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Traditional Leaders: unsung heroes of the liberation struggle and colonial resistance?

By Stella Sigcau

13 February 2020

2020 marks 30 years since the release of the global icon the late former President Mandela from prison after having spent 27 years for fighting for liberation. It was a historic moment, a moment like no other. South Africans were celebrating. The world was celebrating with South Africans. It was a historic moment in the history of South Africa. Many people from various walks of life had sacrificed their lives for this freedom. It was finally here.

The many South Africans who fought colonial resistance and liberation struggle include Traditional Leaders. They were part of this struggle from time immemorial however, it seems their role in the liberation struggle and colonial resistance is often underplayed. Traditional Leadership has throughout the ages remained an integral part of the various cultures on the African continent. It was and continues to be an important institution in particular in the rural areas.

It has been in existence even prior to the arrival of colonial powers on the continent. Its role included defending respective nations from foreign invasions. However, more often than not, the role of the Traditional Leaders in colonial resistance and in the liberation struggle of South Africa is often underplayed leading to some believing that they never played a meaningful role for their societies defending their lands, cultures and heritage of which on the contrary they did.

Some remain unsung heroes with their stories never told or given the respect they deserve. Some Traditional Leaders protected and defended their lands from foreign invasions leading their armies in the forefront. In the centre of those wars were Traditional Leaders resisting colonial rule, slavery and imposition of colonial laws in their lands, protecting their citizens, cultures, religions and heritage even at the expense of their freedoms or lives, for example the Kings Nyabela of amaNdebele, King Silamba of amaNdebele, King Mampuru of amaPedi, King Sekhukhune of amaPedi, King Sigcau of amaMpondo, King Mqikela of amaMpondo, King Hintsa of amaXhosa, Nkosi Maqoma of amaXhosa, King Sabatha Dalindyebo of abaThembu, King Dingane of amaZulu, King Langalibalele of amaHlubi. The list is endless. Kings Dinizulu of amaZulu, Marhelane of amaMpondo and Dalindyebo of abaThembu are said to be some of the founding Kings of the African National Congress in 1912, a liberation movement that the late President Mandela led in the latter years. Traditional leaders were thus part of this struggle from inception.

Traditional Leadership is an old institution. It was a form of government which had its democracy guided by custom, protocols, respect and ubuntu. The King (iKumkani/ Ingonyama) was the supreme ruler of the Kingdom, presiding over Senior Traditional Leaders (iiNkosi) his “cabinet”. Kings never made individual decisions pertaining to governance or culture.

They consulted Kings Councils, elders or relevant members of the Royal family who formed the royal councils. That on its own was a form of democracy. Traditional leaders (iiNkosi) presided over iinduna/ iinkosana (headmen) and iinduna presided over onozithetyana (heads of clans) who oversaw izigodi (small village/ mini village). An Induna for instance could preside over maybe five izigodi which would form a village and unozithetyana presided over one isigodi.  The senior traditional leaders presided over all those villages which in today’s terminology formed a Traditional Council. They also never made individual decisions on issues of custom, laws and governance. They consulted and were advised by the “Traditional Council”.

The King would then preside over imbizo yamakhosi (gatherings of Traditional Leaders), which formed what is termed in today’s terminology, the regional/ kings council where issues of governance, laws, land, custom, reports from the people in the form of resolutions/ issues raised or discussions emanating from iimbizo held and the developments in the Kingdom would be discussed. In the current dispensation the Principal Traditional Leaders have been introduced in South Africa who preside over Senior Traditional Leaders reporting directly to the King. Whilst the people respected the King and his authority, the Kings were also expected to serve the people and the nation and respect “umkhonto wokulawula” which refers to respecting the assegai a King or Senior Traditional Leader is given during his inauguration as a symbol of taking over the reins of leadership. In other words respect his position, responsibilities, custom and people. They were expected to care for the communities that they led.

It is that patriotism, respect for their sacred responsibilities, their customs, the love for their people and value they attached to their land, heritage, history and language that led to their resistance of colonial invasion, assimilation, exploitation, hut taxes imposed, slavery to mention a few even at the expense of their lives and freedoms. Most of their stories remain untold. Some remain unsung heroes but they remain heroes nevertheless.




February/March 2020








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