It is ironic that some of the arguments used by defenders of the Ingonyama Trust differ little from those used by the apartheid government to justify the homelands policy.  In his recent article in the Daily Maverick Mbongeleni Mazibuko unwittingly falls into this trap by drawing on discredited history and by his misuse of concepts such as culture and tradition.  He also conveniently side-steps the gross infringements of the land rights of rural residents by the Trust, and by some traditional leaders.

Most of the Ingonyama Trust land is that which constituted the KwaZulu bantustan, some of which, such as southern and far northern areas of KZN, was never part of the historic Zulu kingdom.  From its heartland north of the Thukela river, King Shaka deployed his well-trained warriors to areas much further afield to raid for cattle. In the process, people either dispersed or, in some cases, bowed to the use of force and became client chiefdoms supplying Shaka with cattle, and guarding his far- flung cattle outposts.  He did not have the political or military capacity to incorporate these areas into the kingdom. With his enemies, including within his own family, multiplying, Shaka’s position became increasingly precarious. Accompanied by armed traders from Port Natal he had vanquished his main opponents, the Ndwandwe, but internally the powerful Qwabe grouping was posing an increasing threat. This threat may have been one of the reasons that he decided to build his new homestead further away from them, at KwaDukuza (just south of the Thukela river) shortly before his ten-year reign ended with his assassination. His half-brother, Dingane, was unable to retain the type of military control Shaka had over his own subjects and the client chiefdoms outside of the kingdom, so many fled the kingdom to what was later to become the colony of Natal and others returned there from further afield.

The kingdom founded by Shaka was an amalgamation of discrete chiefdoms, and it was stratified according to historical and clan relationships to the king.  The lowest stratum comprising ‘outsider’ groupings, to which a derogatory label was applied, lived in the coastal areas or around the Thukela.  Excluded from politics, they provided menial labour and cattle tribute to the elites.  Falling into this category was the powerful Hlubi grouping who, posing an increasing threat to King Mpande, prudently migrated to the colony in 1848 to avoid the risk of an all-out war.

Contrary to what Mazibuko avers, it is  highly unlikely that the majority of the traditional leaders in what is now KZN are descendants of the clan-based groupings of the Zulu kingdom, which was itself subject to a divide-and-rule policy by the British after the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. The forebears of many of today’s leaders had never been part of the kingdom and, in the colony, new chiefs were created by administrator Theophilus Shepstone when he found people living without any. Mission areas appointed their own. Chiefs were needed for the implementation of the indirect rule system – rule through chiefs – developed in what was then Natal, exported to other colonies, and further refined by the architects of apartheid.

The office of traditional leadership today is a product of colonialism and apartheid because, since the 19th century, chiefs have not been ‘chiefs by their people’. The general trend in pre-colonial times was for an unpopular chief to be deposed or killed – or people might simply migrate elsewhere. However, with indirect rule they became accountable to the government which paid their salaries and, pre-1994, would be deposed if they were not politically compliant.  Democracy and accountability are still absent in many traditional areas today and it has proven virtually impossible to get the government department responsible, COGTA, to take any action against leaders who abuse their positions, or even commit crimes.

While there is a tendency to see traditional leadership as some distinctly pan-African phenomenon, it is an office which exists, or has existed, in societies all over the world at a certain stage of state formation.  Many societies in Africa did not have this system of governance. While colonising governments used the position for their own purposes, the stance taken by post-liberation governments varied.  Most retained the position, but restricted incumbents to ceremonial and developmental roles, Uganda – which had historically included different kingdoms – restricted their powers drastically, and Tanzania abolished traditional leadership. Swaziland is probably the only country in Africa in which traditional leaders have more powers than they do in South Africa.  The office is not under threat since they are recognised in Chapter 12 of the Constitution. In the mid-1990s the ANC government, which was then divided over the subject, made a serious mistake by not insisting that the incumbents could not occupy both traditional and political offices (as in Botswana). Many have allowed themselves to be used as political tools, when they could have played a far more constructive role in their communities had they been above party politics.

