Resistance to SPLUMA: Traditional leaders' lack of trust in municipalities

This is the final article of a series of articles which examines the five major reasons why traditional leaders rejected the implementation of the Spatial Planning and Land Use Management Act of 2013 (SPLUMA) in their areas of jurisdiction. The previous article unpacked the fourth reason, namely, traditional leaders’ lack of trust in SPLUMA instruments. This article analyses the fifth reason, namely, traditional leader’s lack of trust in municipalities.

The article argues that traditional leaders’ lack of trust in municipalities resurfaced after they were not meaningfully consulted on SPLUMA, which empowers municipalities to take land use management decisions in areas governed by traditional leaders.


Like the preceding articles, 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. Information gathered in many of the interviews suggests that traditional leaders have simply lost trust in municipalities for a number of reasons. This is not surprising given the history between traditional leaders and municipalities in post-apartheid South Africa. After all, history does indicate that traditional leaders never wanted the establishment of municipalities in rural areas, arguing that they would take away the functions they were performing. In fact, traditional leaders wanted the institution of traditional leadership to be the sole local governance structure in rural areas. This assertion is based on the deep roots the institution of traditional leadership has in rural areas and the direct relevance it has on the lives of rural residents. The issue of the lack of trust should be separated into two. First, the lack of trust is based on the history of prolonged tension between these two institutions. Secondly, the issue is based on municipalities' failure to deliver on their mandates.

On the first issue, a traditional leader from Limpopo explained the tension by saying:

“All we want is power to control. You see it happened a long time ago, the land was taken away from the Kgosis (chiefs) and they created CPAs (Community Property Associations) in an attempt to give the land back to his subjects directly. All they want to do is give the land back to communities, it can also be families. We were staying here and this was land that belonged to Kgosi who in turn allocated it to individuals and families. The SPLUMA to me is perpetuating that”.

The respondent further explained:

“The issue is that they (municipalities) fail traditional leaders. From the 1936 Native Administration Act, the Kgosis (Chiefs) were given the right by government to cut the stands using the department of agriculture. But, when the evolution came, the power was removed from the department and also from the Kgosis in the sense that now those people are supposed to make those applications and do not consider now that is what is crippling the house of traditional leaders. Kgosis are afraid of a situation where they become nothing in the land that they are administering. Councillors or council together with the state took over so they become nothing”.

A national official spoke about a meeting they had with the late King of KwaZulu-Natal, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu in which the government was accused of trying to steal the land of the Zulu nation through SPLUMA. When asked to explain what transpired in that meeting, he said:

“We had a meeting with the King and his advisors including members of the Ingonyama Trust Board where through his interpreter, he said he did not trust that we had the best interest of the Zulu nation at heart because, to him, SPLUMA is developed by colonisers in order to destroy the institution of traditional leadership in KwaZulu-Natal. He said he did not trust SPLUMA and those that wanted it implemented”. 

Regarding the second issue, many municipalities are failing to deliver on their mandates due to the lack of capacity and corruption, among other reasons. The Auditor General's audit reports often paint a grim picture of the financial and governance state of local government. A traditional leader from the Eastern Cape had this to say about the issue:

“The (municipal) area is in ruins because the municipality cannot plan, they cannot even properly plan the town. What is it that they going to do in our rural areas when their own areas are broken and in ruins”?

When asked to comment on the matter, a municipal official from the Eastern Cape remarked that:

“We drove the whole of an area we were planning to develop and we showed them that, over there we are going to build low density housing and that ridge over there will be resorts and hotels and here a business centre will be established etc. They were so happy and this guy who was the chief himself, we took him to lunch afterwards and he was happy. But, subsequent to that meeting, he is still handing out land and it’s a big issue in that area”.

A consulting planner working closely with traditional leaders and municipalities in the Eastern Cape stated that the issue of trust was increasingly becoming an issue in the process of implementing SPLUMA, particularly in areas governed by traditional leaders. He had this to say:

“When we are dealing with traditional areas, we will approach the traditional leaders but you find that the councillor doesn’t talk to the traditional leader because they do not trust each other. I have an example where a meeting about SPLUMA was arranged by council and they did not invite the traditional leader, but I still briefed him afterwards because it was his area. So questions like who governs here, is it the chief or the municipality always comes up”.

In summary, data gathered during the interviews suggest that the lack of trust between these two institutions is informed by events which first occurred prior to democratic South Africa, and secondly, by events which have occurred in post-apartheid South Africa. During the colonial and apartheid era, wealth in the form of livestock and fertile land was taken away from black South Africans by way of racist laws and policies, coercion and deceit. In democratic South Africa, the establishment of local government system in areas governed by traditional leaders, despite traditional leaders being against the system, sowed the seeds of distrust between the two institutions. Furthermore, poor service delivery to rural communities by many rural municipalities, has served only to deepen the mistrust between traditional leaders and municipalities.

The combined impact of these events has left an indelible mark in the memory of many traditional leaders, to the extent that legislative enactments designed to address the legacy of apartheid are viewed with suspicion, especially if the said enactment does not clearly set out their powers and functions in relation to land management.


The rejection of the implementation of SPLUMA in areas governed by traditional leaders could have been avoided. Municipalities and traditional leaders exercise land use management authority and take land use management decisions within the same area. If the national government had meaningfully engaged traditional leaders about SPLUMA as required by the Constitution, perhaps the tension between traditional leaders and municipalities may have been avoided. Healthy relations between these two institutions are critical, because when these two institutions do not trust each other and work at cross purposes, service delivery suffers, and contestation reigns supreme. It is suggested that the achievement of orderly planning and steady development in rural areas governed by traditional leaders must begin with traditional leaders and municipalities engaging in a meaningful dialogue about SPLUMA. A frank and meaningful dialogue about what it is that SPLUMA seeks to achieve can open doors for mutual understanding, which is an indispensable ingredient in the process of developing trust. The provision of a meaningful opportunity to be heard is a sign of respect which municipalities and traditional leaders must strive to uphold and observe. Municipalities and traditional leaders should hold robust discussions about matters of common interest and agree to disagree. However, such disagreements must be speedily resolved to clear any misunderstandings which may potentially give rise to contestations. SPLUMA seeks to facilitate orderly planning, development and service delivery throughout the country, including in areas governed by traditional leaders, and it is now up to all the stakeholders involved to unpack what this means in the rural context.

By Dr Xavia Poswa, Postdoctoral Fellow, North West University

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