The new constitution recognised traditional leaders without defining their role or powers, other than to say that they concerned ‘matters relating to traditional leadership, the role of traditional leaders, customary law and the customs of communities observing a system of customary law’. There was a provision that provincial and national houses of traditional leaders ‘may be established’. This permissive wording rather than the mandatory ‘shall’ of the interim constitution reflected the fact that whereas traditional leaders were represented in the Multi Party Negotiating Forum that negotiated the interim constitution, they were absent from the elected Constitutional Assembly that drew up the final Constitution and were not consulted to the same extent.349
There were three elements in the project of recognising traditional leaders in a way that reflected their social influence without diluting democratic government. One was to rescind laws that gave them executive power and to reincorporate the bantustans into a unitary South African state. Another was to establish elected local authorities across the country, ‘wall to wall’, including in areas previously governed by traditional leaders, and to define how traditional leaders related to the local councils without detracting from the authority of elected representatives. Thirdly, the remuneration of traditional leaders had to reformed, freeing them from dependence on political parties.
Each thrust was protracted long after the founding election and the adoption of a new constitution. In effect, the place of traditional leaders in South Africa’s democracy became the subject of extended negotiation, contestation and struggle for years, involving shifting alliances and at times jeopardising progress.
That the bantustans would be reincorporated as part of the South African state was established early on in negotiations. But as a practical process it dragged on, engaging the attention of government for years, with one piece of legislation after another unscrambling elements of the administrative and coercive structures created by the apartheid regime.
Steps towards democratic local government became an early focus of struggle. The Local Government Transition Act of 1993 paved the way for the first local government elections, held in November 1995 in most parts of the country. The framework for these elections had been one of the more difficult issues in negotiations. The elections were still not fully democratic or non-racial and were weighted towards white voters: half the wards in transitional local councils (councils outside metropolitan and rural areas) had to be located in the area of the former white local authority. Local forums to negotiate the restructuring of local government were in some areas used to resist change.
Traditional leaders in some areas, and the supposedly ANC-aligned Contralesa, were aggrieved that the elected councils would only accommodate them as an ‘interest group’ along with other social sectors, such as rural women. In a sign of new dynamics the IFP and Contralesa tried together to pressurise government with a march to the Union Buildings just before the local elections, to deliver a memorandum to the president demanding more power for traditional leaders and the establishment of the provincial and national houses of traditional leaders envisaged in the interim constitution. Traditional leaders in some rural areas called for a boycott of the elections. But apart from KwaZulu-Natal – where resistance forced two postponements of the elections – the boycott failed as rural residents chose to use their newly won democratic right to vote. In most provinces rural participation was lower than urban, but not in ways that could clearly be attributed to the influence of traditional leaders.350
Whereas the IFP and the leader of Contralesa joined forces in demanding more powers in local government for traditional leaders, they stood on opposite sides when it came to remuneration. Contralesa favoured uniformity of pay across the country, as did traditional leaders in most parts of the country. The IFP’s resistance was twofold: it wanted remuneration to reflect a special status for KwaZulu-Natal; and it understood that payment by national rather than provincial government would weaken the hold of the IFP (then the leading party in the province).
Complementing the reform of local government and remuneration was the creation of houses of traditional leaders, provincial and national.
Sydney Mufamadi, who is now Minister of Provincial Affairs and Local Government, briefed me on the position of traditional leaders, especially after I had stepped down as President of the country in June 1999. He reminded me that when we came into power in 1994, we needed to find a place for traditional leaders in our new system of government. To that end, we created six Provincial Houses of Traditional Leaders, as well as the National House of Traditional Leaders, so that they could play a meaningful role on matters under their jurisdiction.
The creation of these Houses was in accordance with the policy of the ANC which had at its inception, as we have already said, an upper House for traditional leaders. This measure was taken not only to acknowledge the role which traditional leaders had played in the wars of resistance, but also because it was an important step in our campaign to bury the curse of tribalism. An Inter-Departmental Task Team was set up to recommend to the Government the role which traditional leaders should play in Local, Provincial and National government. But we must strongly resist any concession to them where they will stand outside the democratic process by investing them with authoritative powers. What is very disturbing is their inability to understand the social forces at work inside and outside South Africa.
South Africans have fully accepted democratic government in which the people's representatives in the central, provincial and local government level are democratically elected and are accountable to their respective constituencies. Besides, the country’s youth who now occupy key positions, in society and in all levels of government, in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU ) and in the South African Communist Party (SACP) are urbanised and fairly educated. They cannot be expected to compromise the democratic principles by surrendering any aspect of government to those who occupy positions of authority in society not because of merit but purely because of heredity.
Many of our traditional leaders are also not aware of the lessons of history. They do not seem to know that there were once absolute monarchs in the world who did not share power with their subjects. All of them have disappeared and only those monarchs who had vision and who decided to transfer executive powers to democratically elected representatives who are accountable to those who elected them. It is Monarchs who themselves or their predecessors, decided to allow elected representatives of the people to govern, and who became constitutional monarchs who survived like Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, King Juan Carlos of Spain, King Albert of Belgium, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, King Harald of Norway and King Carl XVI Gustaf. Had these monarchs clung stubbornly to their absolute powers they would long have disappeared from the scene.