There is probably no word which has been as badly abused in South Africa as ‘culture’. Drawing on the ideas of Scientific Racism embodied in what was termed ‘ethnos theory’ this term was used by the apartheid government to justify, and disguise the racial basis for, homelands. Culture is simply an analytical construct used to describe what people have in common such as shared norms, values, knowledge and beliefs, which are learned. Even within a group speaking a common language what is interpreted as its culture may be highly variable. These ideas change as the socio-economic structure of the society of which they are part does, as may traditions and customs embodying these ideas. While there are regional similarities, families are the custodians of customs, which may vary from one clan to another. Contemporary Zulu identity as it is portrayed today is a product of societal changes, especially economic and political, the 20th century. However, there is no single ‘Zulu’ identity in KZN, for many residents would identify with other historically-based groupings such as Bhaca, Hlubi, and Thonga, and others would emphasise their Ndwandwe roots (i.e. the enemies of the Zulu kingdom).

There is thus no historical basis for the privatisation of state land in the hands of the Zulu king who cannot be said to have ‘owned’ it in the past :  Contemporary ownership of land, focussing on commercial value,  should not be equated with ideas prevailing in the past when  it had very different meanings for the families who were living on it, based on intimate relationships between the living and the dead (buried on it), and the way in which these were related to the fertility of land (to meet subsistence needs).   King Zwelithini enjoys widespread support and respect in his own right – especially since he publicly distanced himself from party politics in 1994 –  not through his association with the Trust. The Board administering the trust, of which the king is the sole trustee, was appointed a few years after the Trust was established in April 1994. Prior to that it had been overseen by the king’s lawyer, the late Sdumo Mathe, with the Board taking over soon after Mathe’s untimely death. Calls to dismantle the Trust have nothing to do with a ‘clash of cultures’ but are rooted in economic realities. The Trust, through its Board,  not only contests the transfer to the government fiscus of mining royalties due to it, but acts as a virtual parallel government itself issuing leases which are often cloaked in secrecy, and which trample on the legally protected rights to the land, and the security, of those living on it.  As a result of the issuing of these leases people have lost the land they lived on, and used for subsistence, to mining companies or other business ventures. They may be removed, or face the threat of removal, from their land, as during apartheid years.  Their water becomes polluted and cattle become sick. In coal mining areas such as Somkele (near Mtubatuba) the rate of respiratory illnesses is extremely high and linked by locals to most deaths. In the kwaMzimela area homes and graves are blasted away by sand mining. There are many other examples, and despite the black empowerment rhetoric, it may be white businesspeople who benefit from Trust deals.

It is traditional leaders who give permission to the Trust to grant leases, regardless of the consequences for their subjects, who may not even know about them until they are told to move (as in eMpembeni)*._ The democratic government, which claims to represent ‘the people’, has dealt rural folk a further blow by passing legislation which will give even more powers to traditional leaders to enter into such agreements.  Not for nothing is these two pieces of legislation –  one of which amends the 2003 Act governing traditional leadership, and the other governing traditional (chiefs’) courts – referred to, with good reason, as the ‘bantustan bills’.  To avoid a further retreat into the past this legislation must be opposed at all costs.

*See other 2018 and 2019 reports on the Ingonyama Trust and on eMpembeni

Reference notes  : This report draws on a wide range of historical material,  including chapters in Duminy and Guest (eds) 1989 Natal and Zululand a New History;   Chapters in Carton, B, J Laband and J Sithole (eds) 2009 Zulu Identities; Laband J 2017 The Assassination King Shaka ; Wright J 2016 ‘Making Identities in the Thukela-Mzimvubu Region cc1770-1940 in Hamilton C and N Leibhammer Tribing and Untribing the Archive   

Other references include academic publications on culture, traditiion and traditional leadership. See , for example, Boonzaier E and J Sharp (eds) 1989  South African Keywords : Th uses and abuses of political concepts

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