The institution of traditional leadership represents an early form of societal organisation. It embodies the protection of culture, traditions, customs and values. During the pre-colonial era, the institution of traditional leadership was a political and administrative centre of governance for traditional rural communities in South Africa. The institution of traditional leadership was the form of government with the highest authority. The leadership control of traditional leaders changed when the colonial authority and rulers introduced their authority to the landscape of traditional governance.

In the pre-colonial era, 1880 -1893, traditional authorities were important institutions which guided the traditional life. Traditional leaders played an important role in the everyday administration of their areas and the lives of traditional people. Traditional authorities provided political, societal, economic, cultural and religious leadership for local communities. The relationship between the traditional community and traditional leader was very important and highly respected. The normal functioning and existence of each traditional community was the responsibility of the traditional leader.Traditional leaders were not elected, but the son would inherit the father or uncle’s leadership position. Traditional leadership was based on the principle of governance of the people, where a traditional leader was accountable to his people. The Black South African population was organised into group with a centralised leadership vested in hereditary leaders called Chiefs.

During the colonial period, the 19th century, traditional authorities were the means of indirect rule. Indirect rule was established to administer Africans under the colonial administration rather than give them the right to vote. Indirect rule was a British concept where traditional leaders became agents of the colonial government.  These leaders depended on the colonial government for resources and power.  Thus the traditional leaders were given orders by the colonial government as to how to administer and control their communities.

The policy of indirect rule appeared falsely to protect the pre-colonial structures of the traditional leadership. In practice, it was established as a means of controlling traditional communities in their ethnic areas. The pre-colonial leadership’s domination of traditional leaders changed when the colonial rulers introduced their authorities. Through the colonial system, traditional leaders were obliged to work for the colonial government constituted by the British. The traditional authorities were acknowledged and given form by the colonial government to suit, adopt and promote the objectives and aims of its colonial strategies and missions. The aims and objectives of the colonial government were: to control the economic, political and social system, as well as maintain White domination.  

The traditional leaders roles included: judicial functions, allocation of land held in trust (the ownership of the land is hold by the traditional leader for the benefits of the people who live in it), the preservation of law and order, the provision of administrative services at local government, administration of social welfare such as the processing of applications for social security benefits and businesses, premises, the promotion of education such as the erection and maintenance of schools and the administration of access to education and finance.

In order to change pre-colonial powers, roles and structures of traditional leadership, and ensure that traditional authorities promote the colonial government’s strategies and objectives, the colonial government of South Africa passed Black Administration Act of 1927. The Act was passed to restrict the powers and roles of traditional leaders. The Black Administration Act of 1951 was passed to control the traditional authorities and traditional courts. At the same time, the Act aimed at the recognition and application of customary law in order to control the institution of traditional leadership by making sure that Blacks were subjected to a political regime from the remainder of the country. Black Authorities Act of 1951 was also passed to give traditional leaders the powers to control the land at regional, tribal and territorial levels.

The office of Governor-General was created with the aim of prescribing traditional leaders’ duties and autonomy. The Governor-General had the powers to appoint whosoever was considered by the government to be a Chief, irrespective of whether such a person was entitled to the position by the natural and traditional laws of succession. The Governor-General was also empowered to remove and replace any traditional leader who was not willing to implement the colonial government’s policies. This was due to the fact that the Governor-General was made the Supreme Chief of all traditional leaders in the then Union of South Africa.  

In 1948, the National Party under the leadership of DF Malan came to power. The traditional leadership system fitted its plan of separate development. In 1951, the Bantu Authorities Act was passed, making traditional leaders the administrative agents of the Apartheid state in the reserve areas, starting a process of setting up new separate political institutions for the African population. This was reinforced by the passing of the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act in 1959, which provided for the establishment of 10 self-governing homelands or Bantustans. The Homelands were areas whereby Africans, who were denied South African citizenship, could exercise citizenship rights within a territorial authority where an ethnically defined administrative system was based on tribal authority.

The colonial and Apartheid government also took away certain rights such as control over the distribution and administration of land. That resulted in a fundamental change in the leadership roles of the traditional leaders. Bantustans such as Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei provided a good example of change in the leadership roles of the traditional leaders during the colonial period. Traditional authorities colluded in the segregationist policies of the South African government.




Beall, J and Ngonyama, M. (2009). Indigenous Institutions, Traditional Leaders and Elite Coalitions for Development: the case of Greater Durban, South Africa.  Crisis States Research Centre. Crisis States working paper. (Online) available at: [accessed on 1 October 2014]|Dusing, S. (2002). Traditional leadership and democratization in Southern Africa. A comparative study of Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. Rutgers University: Transaction publishers.|Khunou, S, F. (2009). Traditional leadership and independent Bantustans of South Africa: some milestones of transformative constitutionalism beyond Apartheid. P.R.E

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