About the Author(s)

Noluthando S. Matsiliza Email symbol
Department of Public Administration, Faculty of Management and Economics, University of Fort Hare, Alice, South Africa


Matsiliza, N.S., 2024, ‘The strategic role of traditional leadership in promoting good governance’, Africa’s Public Service Delivery and Performance Review 12(1), a825. https://doi.org/10.4102/apsdpr.v12i1.825

Review Article

The strategic role of traditional leadership in promoting good governance

Noluthando S. Matsiliza

Received: 06 Dec. 2023; Accepted: 14 Feb. 2024; Published: 10 June 2024

Copyright: © 2024. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Background: It is hypothesised that the limited roles and rights of traditional leadership in constitutional democracy in the selected case studies, being limited to involvement in mainly rural development and land administration has negatively affected the capacity of traditional leadership to positively impact good governance.

Aim: This article assesses the strategic role of traditional leadership in promoting good governance using the case of Botswana and South Africa.

Methods: This article adopted a qualitative literature review approach to collect and analyse secondary data. Diverse sources used include credible scholarly journal articles, books and policy documents. A thematic, systematic data analysis approach was used to analyse data. The trajectory for the methodology focussed on data identification, inclusion criteria, data screening and analysis.

Results: Key findings revealed that the problematic issue with traditional leadership roles is that their original rights have been curtailed by constitutional democracy in serving communities, mainly rural development strategy and land administration. This study revealed that limited autonomy challenges traditional leaders to support and realise good governance efforts fully.

Conclusion: This article demonstrated that there are gaps in the traditional governance models of South Africa and Botswana, as revealed to be impeding their plight to foster good governance.

Contribution: Findings from this study contribute to the existing knowledge and can assist traditional leaders in improving their mandate and their core existence by tapping into strategies to foster good governance.

Keywords: Africa; Botswana; development; governance; indigenous knowledge systems; leadership; legislation; modern governance; traditional leadership; service delivery.


Tribal authorities are recognised as the custodians of culture and values respected by tribes and clans of lineage (Baldwin & Raffer 2019). As observed by Masindo (2021), the traditional and indigenous systems were political and administrative institutions that governed their rural communities before the apartheid government and colonial rule came about. The contribution of traditional African leadership is known to be more focussed on serving communities in local affairs with clear structures participating in Imbizos, recognition of human needs and rights, service delivery, and development efforts (Mangori 2017). There is still recognition of different indigenous people throughout the world. Examples of indigenous people are the Inuit of Canada, the Native Indians of America, the Aborigine of Australia, the Maori of New Zealand, the Basarwa of Botswana, and the Oromo of Ethiopia. South Africa recognises some of its diverse indigenous tribal systems that existed in the pre-colonial and neo-colonial eras. Their culture and language are supported by the Constitution (1996) and other legal prescripts. Ruhanen and Whitford (2021) support the idea that different indigenous peoples have their own cultural identities, that is, language, stories, and systems of knowledge.

By responding to the aim, this article explores the conceptual framework for traditional leadership and governance. A glimpse of the legal mandates of traditional leaders in South Africa and Botswana is reviewed, and lastly, this article provides a review of traditional leaders’ support for good governance, conclusion, and recommendations. Practical exemplary cases of evidence will be explored and supported by a systematic literature review to prove or disprove this hypothesis through a descriptive and evaluative analysis of the cases in Botswana and South Africa of the role of traditional leadership in positively impacting good governance. The discourse of good governance is adopted from the Moh Ibrahim Foundation measures on African governance and leadership to enhance this analysis and support the research findings.

Background to the problem

The existing literature on traditional indigenous leadership focusses on leadership challenges and successes (Avittey 2010; Mangori 2017). Traditional leaders’ roles and that of modern governance are sometimes misrepresented in African society (Koenane 2018). According to De Kadt and Larreguy (2018), traditional leaders’ autonomic powers are limited in practice because of existing Constitutional laws and policies bestowed on them to serve their local people in their communities. Hence, there are gaps in what the community wants versus what the traditional leaders can offer their constituencies (Grieco 2020). Traditional leadership has maintained its legitimacy through participatory democracy with less support from the government. The constituency is still devoted and loyal to Chiefs and Royal Elders more than local officials in villages (Mbigi 2009).

Through deep understanding and application, public managers in Botswana can be aligned with limited strategic leadership, and autonomy in cases where traditional leaders collaborate with government officials to serve the people (Mangori 2017). In South Africa, the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) recognised customary law, but yet tribal leaders have limited powers. When disputes arise in traditional communities, tribal leaders and courts in South Africa are guided by statutes on how to interpret those laws. Any further disputes on the interpretation of the law are normally referred to by the Constitutional Court as the final arbiter of the land. In addition, Chiefs are incapacitated by a plethora of statutes that are imposed by parliament in exercising their roles in land rights (De Kadt & Larreguy 2018). As a result, there is a need for traditional leaders to negotiate with government officials in land affairs (Hull, Babalola & Whittal 2019). A case in point is the construction of rural sites for human settlement to community members. Tribal authority is less involved in housing re-zoning, while government agencies such as the South African Department of Housing and Land Affairs and Rural Development are directly guided by law to be accountable for the issuing of permits for the rezoning of land and title deeds. The issuing of title deeds and permits to occupy lands are issued by municipalities to make sure that the owners enjoy their rights and have ownership. Local municipalities and chiefs should work together to protect government interests and that of citizens during the rezoning of human settlements. The next section advances the conceptualisation of traditional leadership and governance.

