the monarch from and fill the constituting institutions (e.g., diet and court), giving many monarchies oligarchic elements.
Monarchies were the most common form of government until the 20th century. Today forty-five sovereign nations have a monarch, including sixteen Commonwealth realms that have Elizabeth II as the head of state. Other than that, there is a range of sub-national monarchical entities. Modern monarchies tend to be constitutional monarchies, retaining under a constitution unique legal and ceremonial role for the monarch, exercising limited or no political power, similar to heads of state in a parliamentary republic.
Several monarchies in Africa are defined as either actually or nominally self-governing states, territories, or nations on the continent of Africa where supreme power resides with an individual recognized as the head of state. All are similar in that the sovereign inherits their office and typically keeps it until their death or until their abdication. However, only three are currently sovereign, while the remaining are sub-national monarchies. Two of these are constitutional monarchies (Lesotho and Morocco). Laws and customs bind the sovereign in the exercise of his or her powers. One is an absolute monarchy (Eswatini), in which the sovereign rules without bounds.
The authority of the sub-national monarchies is not sovereign or statal in their scope of governance. They often do not or are not supposed to exist within political or religious associations, except the monarchy's cases. Mali's monarchy's emergence in the 1200s, a political system pioneered by Sunjata Keita, Kingdoms of Takrur in Senegal and Kanem on Lake Chad's banks, and the Sultanate systems across West Africa were founded on religious feudalism. Apart from this indigenous development of kingdoms in Africa that happened in relative isolation, other monarchies came to be established with foreign interventions. One such intervention was by Rome in North Africa. The Kingdom of Numidia (in what is present-day Algeria) came to be established around 200 BC with Masinissa as the first king; he was one of the many kings who headed large indigenous communities in the North African coastal belt who had exploited the trans-Saharan trade route for their sustenance. With Rome's tacit strategic support, Masinissa took control of all the nomadic communities and had them crown him king.
To exercise rights as a king or queen in most cases, the monarchs in Africa created superiority myths through rituals and symbolism, intended to encourage them to be seen as mediators between the gods and the people. They placed themselves in a privileged position above the ordinary person by doing so. They brought about a feeling among people that they represented peoples' interests and were above favoritism and prejudices.
Monarchical privileges were established in sovereign rights and prerogatives through regal costumes, ornamented crowns, jewelry, personal weaponry, and armaments. They established special thrones or golden stools and commissioned shrines for their ancestors, as were Zambia's Lozi people.
There are several types of Kings in Africa. Regardless of the governance system or legality of its sovereignty, all African tribes have their traditional leaders. Each society has its language for the word king to identify someone that is its most influential representative.
The Word King in Some African Languages
Sesotho : Morena O Ile A
Oba means ruler in the Yoruba and Bini languages of West Africa. Kings in Yorubaland, a region in the modern republics of Benin, Nigeria, and Togo, use it as a pre-nominal honorific. Examples of Yoruba bearers include Oba Ogunwusi of Ile-Ife, Oba Adeyemi of Oyo, and Oba Akiolu of Lagos. An example of a Bini bearer is Oba Ewuare II of Benin.
The title is distinct from that of Oloye, used in like fashion by subordinate titleholders in the modern Yoruba chieftaincy system.
Aristocratic titles among the Yoruba
The Yoruba chieftaincy system can be divided into four different ranks: royal chiefs, noble chiefs, religious chiefs, and joint chiefs. The Royals are led by the obas, who sit at the hierarchy's apex and serve as the entire system's fons honorum. They are joined in the class of royal chiefs by the titled dynasts of their royal families. The three other ranks, who traditionally provide the membership of a series of privy councils, sects, and guilds, oversee the day-to-day administration of the Yoruba traditional states and are led by the dwarfs, the arabas, and the titled elders of the kingdoms' constituent families.
