The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa is a political lobby group which represents many traditional leaders and chiefs in South Africa. It seeks to work with the South African government, which is currently led by the African National Congress (ANC) towards a more unified and strong South Africa. CONTRALESA emerged because of societal rifts and the undermining of traditional leadership under the apartheid regime.

In 1975, Chief Buthelezi, a very important chief in KwaZulu, established the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement. The creation of this group was in response to the oppressiveness that the Apartheid regime was enforcing upon traditional leaders in South Africa. The state was slowly eroding the power and authority that these traditional leaders and chiefs had over the people of their regions. Traditional territories were being divided so as to undermine the reach of the power of chiefs. Mission schools, and the subsequent increase in economic power of women, led to a deterioration of patriarchal traditional leaders. Systems of taxation bureaucratization undermined their legitimacy amongst their people. Also, the apartheid regime had begun to use chiefs against their own people in exchange for favors. According to Buthelezi, the main goals of Inkatha were the preservation of culture and to protect the power and authority of traditional chiefs and leaders against the Apartheid regime, and return to the chiefs the legitimacy that they once had.

At the beginning, Inkatha became quite close with the exiled ANC in the struggle against the Apartheid regime. Yet, not long after, both groups got into an argument over ideological matters of what South Africa should be like in a post-apartheid world and this caused a rift between the two. The conflict that arose between Inkatha and the United Democratic Front (a movement strongly aligned with the ANC)lasted many years and had resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 people in KwaZulu and in Natal.

An important aspect of what Buthelezi’s Inkatha party called for was the separation and independence of chieftainships from the greater state of South Africa. Buthelezi believed that the only way to ensure the continuation of culture and to return the authority to the chiefs was for these regions to be independent. As long as they were part of South Africa, traditional leaders and communities would never regain the power and authority that they once had.

Yet, not all chiefs and traditional leaders agreed with Buthelezi. A notable example of a traditional leader who strongly disagreed with Buthelezi was Klass Makhosana Mahlangu, a Prince who married Nonhlanhla Zulu, sister of the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. Mahlangu believed in the unification of South Africa under a common banner in which chiefs could work effectively with the government to get rid of the apartheid regime and to help South Africa become a democratic and free country. Many other chiefs joined him in this movement and they soon gained support from the ANC.

This opposition movement to the Inkatha party resulted in the creation of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa in 1987. According to its constitution,

‘CONTRALESA aims to unite all traditional leaders in the country, to fight for the eradication of the Bantustan system, to “school the traditional leaders about the aims of the South African liberation struggle and their role in it”, to win back “the land of our forefathers and share it among those who work it in order to banish famine and land hunger” and to fight for a unitary, non-racial and democratic South Africa.’ (Van Kessel & Oomen, 1997)

CONTRALESA was mostly composed, at the time, of chiefs from the KwaNdebele region. It was a group that was created with the help of the United Democratic Front (UDF), an important anti-apartheid group.

The reason for most of the founding members being from KwaNdebele was that mounting tensions had been growing in the KwaNdebele region, one that was slated to become a Bantustan in 1986, and in Moutse. People of these regions were worried about the implications that this new Bantustan would mean for them. Many feared that they would lose their South African citizenship once that the Bantustan came into being.

Buthelezi’s Inkatha party were offered to join CONTRALESA at its creation but they refused. Buthelezi viewed CONTRALESA as a threat to his Inkatha party because of its strong alliance with the UDF and thus the ANC and also because of the election of Chief Mhlabunzima Maphumulo of KwaZulu-Natal was seen as direct attack towards the Zulu Kingdom by Buthelezi. Buthelezi was so angered by this that he called on all traditional leaders to break all of their ties with CONTRALESA or anyone they may know who was part of CONTRALESA.


CONTRALESA, because of its ideal of a unified South Africa, quickly gained support from the ANC. In February 1988, CONTRALESA decided to send out a delegation to visit the ANC, which was in exile at the time. The ANC provided much praise for the movement and stated the importance that chiefs would and should have in a post-apartheid South Africa. Another great example of this is that upon the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, one of the first groups that he visited was CONTRALESA and CONTRALESA was an important player in the ANC’s push to gain support in rural areas, particularly the Bantustans, of the country. One of the reasons for Mandela’s strong support of CONTRALESA was that he was of aristocratic birth in a traditional society and so traditional chiefs and leaders were of a great personal importance to him. CONTRALESA was also very present in political matters pertaining to the place of chiefs in a post-apartheid South Africa.

