Review of Chieftaincy, the State, and Democracy: Political Legitimacy in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Click Here for: Outline for Book Critique

In J. Michael Williams’ Chieftaincy, the State, and Democracy: Political Legitimacy in Post-Apartheid South Africa, the relationship between the new South Africa’s sources of mixed authority is examined through field research conducted in rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal around the turn of the Millennium. Williams tells of an ongoing struggle in South Africa about political legitimacy between the state and chieftaincy regarding which institution has the right to exert authority in rural areas.

Williams focuses on how the chieftaincy seeks to establish and maintain its political legitimacy with the local population as well as the state in the post-apartheid era. Through comparative case studies he analyzes specifically on how chieftaincy and local populations have negotiated the introduction of specific norms, rules, processes, and institutions that are fundamental to the ANC’s policies of transformation and democratization.Through a framework that Williams calls the multiple legitimacy framework, he seeks to show how the chieftaincy has sought to establish and maintain its authority in the midst of these political changes. With chieftaincy still a central figure in the lives of rural communities in South Africa, the examination of the complexity of the chieftaincy-state and chieftaincy-society relationship that have formed and continue to evolve in the post-apartheid world.

Williams says his analysis is necessary because current assumptions about legitimacy conclude that power will eventually reside in the government as democracy and local government become more ingrained in society. He uses his framework in understanding the results from three case studies in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal and supplements the data with national economic and survey data from other authors in the field. While stopping short of drawing empirical generalizations, he seeks to use his analysis to tell the story of real South Africans who deal with the struggles of the post-apartheid political structure in their daily lives.

To understand this relationship, Williams first paints a picture of how the chieftaincy-society relationship appears in traditional Zulu culture. This relationship is centered on the idea of unity, and the chieftaincy undertakes four primary tasks to maintain this idea:

  1. the maintenance of order
  2. community consultation and participation in decision making
  3. impartial and unbiased decision making rulers
  4. promotion of community welfare before individual gain.

Before diving into the findings of his cases studies, Williams profiles the history of chieftaincy in South Africa starting with British colonization of Natal in the 1800s. The conclusion he draws from the historical evidence is that even though the colonial policy of indirect rule and later formal apartheid influenced principles of the chieftaincy-societal relationship, much of the foundations survived meaning that today’s understanding of how that relationship functions in post-apartheid state requires knowledge of the history. Williams includes a critical quote from another chieftaincy scholar, Mahoney, which describes the colonial state as a parasite sucking away legitimacy held by the chiefs because if the state had disbanded the chieftaincy it would have had to create its own legitimacy, which it could not, or would not, be prepared to do. Thus, the state used the chieftaincy to operate in just enough space to maintain enough independence to retain legitimacy from their subjects, consequently allowing the state to gain control over society through the chieftaincy. We see this same power structure replicated by the apartheid state as well.

Williams then presents the perspective of the South Africa government in writing policy, laws, and of course the consultations that resulted in the South Africa constitution. There was a desire among policy makes to introduce democratic norms, processes, and institutions in the chieftaincy. One area that Williams doesn’t examine is the profile of those in the ANC who sought to transform the chieftaincy through accommodation. How the backgrounds and training of these policymakers might have given the reader a fuller understanding of the current dichotomy in South African political circles. The end result was an incorporation of traditional leaders into the constitution, though they did not become the fourth level of government that some had lobbied in favor of (ie National, Provincial, Local, Chiefs)

Though mixed polity was the compromise goal reached by the government, the results were unexpectedly driven by the chieftaincy. However, the motives behind state accommodation of the chieftaincy are from a need to deliver services. Williams says this is characteristic across Africa, as government infrastructure is unable to reach non-urban populations with great efficiently. Thus to fulfill electoral promises, the ANC would need to the Chiefs to act as a gatekeeper to communities that needed development projects. These projects often succeeded or failed based on the buy-in from traditional leaders, thus African governments used the chieftaincy to project their authority into these ‘locked’ rural areas. However, post-1994 bureaucratic creations and implementation was chaotic and clashed with traditional leaders assumption of rights that were written into the constitution. With these leaders assuming the de facto role of representatives of rural people during apartheid, they wanted this structure to be recognized and incorporated into the state, thus doing away with the need for local level government in these areas. While Williams covers the pressure and negations between traditional leaders and policy makers during the writing of the constitution and the formal framework that came later, the Traditional Leadership Governance Framework Act, he could have created an entire section about the factors involved that resulted in the weighing of these components that led to the decision to integrate the Chieftaincy into the state rather than excluding it nearly 10 years after 1994. In the end, the need to mobilize voters and implement development projects trumped the desire to strictly adhere to the principle of republican democracy.