There are two different kinds of Yoruba monarchs: The kings of Yoruba clans, which are often simply networks of related towns (For example, the oba of the Egba bears the title "Alake of Egbaland" because his ancestral seat is the Ake quarter of Abeokuta, hence the title Alake, which is Yoruba for Man of Ake. The Oyo oba, meanwhile, bears the title "Alaafin," which means Man of the palace) and the kings of individual Yoruba towns, such as that of Iwo - a town in Osun State - who bears the title "Olu'wo" (Olu of Iwo, lit. Lord of Iwo).
The first generation towns of the Yoruba homeland, which encompasses large swathes of Benin, Nigeria, and Togo, are those with obas who generally wear beaded crowns; the rulers of many of the 'second generation' settlements are also often obas. Those that remain and those of the third generation tend only to be headed by the holders of the title "Baale" (lit. Head of the Clan), who do not wear crowns and who are, at least in theory, the reigning viceroys of people who do.
All of the subordinate members of the Yoruba aristocracy, both traditional chieftains and honorary ones, use the pre-nominal "Oloye" (lit. Owner of a title, also appearing as "Ijoye") in the way that kings and queens regnant use 'Oba.' It is also often used by princes and princesses in everyday situations. However, the title that is most often ascribed to them officially is "Omoba" (lit. Child of a Monarch, sometimes rendered alternatively as "Omo'ba," "Omooba," and "Omo-Oba"). The wives of kings, princes, and chiefs of royal background usually make use of the title "Olori" (the equivalent of Princess Consort, otherwise spelled "Oloori"). However, some of the wives of dynastic rulers prefer to be referred to as "Ayaba" (Queen Consort's equivalent). The wives of the non-royal chiefs, when themselves titleholders in their own right, tend to use the honorific "Iyaloye" (lit. Lady who owns a title) in their capacities as married chieftesses.
Chieftaincy and Kingship in South Africa
In a democratic society, the observance of chieftaincy faces many problems. One of the key issues relates to chieftaincy operating on principles that are antithetical to democratic ideas and values. For example, a chief is not elected into office by popular vote, but through lineage, and is thus in office for life. This system is patriarchal, has largely excluded women from the office, and supports customary laws that are oppressive to women. In such a system there is a lack of representation and downward accountability.[i] As its authority places community before individuals, it constitutes a non-democratic form of governance.[ii] However, notwithstanding the fact that the position of a chief is inherently non-democratic, chiefs do they offer opportunities for everyday participation as opposed to periodic voting. These opportunities arise through gatherings such as Kgotla in Lesotho, where community members are able to voice their concerns and opinions.[iii]
Chieftaincy is more than a political institution. This practice has a much deeper meaning, as locals perceived this as something more than a set of rules laid down by individual leaders. Rather, it represents the importance of unity in both social and political life.[iv]
What is a ‘Chief’?
A chief or traditional leader is defined as an individual who, by virtue of his or her ancestry, occupies a stool of an area, and this person has been appointed to it in accordance with the traditions and customs of the area. This individual has traditional authority over the people who live in that area.[v] A chief is further defined as ‘a traditional leader of a specific traditional community who exercises authority over a number of headmen in accordance with customary law, or within whose area of jurisdiction a number of headmen exercise authority’[vi]
Roles and functions of the Chief
The primary role of the chief is to regulate social behaviour within the community that he or she has control of. Chiefs are not in control of service delivery as it is the local government’s responsibility. They are social leaders rather than government institutions.[vii]
Section 212 of the Constitution of South Africa states that:
(1) National legislation may provide a role for traditional leadership as an institution at local level on matters affecting local communities.
(2) To deal with matters relating to traditional leadership, the role of traditional leaders, customary law and the customs of communities observing a system of customary law –
a. national or provincial legislation may provide for the establishment of Houses of Traditional Leaders; and
b. national legislation may establish a Council of Traditional Leaders. [viii]
Where do they derive their authority?