With the increased legitimacy and recognition that CONTRALESA saw in its beginnings, 1990 was marked by a strong increase in membership and support from chiefs across the country, especially in the Bantustans that could be found in the Northern Transvaal at the time. Many chiefs supported the views of the ANC and supported the idea of a post-apartheid South Africa that was unified under the banner of an ANC led government. Thus, it made sense for them to throw their support behind CONTRALESA, a group who was greatly supported by the ANC.

In 1991, CONTRALESA suffered a strong blow when its President Maphumulo was assassinated. Murdered because of the unpopularity of CONTRALESA amongst those who were supporters of the Inkatha party, this brought back into perspective the continued tensions that existed between those who supported a unified South Africa and those who believed in independent chieftainships. Maphumulo was shortly replaced by Chief Phathekile Holomisa of the AmaHegebe tribe. Holomisa brought new meaning to CONTRALESA, emphasizing that it was central to the continuation of traditional leaders for them to put aside the image that had been created of them as collaborators to the apartheid regime and instead replace it by taken part in local activities and participating in the ANC, a party that had much popular support across the country.

The growing support base of CONTRALESA led it to become the largest group of traditional leaders against the apartheid regime and its actions were very important in the overthrowing of that regime. While the ANC focused more on the liberation of blacks from an oppressive regime in South Africa, CONTRALESA put much more emphasis on resisting the homeland systems known as the Bantustans.

The ANC has played an important role in legitimizing CONTRALESA. The reasons for the ANC’s support are very important in the persistence and importance of CONTRALESA when it comes to the national politics in South Africa. The ANC has made it known that they place a high level of importance in integrating traditional leaders and chiefs into the national politics and feels that traditional leaders have been ignored and subdued for too long under colonialism and the Apartheid regime. In 1999, according to Thabo Mbeki then President of South Africa:

(Creating a strong unified society) is a national task that calls for the mobilization of the whole nation into united people’s action, into a partnership with government for progressive change and a better life for all, for a common effort to build a winning nation. The Government therefore commits itself to work in close partnership with all our people”¦to ensure that we draw on the energy and genius of the nation to give birth to something that will surely be new, good and beautiful.’ (Williams, 2010)

The ANC also shows a great level of support for CONTRALESA because it fears that South Africa could fall into the same trap that neighboring Mozambique did when it chose to ignore its traditional chiefs and leaders. In the case of Mozambique, the government decided that for the country to be able to develop all traditional aspects and chiefs must be pushed aside since they would only hold the country back. They abolished all forms of traditional leadership within the country and this resulted in a civil war which ravaged the country. The party which was in charge of the government was the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and they believed that traditional chiefs were of no importance. This led to the rise of the rebel group known as the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) who opposed the government and sought to overthrow it and gained much support by appealing to the oppressed traditional leadership.(Chiefs supported RENAMO, a rebel movement that sought to overthrow the government) The ANC saw this as an important example of what could go wrong if traditional leaders in South Africa were not offered the proper recognition.

Thus, CONTRALESA has been successful in lobbying the ANC to provide more power to traditional chiefs. This is exemplified by the failure of a Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). This conference called for a multi-party panel to discuss the future of how government should work in a post-apartheid South Africa. Yet, the ANC attempted to limit the voice that traditional leaders had in these talks and this led to both Buthelezi’s Inkatha party and CONTRALESA to shut down negotiations. This thus sent a message to the ANC that while the ANC believed that they were paying enough attention to traditional leaders, traditional leaders did not agree with them.

Another example of how CONTRALESA’s strong stance on how much power should be afforded to traditional leaders, a position that gained much strength after the election of Chief Holomisa as President of CONTRALESA, is seen in the particularities of the 1993 Local Government Transition Act. According to Lungisile Ntsebeza,

‘As early as the early 1990s, CONTRALESA under chief Holomisa rejected the notion that, in the rural areas of the former Bantustans, municipalities and elected councilors to the primary level of local government. It is arguably due to this uncompromising stand of CONTRALESA that there was no provision in the 1993 Local Government Transition Actfor the form local government would take in rural areas.’ (2005)

Yet, relationships have not always been good between CONTRALESA and the ANC. In 1995, before the local government elections, conflict arose between the provincial government and traditional leaders. Each wanted to have more power and so conflict arose which resulted in CONTRALESA taking the stance to boycott the 1995 elections slated for November. The ANC did not back down on their decision to hold the election and contrary to what CONTRALESA thought would happen, the election ran smoothly and traditional leaders were greatly disappointed and called for the nullification of the election results. The ANC, angered by this reaction threatened to take legal action against President Holomisa. Yet, this threat was never followed up.

To ensure that CONTRALESA continued to support the ANC, the Government has been accused, notably by Holomisa, of bribing traditional leaders with various resources and gifts. For example, during the election period in 2004, the province of Mpumalanga spent over R9 million to buy automobiles for the various traditional leaders of the province. Other amounts of money that the ANC has spent on traditional leaders and CONTRALESA during election time include over R1 million on computers for traditional leaders.

