Governance Watch

Traditional leadership – time to compromise

King Sigcawu seeking “Goodwill deal”
King Sigcawu.jpg

The role and position of traditional leaders is under scrutiny in South Africa and has become part of, at times, heated public debate.

The South African constitution recognises the institution of traditional leadership in accordance with customary law. Traditional leaders and customary law have, however, become a hot political and legal issue which has led to intense debate, and emotions are running high.

Traditional leaders are, in the words of President Zuma, himself a traditionalist, “the custodians of culture, customs and tradition”.

More than 20 million South Africans live in areas where kings or traditional leaders play an important role in the lives of their subjects.

The political commentator, Max du Preez, was correct when he wrote: “Traditional leaders obviously still have a role in South Africa ... and especially older folk still respect the chiefs and their structures. It is part of who we are as a nation and all of us should respect that.”

In the same vein Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng wrote: “Traditional leadership is a unique and fragile institution. If it is to be preserved, it should be approached with the necessary understanding and sensitivity. Courts, parliament and the executive would do well to treat African customary law, traditions and institutions not as an inconvenience to be tolerated, but as a heritage to be nurtured and preserved for posterity ...”

Growing disenchantment                                            

There is, however, a growing disenchantment over these hereditary leaders’  taxpayer-funded lifestyles, their alleged abuses of power and often reckless public statements.

Nobody is more liable than King Goodwill Zwelithini, the 66-year-old Zulu king, and the best known among South Africa's traditional monarchs.

As of 2010, South Africa recognizes seven royal families in the country, after a recommendation by a traditional leadership commission that South Africa shed six of its kings and queens. Of the 13 traditional kingdoms recognised previously, only seven will remain once the current incumbent rulers of the identified kingdoms have passed away.

King Zwelithini’s public statements earlier in the year regarding foreigners and their alleged destructive role in South Africa was, according to most informed experts, the trigger for the xenophobic attacks that followed in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The Zulu king’s refusal to apologise for his remarks and his brazen boasting later that if he had told his impi to attack people, the country would have been reduced to ashes, coupled with his opulent lifestyle, placed the role and position of traditional leaders in a modern and democratic South Africa squarely on centre stage and under the spotlight.   

Taxpayers’ plight

The financial cost of the traditional leaders is considerable and estimated to be in excess of R650 million a year.

Despite this multi-million budget, the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) firmly believes that they should be paid more. If Contralesa’s demands are met, the traditional leadership salary bill will surpass R3 billion a year.

The country's traditional monarchs get an annual salary of R1.3 million each from the state. In addition, King Zwelithini gets more than R50 million from his province for the upkeep of his seven palaces, six wives and 28 children. His budget is projected to increase to R63 million in 2017.

Other monarchs are demanding the same remuneration. The newly crowned king of the AmaXhosa, King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu, almost immediately called on the national government to “close the gap” between the Zulu king and other kings.

As one of King Sigcawu’s advisors put it bluntly: “We like the way the Zulu king is treated. We think it is great. What the government is not doing is to extend that kind of treatment to other kings. We want the government to close the gap by extending the benefits to the other kings.”

South African taxpayers also cough up for more than 800 senior traditional leaders and over 5 000 headmen (chiefs).

In June 2015 President Zuma announced an increase in the salaries of the headmen, increasing their annual bill from R317 million to R407 million.

The increase places an enormous burden on eight provinces carrying the responsibility of paying these salaries. Without any headmen, the Western Cape is the only province escaping this burden.

KwaZulu-Natal will have to fork out R171 million in headmen (izinduna) salaries  while cash-strapped Eastern Cape will be paying R100 million and Limpopo R127 million respectively.

Because of the numbers and location of traditional leaders‚ the burden is heaviest on the poorest provinces.

If not bad enough, another problem awaits the national government in the very near future. There is a notable increase in the number of people laying claim to the position of headman.

 According to figures recently provided, there are a possible 3 000 such claimants in KwaZulu-Natal; 611 in Limpopo and 61 in Mpumalanga.

When questioned on the feasibility of these increases the director general at the Ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs justified the decision as follows: “How do we expect kings to survive without a salary? You must remember that traditional leaders were removed from their fertile land by colonial masters, so the government has to correct the wrong of the past.”

Besides this gross generalisation, many analysts observe that the salary increases of traditional leaders will come at the expense of the poor. The money to cover these salary increases will have to be taken from the budgets of other provincial departments and poverty reduction projects.

Political motives

There is a firm belief that the salary increases of the traditional leadership is a blatant effort by the ANC-led government to canvass support for next year’s local elections. The ANC relies heavily on the rural, traditional vote and traditional leaders play a crucial role in influencing their subjects.

Political analyst Nic Borain is of the opinion that it is impossible not to consider that increasing the salaries of traditional leaders is politically motivated, especially ahead of local government elections next year. “If that money that is being used to buy the votes of traditional leaders is going to be at the expense of poverty relief, that’s scandalous and an outrage,” he said.

The Ministry of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs denies that the hefty salary increases for traditional leaders are designed to ensure loyalty to the ANC.

Wisdom and concessions required

The controversy surrounding traditional leaders extends beyond the cost to taxpayers.

South Africa is a highly polarised society and faces challenges on many levels, including the accommodation of traditional monarchies in a constitutional democracy.

The political and legal challenges emanating are considerable and it remains questionable whether it gets the attention it needs from government.

Critics argue that the existence of a body of unelected office bearers is incompatible with democracy, especially when they are not subject to orthodox forms of political accountability.

From the response on particularly the social media in South Africa it is evident that the role and position of traditional leaders and the financial cost incurred have become immensely controversial and divisive with racial undertones to boot.  

This is not only unfortunate but also unnecessary and requires serious and immediate attention.

Consultation and dialogue to foster better understanding of a highly complex issue is a prerequisite to avert more polarisation and develop concessions and compromises by all concerned.

by Garth Cilliers

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