Chiefs by the People: Land, Conflict and Authority in 20th Century South Africa
The project examines how Africans in rural KwaZulu-Natal deployed differing ideas about traditional authority and belonging in a chiefdom to contest land over the course of the twentieth century. It pays attention to the Zulu proverb “inkosi yinkosi ngabantu” (a chief is a chief because of the people who pay allegiance to him) to highlight the role of colonial and apartheid governments in the appointment and succession of Zulu chiefs (amakhosi), the engendering of debates over legitimacy and chiefly authority, boundary conflicts, so-called faction fights, and competing land claims. While some scholars have argued that colonialism succeeded in divorcing chiefs from social and political relationships with their subjects by connecting them to territory, my book suggests that traditional leaders deployed both definitions of authority—people and land—to legitimate their power during the transformations of the twentieth century. Chiefs adapted to dimensions of territorial governance, but some still honored the social contract implied in the Zulu proverb and its memory remained historically salient among both leaders and their followers. Drawing on archives and oral history interviews, the book focuses on relationships between two neighboring Zulu chiefdoms that contested boundaries and chiefly legitimacy by wielding these dual—and not always competing—definitions. The Nyavu, whose chieftaincy predated the rise of the Zulu state under Shaka, made claims on land and authority based on their hereditary status and historical land use against the neighboring Maphumulo established in the region by the British. Though Maphumulo chiefs initially received their power by colonial decree, over time they promoted their authority through connections to both the land and their followers. During apartheid, the creation of Tribal Authorities and later the KwaZulu bantustan exacerbated these contests over access to land and political legitimacy, erupting in deadly violence in the two chiefdoms during KwaZulu-Natal’s transition-era civil war. The book builds upon concerns of historians about the importance of land for chiefly legitimacy and establishes other grounds for authority, including resource allocation, security in times of conflict, and, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, progressive politics. Following the relationship between these two chiefdoms across the twentieth century reveals how both chiefs and their people adapted and deployed strategies for building social and political relationships.
Last updated 02/15