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Traditional Authority and Land in KwaZulu-Natal


On the one hand it is true that the affairs of Africans ‘away in the locations’ have been submerged and often overlooked – existing almost “outside the historical record” of much scholarship (Beinart et al 1987: 1)1. Nonetheless, the amount of material available to those interested in history is significant (even if, as is the case here, the history is limited to the kwaZulu-Natal region). So the task here is not reproduce it but to extract from it major themes and critical developments which might help unravel current challenges about land and traditional authority.

The first step is to periodise the historical account so that characteristic features in the evolution of these issues can be located against significant broader historical phases, changes and developments. Useful as periodisation is, it inherently runs the risk of imposing a generalised characterisation over dynamic and complex histories. That said, for the purposes of this section, the following periodisation is proposed:
  1. pre-Shakan era;
  2. Political centralisation;
  3. Colonial and Union era;
  4. Apartheid era.
The story of the ‘land’ plays out at least 3 levels which should be borne in mind though they do not constitute a formal organising principle for the discussion below:
  1. ‘micro’-level which is principally about the homestead (e.g., how land was acquired, used, passed on or lost)
  2. ‘meso’-level where land is understood in relation to a broader social group (e.g., chiefdom) and how its use is enabled and regulated through the activities and institutions of that social group
  3. ‘macro’-level where the function, meaning and extent of land for a group/s (e.g., clan, tribe, kingdom) is understood by reference to the location of that group against other groups and their activities and institutions which impact on the same land, as well as impacting on the broader political economy.


  1. Beinart and Bundy point out that one of the reasons for this is that work on African political history tended to focus on formal organised political movements and their campaigns which usually represented and were led by urbanised and educated Africans. This is turn points to the underlying socio-economic reality that, at least from the colonial period, there was a discernible – but by no means impermeable – distinction within African society between ‘Red’ and ‘School’ responses to colonisation and modernity. These terms are used particularly by historians of the Eastern Cape area (see Beinart and Bundy 1987). ‘Red’ refers to those who either attempted to defend and maintain pre-colonial institutions in the context of colonial occupation or whose marginalisation from the dominant political-economy compelled them to draw on these pre-colonial resources for survival, while ‘school’ refers to those (mostly educated at mission schools) who tried to secure rights and position within the modernising process.

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