Traditional Authorities and Decentralisation in Southern Africa

The proposed research project is a study of the recent resurgence of traditional authorities in southern Africa. In particular, it examines the time-period since the large-scale territorial decentralisation reforms of the 1990s in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Territorial decentralisation, often promoted and supported by international organisations for development, blew new life into these seemingly-dormant entities – especially in rural local government districts. But contrary to the fears of tribalism and clientelism (and despite differences in their history) in many places traditional authorities ended up becoming the collective voice of a locality vis-à-vis the central state and mediated the relationship between formal governance and rural citizenry – regardless of party politics and electoral cycles. The hypothesis guiding the research is that informal accountability, the need to build local consensus, long term horizons, and of course their perceived legitimacy, have often turned traditional authorities into representatives of rural concerns and interests – even among traditional authorities that are hierarchical and hereditary. There are thus both scholarly and applied reasons for a comprehensive examination of the uncodified (and formal) powers of these entities that have proven their resilience through pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial times phases of constitutional engineering, development, and modernisation.

Project leader(s):
  • Jan Erk (Institute of Political Science, University of Leiden)

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