Verwoerd, Zuma and the Chiefs

By William Beinart

It may seem mischievous to suggest that Jacob Zuma’s thinking on chiefs and traditional authority echoes that of the infamous apartheid leader H.F. Verwoerd. But, oddly enough, the two men had similar decisions to make about the future of rural South Africa, and the path Zuma is choosing is not all that different from the one his white predecessor trod.

In 1956, the apartheid government was presented with the report of the Tomlinson Commission. It was an ambitious prospectus for the development of the African reserves, which this Stellenbosch professor of Agricultural Economics believed was essential if apartheid was to succeed.  Only through massive state investment in rural development could the prospective homelands ever take off.  Only in this way could the surge of African migration to the major cities be stopped   Tomlinson was clear about the alternatives:  either his plan was implemented or apartheid would fail.

He suggested investment of over £100 million (73 times that much now). Three amongst many key proposals stand out. African landholding should be consolidated and privatised.  Private investment, including foreign investment, should be allowed.  And rapid rural industrialisation should be funded by the state.

It is often thought that Tomlinson shaped homeland policy, but this is only partly true.  Verwoerd had then been Minister of Native Affairs for six years.  Hugely energetic, he had expanded his department to become a state within a state.  He resented this well-publicised commission, appointed by his predecessor, which was not directly under his control.  Verwoerd is often seen as an ideologue and relentless protagonist for ‘separate development’.  But he was also a pragmatist concerned about power.  Verwoerd rejected these three central recommendations partly because he thought they went too far for the white electorate, but also because the vision of individual landholdings would have put paid to his policy of devolving power to African chiefs. He believed that apartheid could best be built around a conservative, traditionalist rural hierarchy and wanted to keep chiefs as his clients. They were to be the primary mechanism through which the Afrikaner nationalists would control black rural South Africa and secure compliant satellite statelets.

Tomlinson’s proposals would have been very disruptive, possibly created much poverty in the short term by undercutting access to land for hundreds of thousands of families.  It is doubtful that the state could ever have invested sufficient to secure systematic industrialisation.  But at least Tomlinson saw the potential of the rural areas and offered a route to modernity and development. Verwoerd won, entrenching an ossified traditional leadership, customary law and a semi-functional and patriarchal system of local government.

Today, the African National Congress talks a great deal about the legacy of the Bantustans and the poverty it has left in the countryside. Yet one of the most important and underestimated legacies was the entrenchment of chiefs.  Here the ANC’s thinking is more ambivalent and it does not ask the question of whether chiefs were part of the legacy of poverty and failed development.  The ANC has changed direction of late in ways which previous leaders and especially activists may have found disturbing.

The ANC had a house of chiefs at its origins, but this fell away as it became a mass movement and went into exile.  It found some heroic chiefs such as Albert Luthuli, President in the 1950s and early 1960s, and Sabata Dalindyebo, the ‘Comrade King’ of the Thembu who was deposed by Matanzima and went into exile.  Chiefs and Kings seemed to be there at most for some traditionalist legitimacy and not as part of government.  Luthuli himself was adamantly opposed to tribal authorities and committed to democratic practices:  ‘Inside this closed world [Bantustans] there is no hint, not the remotest suggestion, of democratic rule. There is provision only for the march back to tribalism – but in a far more dictatorial form than Shaka dreamed of. The modes of government … are neither democratic nor African.’

But the founding of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) in 1987 provided a vehicle for chiefs within the ANC alliance.   Some older national leaders like Nelson Mandela respected the institution and preferred to have chiefs on his side.  In 1990 Patekile Holomisa became president of Contralesa and helped to shed the image of chiefs as sell-outs. Mandela supported Contralesa’s presence at the negotiations and believed that houses of traditional leaders would ensure that they became non-partisan servants of the people.  After 1994, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the IFP were able to protect chiefs in the government of national unity as well as in KwaZulu-Natal.  Some read lessons from Mozambique where the abolition of chiefs was seen to have undermined local government and to have fed support for the Renamo rebel movement. The ANC government agreed to continue paying the chiefs and passed a Remuneration of Traditional Leaders Act in 1995.

The 1996 constitution was vague about traditional leaders.  The ANC initially seemed to favour a system of local government that largely excluded them.  Although there was some disagreement, the dominant view was that chiefs should be non-political and merely represent a certain element of African identity and history.   But in addition to receiving direct payment, those who consider themselves traditional authorities have been keen to remain as gatekeepers at a local level so that they can be conduits for resources from the state. In a number of areas they have been successful in maintaining a parallel administrative structure at the village level.  During the homeland period (c. 1950s to 1994), chiefs and headmen were often accused of corruption or of keeping resources to themselves and their supporters.  This was one of the causes of the Mpondoland revolt in 1960 and of the Ciskeian insurrections in the 1980s.  However, since the transition to democracy, chiefs have pointed to the corruption of elected local office-holders and argued that they represent a better alternative. Even if not popular, many have retained some authority at the local and regional level.

The central government has secured some of the old tribal authority boundaries and institutions through the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003.  Critically, it provides for the potential extension of the areas under traditional authorities.  The Communal Land Rights Act of 2004 (which has not been implemented as declared unconstitutional) and the Traditional Courts Bill of 2012 indicated further the changing balance of power and opinion within the government.  Although some of these measures were promulgated under President Mbeki, President Zuma has emphasised the role of chiefs.  The ANC has come to see chiefs as able to deliver a block rural vote.  The movement has consistently gained its highest percentage vote in rural provinces such as Limpopo and Mpumalanga, as well as parts of the Eastern Cape, not in the cities.  In fact, it is by no means clear that traditional authorities play a significant role in mobilising rural votes.

And so, there has been a remarkable turnaround.  Under the Afrikaner nationalists, there were two key poles of power in the rural areas: white commercial farmers and African chiefs.  Both played to relatively narrow interests.  The transition to democracy seemed to offer new political space and new promise for a different kind of rural development.  Now, under President Zuma, the ANC seems to be consolidating chiefly power, or at least providing strong opportunities for the chiefs to operate politically and administratively.  Some are well-organised and believe very strongly in their legitimacy and their role.  Like Verwoerd, President Zuma seems to believe that supporting the chiefs is a good way to tap rural support. In so doing, the ANC is opening the way for a reassertion of undemocratic, patriarchal forms of government.

In Bafokeng and elsewhere royal groups have gained control of massive new resources through mining.  The recent reopening of restitution claims, which President Zuma strongly backs, may be one of the most significant new measures for extension of the chiefs’ power.  The Zulu royal house has already indicated that it wishes to lodge a major new ethnic land claim.  There are other chieftaincy claims brewing in KZN. In the first round of restitution, land claims were made on an individual basis or by local communities.  The ANC specifically tried to rule out ethnic claims by large groups of people precisely because they would undermine hard-won national identities.  Now the route seems to be open to major claims led by chiefs.  The scope for patronage, should any of these be won, is enormous, as are the dangers of ethnic mobilisation and ethnic competition.

Chieftaincy and communal tenure may creep outwards from the former homelands.  Have South Africans debated whether they want wall-to-wall chiefs?  Things may rapidly go in this direction.  Have they debated whether chiefs were and are part of the problem of rural poverty?  Opinions may be divided in the rural areas but are these the legacies that South Africa wishes to promote?  Is President Zuma having his Verwoerd moment – seeing in the chiefs a conservative base for rural support at a time when the ANC may feel threatened by increasingly significant (though diverse) new forces – a rising black middle class, radical workers action and the EFF?

– Professor William Beinart is a historian based at the African Studies Centre, University of Oxford. This article was first published on 1 August 2014 on

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