But we must never forget that the institution of traditional leaders is sanctified by African law and custom, by our culture and tradition. No attempt must be made to abolish it. We must find an amicable solution based on democratic principles, and which allows traditional leaders to play a meaningful role in all levels of government.
I am not clear to what extent a significant initiative of the apartheid government explained below was available in other Bantustans. But in the Transkei there was a school for the sons of traditional leaders which gave them basic skills in the administration of areas under their jurisdiction. I would not urge that we should have such schools. But depending on the resources that the government has, it would be advisable to encourage sons of traditional leaders to get the best education.
Although my own resources are very limited, I have sent a number of sons and daughters of traditional leaders to Universities in South Africa, and to the United Kingdom and the United States of America. A literate corps of educated traditional leaders would in all probability accept the democratic process. The inferiority complex which makes many of them to cling desperately to feudal forms of administration would, in due course, disappear.
Some leaders of the ANC have established education trusts to help, particularly previously disadvantaged children, to enter high schools, technicons and universities. But I would urge that they should consciously try to make scholarships available to children of traditional leaders as well.
Even when the National Council of Traditional Leaders was inaugurated in 1997, much was still open regarding the place of traditional leaders in society and government. This was more a consequence of the continuing struggle on the ground over traditional powers then a deliberate choice. But when he addressed the inaugural meeting of the council in April 1997 Mandela used it as an opportunity,
[T]he consensus that is emerging in the course of work in the provinces gives us the strong confidence that this Council will succeed both to define its role and to assert the Africanness of our new democracy.
When the new constitution was drafted, there were concerns that it did not define in sufficient detail the status and role of traditional leaders; that it did not, unlike the interim constitution, oblige government to set up this council.
Some saw this as backtracking on the part of political parties; others interpreted it as a refusal on the part of these parties to acknowledge the unique African setting within which the universal ideals of democracy and justice should find expression.
But we argued as the majority party and the government that we would be true to our word, true to our South Africanness, true to the traditions that form part of our rainbow nation.
The respect and recognition of the institution of traditional leaders require more than fine-sounding declarations in a constitution. They should reside in our hearts and the launch of this Council today is one vivid expression of that.
We believe that, in many ways, the fact that both the constitution and the law establishing the council, do not set out rules and regulations in detail is an opportunity to be exploited rather than a disadvantage to decry.
In the first instance, working out all the details would have taken an inordinate time, with complex negotiations to try to balance among many conflicting interests.
Secondly, the new institutions would have been presented with a fait accompli regarding a system that is, to all intents and purposes, a novel undertaking which should evolve creatively in the blast furnace of concrete experience.
And we should not fear the fact that, pleasant as some of these experiences will be, others will test our patience and forbearance. This is as it should be, in a moment of building anew.
Among the questions that constitutional experts, politicians and traditional leaders themselves are debating is whether thorough-going democracy is inherently inimical to traditional institutions. This is not the forum to debate these issues in detail.
But we dare say that consultation, transparency and equity were the corner-stones of the early societies from which we come. We dare issue the challenge that on matters such as gender equality, tradition - good and bad, then and now - cannot be seen as static.
Our views on all these and other issues is that old and new mores were accepted by communities as such, because they regulated relations of their times. And so it should be now; so that tradition is seen not as a sentimental attachment to the past, but as a dynamic force relevant to present-day realities…
Foremost amongst our tasks as a nation is to mobilise the people for reconstruction and development. As the people were their own liberators, so should they become active agents in changing their lives for the better. For this, our communities need information about what resources and funds are available to them; skills to turn their needs into plans and project proposals; and an effective partnership with government. Traditional leaders can promote these requirements.
Oppression was overcome in South Africa, and democracy is being built, by an ever widening unity across the lines of race and ethnicity. But it would be a mistake to regard that unity as something that will preserve itself. We need constantly to encourage and promote it. As leaders, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that the diversity which is our strength is never again used to divide us.
Fundamental to our unity is the mutual respect for the rich variety of our languages and cultures. While the constitution recognises rights in this regard and proposes institutions to promote them, this will have little effect without the involvement of traditional leaders.
Our freedom is also giving impetus to the recovery of our history. Recent excavations, together with earlier work, are freeing our understanding of the past from the colonial account of our country and region. They point with increasing detail to our country's place in Africa's civilisation. Traditional leaders can promote and assist continuing research so that we know who we truly are.
The nation, with your help, also needs to come to a proper understanding of those whose history has been most grievously affected by the ravages and distortions of apartheid and colonialism: the Khoi and the San.
Bound up with the knowledge of our history is the resolution of the disputes on lineage bequeathed to us by apartheid's ruthless attempts to bend the institutions of traditional authority to its own end. Again, we have a central role to play in helping to resolve these problems.
The final step during Mandela’s term towards settling the relationship between traditional leaders and democratic local government was the Municipal Structures Act of 1998. It paved the way for the first fully democratic local government elections, to be held in 2000, consolidating the countrywide system of elected local authorities. Traditional leaders would be ex officio and non-voting members of councils in areas where communities recognised them. Again some were disappointed and critical, still mounting pressure for more extensive recognition.