Traditional leadership is inherited through kinship ties. During the pre-colonial era for one to assume the leadership position one had to be related by a tie of kinship or based on their common ancestry. Thus traditional leaders qualify for office by their ancestry alone and therefore require no special training.[ix]
Chieftaincy was – and still is - a common form of authority within Black African communities. For example, during the pre-colonial period “communities were fluid and the Amakhosi [Chiefs] had ill-defined authority over the imizi (homesteads) in their jurisdiction. Bound together by ties of kinship, marriage or clientelism, they derived their authority from the allegiance of subjects and functioned through the distribution and redistribution of accumulated tribute, usually in the form of cattle.”[x] This means that the authority of the Amakhosi stemmed from ritual, symbolic and patronage power. Traditional leaders performed a wide range of functions for their societies, ranging from providing safety and security, safeguarding tribal sovereignty, allocating and distributing land and settling land disputes, providing spiritual leadership and the administration of justice.[xi]
Chieftaincy under British Colonial Rule
Under British colonial rule, the British administration experimented with two different systems aimed at governing the indigenous population. The first involved using colonial bureaucracy to weaken the institution of chieftainship, a system particularly favoured in the Eastern Cape.[xii] The Chief’s powers were controlled through the system of direct, magisterial rule. All the districts of the Transkei were headed by a White magistrate who served as both the judicial and the administrative officer. These districts were further divided into locations headed by an appointed headman, who in some cases was a chief or an individual with no traditional authority.[xiii]
The second system involved the use of local indigenous rulers to control and administer the population, a system known as ‘indirect rule.’ This system was adopted in colonial Natal. Theophilus Shepstone, the Secretary for Native Affairs during British colonial occupation, implemented this form of administration which became known as the ‘Shepstone System.’ This method changed the nature of the chieftaincies as it created a system of dependency on the colonial government.[xiv]
Indirect rule, however, was divisive and alien to the systems of Chieftaincy which had rested historically on patrilineal lines, particularly as the chiefs became vassals of the colonial bureaucracy. The colonial office of the Governor-General granted the title of ‘Supreme Chief of Indigenous People’ to the office-holder, and the Shepstone System gave the Governor-General powers to appoint and fire traditional leaders. This undermined the traditional succession of chiefs, and as a result traditional leaders found themselves to be in an ambiguous position where, on the one hand, they had the obligation to serve their constituency, while on the other hand, they were required to administer the interests of the colonial government. Those who collaborated with the colonial government undermined their own legitimacy, and those who sided with their people were deposed. Being a chief during colonial occupation was thus a precarious occupation torn between keeping alive traditional structures and surviving the culturally inconsiderate regime of the British.[xv]
Chieftaincy under Apartheid
William Beinhart (1985) asserts that modern chieftaincy has been viewed as a creation of the state. In his book, Chieftaincy and the Concept of Articulation: South Africa ca. 1900-1950, Beinhart states:
It is widely recognized that the current form of chieftaincy was entrenched in the latter period when government officials accompanied by tame anthropologists and black information officers scoured the rural districts for the remnants of chiefly lineages. Tribes were defined, tribal and regional authorities were created, and some of the chiefs were installed with much pseudo-traditional ceremony. Chiefs were also given salaries and scope for personal gain. In this way the state hoped to secure a conservative or reactionary rural hierarchy which would help to defuse broader national struggles.[xvi]
