In Actual Fact | Who and what are our traditional leaders?

In Actual Fact | Who and what are our traditional leaders?


Traditional leadership is grounded in the highly subjective concept of ethnicity. This dictates who is entitled to the inherited (usually patrilineal) leadership, which in turn determines who has control over so-called communal land. And without exception, the usually informal “boundaries" between groupings have shifted over the centuries, so the territory became bigger or smaller or sometimes fell away altogether.

Attempts to accommodate and manage all this from above within a larger state or colonial power have always been problematic and subject to the political interests and manipulation of everyone from Theophilus Shepstone, secretary for native affairs in Natal under British colonial rule in the late 19th century, to Hendrik Verwoerd with his homeland policy.

Things became even more complicated with the transition to democracy. The best example of this is Inkatha, which under Mangosuthu Buthelezi was (and still is) simultaneously a large and influential group of voters and a powerful grouping of Zulu identity.

To get Inkatha to participate in the new democracy, the Ingonyama Trust was established to own and manage the land traditionally owned by the Zulus. Today, the trust owns just under a third of all the land in KwaZulu-Natal, with the king managing the trust “on behalf of and for the benefit of the Zulu nation".

In 2010, after years of trying to determine which monarchies should have status as kingdoms and receive state subsidies, the following royal houses were “phased out":

  • The Bakwena ba Mopeli (in the 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)

Today, eight royal houses are officially recognised, although several are highly contested. Queries to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to confirm this list were not answered. The eight are:

  • The AmaXhosa (Eastern Cape), with Ahlangene Sigcawu as king.
  • The AmaZulu (KZN), with Misuzulu kaZwelithini officially recognised as the new king last year by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
  • The AbaThembu (Eastern Cape), with Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo as king.
  • The VhaVenda(Limpopo), with Masindi Mphephu evidently the queen after a long argument that went as far as the Supreme Court of Appeal.
  • The AmaNdebele (Mpumalanga). Another one that has been contested for decades, with multiple contenders and miscellaneous commissions and court findings. It looks like Makhosoke II Mabhena wakwa Manala is the king, but it's highly controversial.
  • The AmaMpondo (Eastern Cape) with Mangaliso Ndamase as king.
  • The Bapedi ba Maroteng (Limpopo) with Manyaka Thulare as queen mother until a process is followed that could lead to a new king.
  • The BaLobedu (Limpopo), with Lekukela Modjadji, son of the late Rain Queen Makobo Modjadji, as king, contrary to a long tradition of women rulers.

These monarchs each earn a salary and other benefits from the state, and may be elected to leadership positions in the provincial houses of traditional leaders (six of the provinces have these) or the national house of traditional leaders.

In 2021, before their compensation was frozen due to Covid, their salaries ranged from about R116,000 a year for a chief to about R1.3-million for a king or queen, but this does not take into account related sources of income such as property that the group may have.

– Willem Kempen

♦ VWB ♦

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