Williams says that in hindsight the debates and negotiations can be seen for what he says was “how to utilize the chieftaincy to help facilitate the state formation process in post-apartheid South Africa” (107). Later in the book, Williams makes a seemingly nonchalant statement that illustrates the need government had for the chieftaincy, he said the government relied upon the chieftaincy in the build up to the first elections “to communicate the necessary rules and guidelines to those living in their areas and to help mobilize people to register and then to vote” (125). This shows precisely government’s reasoning for co-opting the chieftaincy, as the state could not penetrate rural areas without the cooperation of traditional leaders. It shows how far away the authority and legitimacy of Pretoria and Cape Town remained.

Williams provides crucial insight into rural people’s perspectives on traditional leaders. While these findings would be too numerous to list in a review, these are some of the key findings:

  1. Many people think that their chiefs should not be involved in politics (a negative association was placed on ‘politics’)
  2. Many people believe that their chiefs should be active in trying to attract development projects (with these projects being desirable and beneficial, they were not associated with ‘politics’)
  3. Chiefs are considered the legitimate holders of power in rural areas, despite democracy taking hold

Williams also shows how democracy has impacted norms in the chieftaincy regarding the decisions about leadership positions. He puts forth two reasons for this democratic ‘reform’. First, pressure from communities on chiefs to attract development projects mean that those holding leadership positions need formal education to attract funds and to implement plans. Second, chiefs see democratization as a way to lead the change and hold onto power, rather than to be swept up by the movement. Incorporating elections into their portfolio allowed the chieftaincy to control the process and become a needed piece of the state. It also allowed traditional leaders to shape the new local level political structures sent down from Pretoria that had been instituted well after chiefs had filled that space during and immediately after apartheid. Finally, the controller of development will control the new power structures in rural South Africa. The chieftaincy thus enhances its own authority by at least appearing to embrace parts of the democratic process. With new local bureaucracy confusing to rural populations, those who can crack the state’s safe and deliver development projects will continue to hold onto legitimacy. Additionally, those who are able to open the safe, are also able to chose how funds will be distributed, another source of legitimacy and authority.

Ironically, the South African state had made the argument that traditional leaders lacked the capacity to fulfill development projects, or that it would politicize the chieftaincy by exposing them to the political decision making process. Williams’ alignment of his research allowed the reader to see that rural populations disagreed with this assessment first, and then bring in the government’s position, making the reader see the illogical reasoning from the state. In numerous case studies, the findings show that the ‘likability’ rating of a traditional leader is often based on the success in attracting development projects. So important was this task of attracting development projects, that Williams found it to be only second to conflict resolution on rural people’s rating of important job functions of the chieftaincy.

Williams provides significant narrative throughout the text, but more analysis for what this means going forward would help make this text more relevant as the years go by. While predictions often come back to bite the author, it would provide students of democratic consolidation a look into the thoughts of a man who has proven his academic credibility with his experience on the ground and providing insight into a world that’s not understood well by modernity.

Williams didn’t explore how the present day failure to deliver services could cause affect the chieftaincy as a whole. While he showed in a certain context that failure to deliver services contributed to the resignation of a 40 year holder of a chieftaincy, he stressed the fact that the community saw his failure of leadership in the areas of responsibility traditionally held by the chieftaincy: security, consultation, neutral decision making, and community welfare. While his failure in bringing development was seen as a failure, it was seen through the lens of those responsibilities. With this coming directly after the chapter on the intense link between the chieftaincy and development, it makes the reader wonder if Williams is backtracking a bit, or if Williams wants us to keep the linkage in perspective. Yet with a chieftaincy consolidating its hold on the development projects in rural communities, Williams’ review of the reasoning behind this local leadership crisis in the late 1990s blurs the path of logic that his previous analysis had set the reader on.

While that is a minor complaint, throughout his work, Williams does a splendid job at keeping all factors in perspective throughout. While the focus is on KwaZulu-Natal, Williams findings can be used to better understand the relationships between the state and traditional leaders across the continent. Scholarly research has shown that reaching rural parts of the community remain a challenge for governments across Sub-Saharan African, thus understanding how relationships form when the state engages traditional leaders is crucial to developing ways to deliver services to the significant part of Africa populations located in the rural areas. Readers of Williams’ book will come away with an understanding of how the state, the chieftaincy, and society interacted during the process of democratic consolidation in South Africa.


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