During the pre-colonial era, traditional leaders played an important role in traditional life as they were responsible for the daily administration of their area as well as for the lives of indigenous people. Their leadership was based on governance of the people and the leader was accountable to their subjects. The South African Act of 1909 controlled ‘native affairs’ under the Governor-General, and the government’s primary concern was to prevent and avoid a revival of the military power of African chiefdoms.[xvii] As such, a system of direct rule was adopted and imposed upon the chiefdoms. In outlining the implementation of this system Banks & Southall (1996) have illustrated how Chiefdoms were transformed into units of local government, stating:
This was effected by introducing an administrative system that cut across tribal boundaries. A grid of twenty-seven magisterial districts, that paid scant regard to the old political units, was imposed on the tribal pattern.... The districts themselves were subdivided into locations, approximately thirty to a district, and over each was placed a headman, appointed to the post by the administration.... Although, in fact, succession to office was almost invariably inherited, in law the headman was appointed by Government and was subject to bureaucratic rules of censure and dismissal. The chiefs, as such, were all but ignored. The main reduction of authority was in the judicial sphere. No chief or headman was permitted to decide any criminal case and even in civil cases their role was merely one of arbitration. They had no power to enforce their decisions and any litigant not satisfied with these decisions could bring his case to the magisterial court.[xviii]
During the era of colonialism and, following that, Apartheid, government administration complicated matters through the introduction of foreign hierarchical titles into the traditional leadership system, including ‘paramount chief,’ ‘subchief,’ ‘independent headmen’ and ‘supreme chief.’[xix] The title of ‘supreme chief,’ Bekker (2008) argues, was introduced by the previous colonial regime to give the Governor-General ruling power over Africans, and later over the State president. Other levels, such as paramount chiefs, independent headmen and sub chiefs were introduced to elevate or demote certain Africans to higher or lower positions.[xx]
Traditional leadership under the New Constitution
Under the post-1994 South African democratic constitution, issues of traditional authority were negotiated to address the damage done to traditional systems of leadership by previous administrations. In discussing the role of the chieftaincies and kingships in the post-Apartheid period, mention must be made of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a liberation party that was founded on the 21st of March 1975 by a group of patriotic women and men who were under the leadership of Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The IFP draws its support base largely from Zulu ethnic groups. The party places particular emphasis and value on traditional leadership and authority. The party’s focus on ethnic interests over national unity were criticised for contributing to the divisive programme of the party, which led to civil war between ANC supporters in KwaZulu-Natal and IFP members. This further led to the party’s withdrawal from CODESA negotiations. The party further threatened to boycott the first democratic elections.
In an effort to prevent a boycott of the first democratic election by the IFP, the Constitution was amended to read that the provincial constitutions would provide the institutional roles, authority and status of traditional monarchs. This was particularly applicable to the Zulu Monarch in KwaZulu Natal. However, powers and responsibilities given to traditional leaders in the Constitution was less than their representatives had lobbied for during the negotiation process.[xxi]
Chapter 11 of the Constitution of South Africa recognizes the role and status of traditional leadership according to customary law. A number of amendments and legislative proposals have been adopted, including different programmes that have been implemented for the purposes of ensuring that traditional leadership contributes to the development of society.[xxii] For example, the legislation has managed to transform the composition of traditional councils in order to reconcile these councils with a measure of democratic consolidation. The current requirements are that 40% of the council must be elected, and one-third must be women. Furthermore, legislation opened channels for traditional councils and municipalities to work more cohesively to ensure that traditional councils have a voice in government and may also enter into partnerships and service delivery agreements with the municipalities.[xxiii]
