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How a chief defied apartheid and upheld democracy for the good of his people

Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo, right, with Dali Mpofu and Winnie Mandela in 1989. Thobekile Maphumulo Family Papers, Author provided (No reuse)

The recently released report of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s advisory panel on land reform, and the latest efforts to force through two controversial traditional authority bills, point to the continued legacies of changes to the relationship between traditional leaders, their followers, and land in South Africa’s history.

The panel calls for a resolution to the “contending philosophies around land tenure” — those of individual rights and those of communalism. But as traditional leaders fight to continue their control over communally held land, there also needs to be a recognition that there are contending philosophies of traditional leadership. At times, these overlap.

This was evident at the meeting between a delegation from the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) and the then exiled African National Congress (ANC) in Lusaka, Zambia 30 years ago – on 18 August 1989.

The meeting released a joint memorandum. In it the parties called upon traditional leaders in South Africa to refuse to implement apartheid. The document recognised the profound effects of apartheid on South Africa’s traditional leaders:

From leaders responsible and responsive to the people, you are being forced by the regime to become its paid agents. From being a force for unity and prosperity you are turned into perpetrators of division, poverty and want among the oppressed. The so-called homeland system, land deprivation, forced removals and the denial of basic political rights – all these and more are the anti-people policies that the white ruling clique forces the chiefs to implement on its behalf.

Contending views of chieftancy

The ANC and the Contralesa delegation called on a historical understanding of traditional authority in which a leader’s authority came from their followers. This understanding is embodied by the isiZulu proverb inkosi yinkosi ngabantu (a chief is a chief by the people who khonza him, or pay allegiance to him). Ukukhonza is a practice of political affiliation. It is one that binds chiefs and their subjects and allows for accountability.

Colonialism and apartheid sought to make traditional leaders accountable to white officials by tying them to land. Historian Percy Ngonyama called this inkosi yinkosi ngendawo (a chief is a chief by territory). Doing so effected territorial segregation. It also allowed white officials to govern through a mimicry of pre-existing political structures.

Colonial officials came to interpret ukukhonza as a practice of subservience. But in fact, historically, this was a reciprocal practice. Paying allegiance to a chief came with expectations of physical and social security.

My recent book, To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence and Belonging in South Africa, 1800 - 1996, is a history of ukukhonza. It shows how even as colonialism and apartheid sought to break down personal bonds of ukukhonza, people used knowledge about the practice to make claims on land and on their leaders.

In the case of Inkosi Maphumulo, the claims were for physical security in times of violence.

Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo

Inkosi (Chief) Mhlabunzima Maphumulo (1949-1991) led the Contralesa delegation to Lusaka. He governed in the Table Mountain region, an area just outside of Pietermaritzburg, in KwaZulu-Natal. His life, tragically cut short by an apartheid hit squad, provides insight on these overlapping concepts of chiefly authority – inkosi yinkosi ngabantu and inkosi yinkosi ngendawo.

Inkosi Maphumulo was the fourth chief of a colonially created chiefdom that from its genesis in 1905 was tied to land south of the Umngeni River at Table Mountain. The existence of two types of chiefdoms served to “divide and rule”. It pitted leaders who saw themselves as having historical authority against those with new authority from the colonial regime.

From his installation in 1973, he carried out the duties of the chieftaincy within the structures of the nascent KwaZulu bantustan. The so-called “bantustans” or “homelands” were the ultimate level of the three tiered system of governance designed to ensure segregation in South Africa – not only on racial, but also ethnic lines. The bantustans built on so-called tribal authorities such as that of the region Maphumulo governed.

One of Inkosi Maphumulo’s priorities was to provide land to his subjects during a time when territorial segregation constrained black South Africans’ access to land. He tirelessly pursued a contested strip of land that bisected his territory but, according to apartheid-defined boundaries, fell neither under his control nor that of a neighbouring chief.

The government gazette that outlined the boundaries of the Inkosi Maphumulo Tribal Authority in 1957 made its leaders chiefs by land. Colonial officials had been putting down boundaries in Natal for over 100 years. But apartheid’s Bantu Authorities finalised this process and fully bounded chiefdoms.

But Inkosi Maphumulo was a leader who did not forget the responsibilities of chief by the people, even as he pursued land to allocate to his followers. By the time he flew to Lusaka, he had become known as the “peace chief”.

Maphumulo the peace maker. New African, April 17, 1989

As violence spread across the Natal Midlands from 1985 in a state-sponsored civil war, Inkosi Maphumulo organised peace initiatives. And, through Contralesa, he set up a commission of inquiry into the causes of the conflict.

He spoke out against police partiality and cooperation with Inkatha, which was engaged in a deadly conflict with the ANC and the broader liberation movement. He also welcomed refugees of all political affiliations from war torn townships onto land at Table Mountain. He described the process by which this happened to the press:

People are not made to pay money to live in the area, but in our tradition they are expected to pay ‘khonza’—a tribute to the chief… A goat is sufficient for ‘khonza’ but if a person does not have one, then a small amount of money, depending on the person’s circumstances, is expected.

Land and belonging

Inkosi Maphumulo spoke of rights to land as tied to belonging in a chiefdom, a process facilitated by ukukhonza. There was a slight hitch. The neighbouring Nyavu chiefdom, who claimed precedence in the region – to the time of King Shaka, if not before – believed the land onto which Maphumulo located refugees belonged to them.

While Inkosi Maphumulo sought to provide expected security to his followers, both old and those who newly paid allegiance to him, his neighbours and some among his followers who contested his chieftaincy saw the newcomers as interlopers. Peace would not remain at Table Mountain.

As the violence spread to the area, people used the cultural inheritance of ukukhonza to define who had access to the contested land, and who could expect security from their chief. Inkosi Maphumulo believed himself responsible for the new residents because they had paid allegiance to him. As the conflict raged, he reflected:

I had done all I could to ensure peaceful coexistence in my area. What had I done wrong?

He sought to expand his territory, but respected the demands of ukukhonza with his attempts to promote political tolerance, provide a safe haven, and end the violence.

Chiefaincy and land reform

Inkosi Maphumulo did not live to see the dawning of democracy in South Africa. But these overlapping concepts of chief by the people and chief by land embodied in his leadership need to be brought to the forefront in current discussions about traditional authority and land reform.

Even after the territorial rule of colonialism and apartheid took hold among chiefs, Inkosi Maphumulo’s belief in the concept of inkosi yinkosi ngabantu spurred him to pursue peace and promote political tolerance.

Enshrining the control of land by traditional leaders in recent and newly proposed laws gives precedence to the inkosi yinkosi ngendawo of colonial and apartheid rule at the expense of the people of inkosi yinkosi ngabantu.

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