The misunderstanding of SPLUMA by traditional leaders

This article is the second in a series of articles that unpack the five major reasons why traditional leaders rejected the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management of 2013 (SPLUMA) in their areas of jurisdiction. The previous article analysed the first reason, namely, the lack of meaningful engagement.

The article analyses the second reason, namely the misunderstanding of SPLUMA which traditional leaders have raised to reject the implementation of the Act in traditional areas. It is argued that the lack of meaningful engagement inadvertently created a conducive environment from which the misunderstanding of SPLUMA emerged.


Like the previous article, this article is based on interviews conducted with various traditional leaders across three provinces namely, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape. The interviews were conducted in line with the University of Western Cape’s Ethics Policy. In many of the interviews, it became apparent that traditional leaders were not only angry about the lack of meaningful engagement but also unaware of what the Act sought to achieve. For example, the Preamble of the Act sets out the main purpose of the Act, namely to eradicate past spatial planning and land use laws and practices which were based on racial inequality, segregation and unsustainable settlement patterns. After realising what the purpose of SPLUMA is, the next question is, how would this affect traditional leaders or the areas traditional leaders govern? SPLUMA spells out its intention about traditional areas in the very same preamble when it states that it seeks to introduce spatial planning and land use management legislation to parts of rural areas that do not have it and are therefore excluded from the benefits of development planning and land use management systems.

It is against this background that a further reason emerged, namely that there is a misunderstanding of SPLUMA by traditional leaders. The misunderstanding is that some traditional leaders believe that SPLUMA intends to take away their power to allocate land. What this means, according to traditional leaders, is that SPLUMA takes away their power to manage land use since it empowers municipalities to manage land use in their areas of jurisdiction. This argument by traditional leaders is perhaps correct, but only to the extent that their land use management authority is not entirely taken away but is rather curtailed.

In other words, the exclusive authority to manage land use that traditional leaders have enjoyed since pre-colonial times has now ended. This argument is consistent with one of SPLUMA’s aims, which is to introduce spatial planning and land use management legislation to rural areas so that these areas can also benefit from development planning and land use management systems. Be that as it may, some respondents from Limpopo were of the view that SPLUMA seeks to strip them of their power to allocate land. When a traditional leader from Limpopo was asked to comment on this matter, he had this to say:

On this issue of SPLUMA, in the house of traditional leaders in the district there is a very loud cry. Why? Because the municipality will have to allocate stands for those people. It goes hand in hand with the issuing of proof of residence. Immediately if the municipality takes over those things, it means there is no more power in those traditional leaders. Why they are there is only to manage the land, allocate people land and try to collect as little as they can. If you strip them of that function, it means you have just killed those traditional leaders”.

Another respondent, a national official responsible for the rolling out of SPLUMA, said:

We are aware of this narrative about SPLUMA seeking to take away the powers of traditional leaders and it is unfortunate because it is not true. Traditional leaders have as result taken a position not to support the implementation of SPLUMA in their areas of jurisdiction”.

A municipal official from KwaZulu-Natal said that the situation is the same in some areas in that province. When asked about the perception that SPLUMA is intending to take away the power of traditional leaders, he replied:

It is a directive from Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB) not to accept SPLUMA, because it is perceived that it will take their powers in land management and allocate it to municipalities and government at large”.

A consulting planner from the Eastern Cape believed that part of what drives this narrative is politics:

I think there is a bit of a misconception of what it is that SPLUMA seeks to do and that is mainly because of politics. Currently, SPLUMA is a swearword because it is viewed as taking away the powers of traditional leaders, but when you unpack it, it is not”.

The above four quotes point to the extent to which traditional leaders are unwilling to even engage on or peruse SPLUMA to see what it provides as far as traditional areas and the institution of traditional leadership are concerned.


The idiom “don’t jump to conclusions, things aren’t always as they seem” seems to be apt in this case. The misunderstanding that SPLUMA intends to take away the land allocation power of traditional leaders indicates the level of engagement traditional leaders had with the content of SPLUMA. If traditional leaders had been adequately made aware of the objective of SPLUMA and its Regulations, they might have realised that SPLUMA does not seek to take away their power to allocate land. Instead, the SPLUMA Regulations recognise the role of traditional leaders as custodians of communal land and their power to allocate land. It is submitted that the overarching aim is for municipalities to form collaborative partnerships with traditional leaders to give effect to the objective of SPLUMA, which is to improve the development of rural areas through the constitutional mandate of municipalities to provide services to rural communities in a sustainable manner.

Another possible explanation why traditional leaders misunderstand SPLUMA may very well be that traditional leaders were persuaded, convinced or even instructed to refrain from engaging with anything that has to do with SPLUMA because of its perceived threat to the existence of the institution of traditional leadership in democratic South Africa. Whether these suggestions are justified or not is not for this article to decide. However, the reality is that the misunderstanding of SPLUMA is yet another major reason why traditional leaders continue to reject the implementation of SPLUMA in their areas of jurisdiction. The next article examines the third major reason behind the rejection of SPLUMA by traditional leaders, namely the “exclusion” of traditional leaders from the Municipal Planning Tribunal.

By Xavia Poswa, Doctoral Researcher

*article adjusted on 13/03/2024

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