In addition, a ‘House of Traditional Leaders’ has been established, in terms of the then Council of Traditional Leaders Act, 1997 (Act 10 of 1997), as mandated by the Constitution. Their objectives are to promote the role of traditional leadership within a democratic constitutional dispensation, and enhance unity and understanding among traditional communities and advise national government.’[xxiv] In all six provinces where houses of traditional leaders were established, their primary role has been to ‘enhance the cooperative relationships within national and provincial government, while the establishment of local houses of traditional leaders deepens and cements the relationship between municipalities and traditional leaders on customary law and development initiatives.’[xxv]
In the quest to deal with the issue of traditional leadership the government passed the Traditional leadership and Governance Framework Act 41 of 2003. This Act places an obligation on government to promote and protect the institution of traditional leadership. It also provides a specific framework on how the relations between traditional leaders and authorities of government should be governed:
5. (1) The national government and all provincial governments must promote partnerships between municipalities and traditional councils through legislative or other measures. (2) Any partnership between a municipality and a traditional council must: (a) be based on the principles of mutual respect (and recognition of the status); and (b) be guided by and based on the principles of co-operative governance. (3) A traditional council may enter into a service delivery agreement with a municipality.[xxvi]
One of the biggest challenges has to do with reconciliation of traditional leaders and the democratic government. The country’s political system is founded on the Western European model, which at times contradicts the values of other South African cultures, more specially those whose leadership focuses on hierarchy of authority. Within some of these cultures their political authority is centralized, which allows chiefs and kings to intervene in social conflicts.[xxvii]
Current traditional Monarchies and its kings
In one of the government’s efforts to rectify wrongdoings of both the colonial and apartheid regimes, a decision was taken to redesign traditional leadership positions. The rationale for this change was that according to custom, there are generally three levels of traditional leadership positions recognized; Kingship, Chieftainship and Headmanship.[xxviii]
There are currently only seven legitimate Kingships in the country. In 2003 former President Thabo Mbeki appointed a panel of experts to investigate traditional leadership disputes and claims dating back to 1927. The panel discovered that out of the 13 paramount kingships, only six were qualified to be recognized as Kingships or Queenships. However, current president Jacob Zuma has given his assurance that those traditional leaders who were found to be illegitimate would not be dethroned, but that the title will come to an end on the death of the current incumbents.[xxix]
President Zuma further mentioned that two kingships have been recognised, but it is still to be decided who the rightful incumbents are. These two kingships are Vhavenda, in Limpopo under the leadership of King Mphephu Ramabulana, and AmaNdebele under King Makhosonke Mabena of Mpumalanga. It was also stated that while these six Kingships will be phased out, the successors of the incumbents will be recognized by relevant premiers as principal traditional leaders.[xxx]
In July 2010, following a six year study into traditional monarchies, the South African Government took a decision to reduce the number of traditional Kingdoms from thirteen to seven. The motivation behind the move was to end the tension that had developed among rival leaders and to save taxpayers’ money, as each kingdom was subsidized by Government.[xxxi]
The following kingdoms were eventually phased out:
The Bakwena ba Mopeli (Free State)
The AmaRharhabe (Eastern Cape)
The Batlokwa ba Mota (Free State)
The Ndzundza-Mabhoko (Mpumalanga)
The AbaThembu base-Rhode (Eastern Cape)
The Amampondo ase-Nyandeni (Eastern Cape)
