In the South African political system, traditional authorities derive their mandate from the Constitution Act, 1996 and the National House of Traditional Leaders Act, 2009. The Constitution provides for the establishment of the House, determines powers, duties and responsibilities of the House, and provides for support to the House by government, the relationship between the House and the provincial houses, the accountability of the House as well as any other matters connected therewith. The Act provides that the NHTL may advice National Government and make recommendations related to policy and legislation regarding traditional leadership; the role of traditional leaders, customary law and the customs of communities observing customary law. The NHTL must form cooperative relations and partnerships with government at national level, institution of higher learning and other related institutions in development and service delivery. Furthermore, Section 11 of the National House of Traditional Leaders Act, 2009 (Act No. 23 of 2009), provides that NHTL is responsible for:
The NHTL has identified their strategic priorities for 2011 – 2013 as follows:
Local government is the most challenging and challenged tier of government in South Africa. The service delivery function is effected primarily at local level in terms services such as the provision of electricity, water, sanitation, and refuse removal, among others. At this level of governance skills and capacity are of utmost importance. However, local government has been plagued by huge service delivery backlogs, leadership and governance failures, corruption and fraud, poor financial management, insufficient capacity due to a lack of scarce skills, high vacancy rates, poor performance management and inadequate training. Audits and reviews of local government continually point to paralysis in governance at this level. This has a direct impact on the lives of millions of citizens, in particular those who have yet to receive adequate electricity, water, sanitation and refuse removal infrastructure.
The role of traditional authorities at local level presents a conflict of governance systems. Traditional authority is of the view that local community leadership is an innate right and the buck should stop with them while the political leadership argues electorate mandate as mandatory power for them to lead. This conflict is described in the dissertation An assessment of the impact of traditional leaders and ward councillors’ relations on service delivery: the case of Mnquma Local Municipality in the Eastern Cape province, where Goodwin Mkata writes:
“The Mnquma ward councillors regarded themselves as the dominant custodians of all developmental projects of Local Government in their areas of operation and perceived traditional leaders as resistant to change. The contentious issue in Mnquma Municipality erupted when the traditional leaders viewed the new dispensation as a way of phasing out their role and existence within the rural communities, while on the other hand ward councillors viewed traditional leadership as an out-dated concept not compatible with the developmental project.”
Mkata explains further that traditional leaders saw themselves as the custodians and legitimate owners of land in terms of communal land tenures and observed ward councillors as stripping them of their powers and functions. Despite the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act, 2003 (Act No. 41 of 2003), lack of understanding both the roles of councillors, as the leading vanguards of government programmes by traditional leaders, and conversely, the responsibilities of the traditional leaders by ward councillors, also perpetuated conflict. The issue of legitimacy of some traditional leaders has been critically challenged by some ward councillors; this also caused conflict. The demarcation process, which was spearheaded by government with the exclusion of traditional leaders, who recognised themselves as the custodians of the land, also provoked conflict. In addition, the lack of alignment of strategic plans of both traditional leaders and ward councillors, contributed to the deepening conflict.
There is a need to realign the leadership axis at local government level to make local government functional for the sake of all citizens. At the centre of the realignment needs to be the understanding that citizens come first. The basic needs of the citizenry ought not to be compromised because of leadership squabbles between traditional authorities and elected officials. South Africa is facing a stark reality in which the service delivery failures are estimated at 19.3% in water backlogs, 32.6% in access to sanitation, 27.3% in access to electricity and 40.1% in access to refuse removal. Although the reasons for service delivery protests are often complex, these backlogs certainly contributed to the perceptions of poor service delivery and the consequent civil unrest as evidenced by more than 200 service delivery protests during the last 24 months. This means that neither traditional authorities nor government can afford to overlook the realities that ordinary citizens have to contend with due to poor leadership and management at local government level.
As government has embarked on a turnaround strategy to make local government a well functioning level of government, the role of traditional authorities needs to be considered in this. However, it is important for traditional authorities to understand that the highly technical nature of local government functions may not be compromised to serve needs of the traditional leaders. This is in recognition that governance and leadership is not about personality, but rather about servicing the needs of citizens who use their electoral rights to place governments into and out of power.