This type of patronage, which can be viewed as fraud by some, has also led to resentment amongst the chiefs of smaller less populated regions since they receive much less of these benefits than those who are chiefs of large regions. For example, the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini receives over R300,000 per year as salary, which is estimated to be ten times more than a chief of a much smaller region. In the former Transkei region, over R17 million has been spent on the salaries of various chiefs and traditional leaders. Yet, in some regions, chiefs receive very small amounts of money, sometimes as low as R10,000 and under. And so, this disparity in remunerations has caused mounting tensions within CONTRALESA against the ANC because of their lack of equal support to all chiefs.

In 1999, then President Mbeki promised to put in place measures to control the salaries of various chiefs. Chiefs of equal or similar status would be paid similar wages. While this has been fairly accurate amongst very high ranking kings and chiefs, differences still exist in other forms of remuneration, such as gifts, benefits, access to various resources and the way that they are treated and respected by national politics. Also, high ranking chiefs and kings benefit from annual salary increases, which is not the case with lower ranking chiefs. And so, these preferential treatments continue to persist within the relationships between individual traditional leaders and chiefs and the state and continue to cause tensions among the various members of CONTRALESA.

Some measures have been put in place to limit the influence that politics parties may have on individual traditional leaders and CONTRALESA. One of these measures is the Traditional Leadership Governance and Framework (TLGF) Act. This act, passed in 2003 under then President Mbeki, had the role of specifying the roles and functions of traditional chiefs and of transforming the way in which traditional chiefs interacted with the government so as to emphasize the idea of a unified South Africa. This is to provide and solidify a position for CONTRALESA and the chiefs it represents into the democracy of South Africa. While this Act has helped to provide a better voice to traditional leaders in the process of community building and national unity, it still imposes limits on the power of chiefs such as limiting the extent to which customs and customary law can be used in he chieftainships.

While much work has been done by the ANC to include traditional chiefs, some still feel that there is a long way to go before anyone can say that this has been an accomplished mission. According to CONTRALESA,

‘The continuous failure by the ANC and government to deal adequately and finally with this matter of the role, place and powers of the institution in modern-day South Africa has a negative effect on service delivery in the communal areas. Every minister, councillor or state official knows that the co-operation of traditional leaders, of all ranks, in the implementation of government programmes is of vital importance for its meaningful and sustainable success.’ (CONTRALESA, 2011)

CONTRALESA has also disagreed with many recent pieces of legislation which seek to provide more rights to women but that in the process tend to undermine traditional chiefs and leaders. Since 2008, when the Traditional Courts Bill (TCB) was tabled, much criticisms has been leveled against the ANC by CONTRALESA for the stance that it has taken in matters pertaining to traditional justice. CONTRALESA sees this bill as a threat to the authority and power of chiefs and seeks a reform to this bill because of its lack of respect for traditional societies. They also see this bill as deeply flawed and incorrect on many aspects of traditional justice, such as the representation of women within it.

While certain groups have enjoyed much benefits from the strong power that CONTRALESA has, others have been ignored. For example, the Zulu Kingdom has had a very strong voice in political matters pertaining to the role of traditional leadership. The Khoi-San, on the other hand, have struggled to find a voice and have constantly been met with disregard for their wants and needs by the national government. In 2010, the Khoi-San decided to take legal action against the government for historic wrongs that were done to them and ongoing discrimination which they consider to be what the call, “cultural genocide and discrimination against the Khoi-San Nation” (Hweshe, 2010). In 2011, the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, addressed the issues faced by the Khoi-San and pushed for a bill that would provide more protection for the Khoi-San. As recently as February 2012, the Khoi-San continue to seek recognition for their land rights and recognition that they are the first settlers of South Africa. Yet these protests and claims by the Khoi-San people tend to be ignored by the state because of the small amount of people that they represent in the South African population.

In both of these cases, CONTRALESA feels that their views on the matter and their opinions and offered solutions are not being taken into consideration by the ANC. They feel that the ANC is not providing meaningful efforts to address the issues that face the people who live in traditional societies in the rural areas of the country:

All the problems that have bedevilled relations between the ANC, and later the government, are a result of the failure by the ANC to engage the organisation in political discussions. The two organisations have ended up second-guessing each other, and in the process accumulating presumptions and prejudices against each other.’ (CONTRALESA 2011)

Thus, it can be ascertained that CONTRALESA’s struggle to obtain its main goals of providing a voice to traditional chiefs and leaders, and to help create a unified South Africa is ongoing.

This article was written by Savannah Seara-Robitaille and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship


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