South Africa: The Succession of Chiefs in a Constitutional Democracy Is a Complex Matter With Equal Rights At Its Heart


The undemocratic and ahistorical approach to settling succession disputes has allowed richly resourced mining interests to enter into alliances with contenders for high office to secure access to mineral-rich land without consulting the people living on the land.

During the transition to democracy in the 1990s, the future of traditional leaders was a contentious issue. Ultimately their supporters prevailed and Chapter 12 of the Constitution, which deals with traditional leaders, states that the "institution, status and role of traditional leadership, according to customary law, are recognised, subject to the Constitution". But the implications of the final phrase "subject to the Constitution" - for the form and functions of chieftainship - remain unresolved.

The state has on occasion proclaimed that the institution should be transformed to be in harmony with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

However, many of its actions have in practice had the reverse effect. They have further eroded the democratic elements within chieftainship that had already been profoundly undermined by colonial control. As a result, millions of South Africans who live under the system of traditional leadership have significantly diminished rights, and the political and legal dualism that underpinned apartheid, endures.

One conspicuous example of the...

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