The following seven remain recognized as Kingdom:
The AmaXhosa (Eastern Cape) King Zwelonke Sigcawu
The AmaZulu (KwaZulu-Natal) King Goodwill Zwelithini
The AbaThembu (Eastern Cape) King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo
The VhaVenda (Limpopo) King Toni Mphephu Ramabulana
The AmaNdebele (Mpumalanga) King Makhosonke Enoch Mabena
The AmaMpondo (Eastern Cape) King Zanozuko Tyelovuyo Sigcau
The Bapedi ba Maroteng (Limpopo) King Thulare Victor Thulare
[i] Beall J, Mkhize S and Vawda S, (2005), Fragile Stability: State and Society in Democratic South Africa, 760. ↵
[ii] Carolyn Logan, (2009), Selected Chiefs, Elected Councillors and Hybrid Democrats: Popular Perspectives on the Co-Existence of Democracy and Traditional Authority, 105. ↵
[iii] Ibid. ↵
[iv] Williams MJ, (2010), Chieftaincy, the State, and Democracy: political Legitimacy in post apartheid – South Africa, 78. ↵
[v] Mthandebi EN, 920120 Traditional leader and new local government dispensation in South Africa, HAL, pg 1, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00749691/document. ↵
[vi] Bizana-Tutu, D,2008, Traditional leaders in South Africa: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, University of the Western Cape, M. Phil. pg 6. ↵
[vii] Ibid. ↵
[viii] Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. ↵
[ix] Bizana-Tutu, D. 2008, Traditional leaders in South Africa: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, University of the Western Cape, M. Phil, pg 6. ↵
[x] Mkhize S, Beall J, Vawda S, (2005) Emergent democracy and ‘resurgent’ tradition: institutions, chieftaincy and transition in KwaZulu-Natal, 9. ↵
[xi] [xi] Beall J, Mkhize S and Vawda S, (2005), Fragile Stability: State and Society in Democratic South Africa, 760. ↵
[xi] Carolyn Logan, (2009), Selected Chiefs, Elected Councillors and Hybrid Democrats: Popular Perspectives on the Co-Existence of Democracy and Traditional Authority, 105. ↵
[xi] Ibid. ↵
[xi][xi] Williams MJ, (2010), Chieftaincy, the State, and Democracy: political Legitimacy in post apartheid – South Africa, 78. ↵
[xi][xi] Mthandebi EN, 920120Traditional leader and new local government dispensation in South Africa, HAL, pg 1, https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00749691/document.. ↵
[xi] Bizana-Tutu, D,2008, Traditional leaders in South Africa: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, University of the Western Cape, M. Phil. pg 6. ↵
[xi] Ibid. ↵
[xi] Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. ↵
[xi] Bizana-Tutu, D. 2008, Traditional leaders in South Africa: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, University of the Western Cape, M. Phil, pg 6. ↵
[xi] Mkhize S, Beall J, Vawda S, (2005) Emergent democracy and ‘resurgent’ tradition: institutions, chieftaincy and transition in KwaZulu-Natal, p. 9. ↵
[xi] Mashele 349. ↵
[xi] Ibid. ↵
[xi] Southall & Kropiwnicki, p. 50. ↵
[xi] Ibid. ↵
[xi][xi] Ibid. ↵
[xi] William Beinhart, (1985), Chieftaincy and the Concept of Articulation: South Africa ca. 1900-1950, p. 91. ↵
[xi] Banks l & Southall R, (1996) Traditional leaders in South Africa’s new democracy 410. ↵
[xi] Ibid. ↵
[xi] Bekker JC, (2008), The establishment of Kingdoms and the Identification of Kings and Queens in terms of the Traditional leadership and governance framework Act 41 0f 2003, 1 349 ↵
[xii] Ibid. ↵
[xiii] Southall & Kropiwnicki, p. 50. ↵
[xiv] Ibid. ↵
[xv][xv] Ibid. ↵
[xvi] William Beinhart, (1985), Chieftaincy and the Concept of Articulation: South Africa ca. 1900-1950, p. 91. ↵
[xvii] Banks l & Southall R, (1996) Traditional leaders in South Africa’s new democracy p. 410. ↵
[xviii] Ibid. ↵
[xix] Bekker JC, (2008), The establishment of Kingdoms and the Identification of Kings and Queens in terms of the Traditional leadership and governance framework Act 41 0f 2003, 1. ↵
[xx] Ibid. ↵
[xxi] Banks l & Southall R, (1996) Traditional leaders in South Africa’s new democracy p. 411. ↵
[xxii] South African government, (2015). ↵
[xxiii] Ibid. ↵
[xxiv] Ibid. ↵
[xxv] Ibid. ↵
[xxvi] Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act 41 of 2003. ↵
[xxvii] Meer & Campbell, 2007, Traditional Leadership in Democratic South Africa. ↵
[xxviii] Bekker JC, (2008), The establishment of Kingdoms and the Identification of Kings and Queens in terms of the Traditional leadership and governance framework Act 41 0f 2003, 1. ↵
[xxix][xxix] Mybroadband, (2010), Only six real kings in South Africa. ↵
[xxx] Ibid. ↵
[xxxi] Ibid. ↵