Conceptualising traditional leadership and governance

Traditional leadership involves organising tribal and cultural affairs of the community as a way of managing resources. Traditional leaders are leaders by birth, and they are social leaders and systems rather than actual elected government leaders with oversight over public institutions (LiPuma & Koelble 2009). It involves a typology of authentic leadership with traits dating back from their inherited practices of chieftaincy, with clan elders and headmen being part of the governance structure (Som & Asenso 2020). Scholars in Africa alluded to the various contextual significance of traditional governance systems as having original rights to preside over indigenous cultural identities, land administration, basic needs, and community development (Mangori 2017; Mawuko-Yevugah & Attipoe 2021; Som & Asenso 2020). Notable, traditional leaders are known to be indigenous leaders who hold positions as types of governance that have historic traits of inheritance from royal families and are holding positions as Kings, Queens and chiefs all-encompassing authority spreading overall and varied from politically deployed and judicial leaders of modern government (Som & Asenso 2020).

As argued by Porter (2017), tribal authority has been robbed of transcending their indigenous culture and languages to their generations. Traditional and indigenous leaders need to restore conflicts in the indigenous practices that are mixed with traditional practices concerning languages and cultural practices. In some cases, traditional leaders and government officials conduct planning together in some aspects of customary laws and land administration (Mangori 2017). Therefore, the nexus of traditional governance with modern governance is a good move, significantly curbing conflict between the local municipality and traditional leaders (Dziva 2020).

There is no uniform meaning of governance even though diverse scholars alluded to various meanings and contexts of governance. Governance is multifaceted and encompasses all aspects of the execution of authority using formal and informal institutions that manage resources and activities regulated by the government (Ali 2015; Bache, Bartle & Flinders 2016). Besides the government and tribal authorities, other stakeholders in governance include non-state parties or institutions and the private sector. Governance capacity and the impact of state power on other actors and society determines the quality of life provided for the citizens. Governance of natural resources gained momentum, hence there is growing concern about the participation and compliance of stakeholders towards the regulation of natural resources (Niedlich et al. 2020). A case in point is the concerns of the development community on sustainable development. Especially on issues such as climate change and degradation of natural resources especially institutions such as the United Nations and the World, and regional blocks such as the African Union and the South African Development Community.

The other context of governance points to traditional governance, which refers to the controlled traditional authorities and traditional courts, especially recognition and application of customary law, to regulate the institution of traditional leadership interaction. Diverse development paths experienced by African states impacted on their social lives. According to Woldeyes and Belachew (2021), colonial powers were so strong that traditional leaders would consider colonial influence over traditional customs and cultural practices such as language. Some African countries are using less of their indigenous languages in educating their nations (Oloruntoba-Oju & Van Pinxteren 2023). Some African countries such as South Africa are using more foreign languages, for example British English, which is used as a medium of instruction in schools and fewer indigenous languages that most South Africans can use as their mother languages. Communities recognise traditional councils and their elders’ experiences because of their unique indigenous wisdom and powers applied universally across different social, cultural, economic, and natural environments. Given the diversity in the world’s indigenous peoples, it should be possible to find commonalities across such diversity.

Buchanan (2013) observed that scholars seldom draw lessons from indigenous governance and leadership practices to be part of their academic literature of teaching. According to Buchanan (2013), some lessons have overemphasised Western leadership approaches to being gurus in development. However, this biased worldview excluded indigenous and traditional diverse cultural perspectives (Buchanan 2013). Calliou (2012) noticed positive inputs of development theories to society and agreed that indigenous people-imposed theories such as assimilationist attained economic development that suited colonists. It is a fact that African leaders are not perfect because their historical trajectory of change is a double-edged sword in the sense that it is a source of good and bad influence on communities. It is important to balance the distribution of powers between traditional leaders and modern governance.

African traditional leaders have been severely influenced by modern government systems on how they should position themselves in political and socio-economic developmental issues within the globalised world economy. This influence affected the way traditional governance operates in the eyes of those who regard it as inferior to modern governance in providing services for communities. Leaders’ lack of responsibility and accountability is exposed when the constituents protest and press the government for change. The impact of such change can be felt at systematic and organisational levels where leaders are in charge. The impact of change can squeeze organisational viability and natural environments, not to mention the communities themselves (Hajkowicz, Cook & Little Boy 2012).

Traditional leadership and participatory democracy

This study is informed by participatory democracy, which is supported by the Bill of Rights entrenched by the South African Constitution. Participatory democracy is rooted in South Africa’s liberation struggle against the minority rulers’ apartheid policies where most people were excluded. Participatory democracy is suitable for traditional governance, to influence the kings and the queens to listen to the needs of most people when they plan and organise their work (Magaloni, Díaz-Cayeros & Ruiz Euler 2019) unlike the autocracy that was used by some of the ancient traditional leaders who had limited competency in governance. Pluralism will still listen to many voices, but the difference is that these voices will be influenced by a single opinion (Schönwälder 2018).

Worldwide and locally, democracy has been suppressed by coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) because of the restrictions on people’s movements. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some leaders were not able to attend public meetings and visit their constituencies. However, through online communication and the use of cell phones and social media, multiple voices raised the need to restrict the movement of people to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Among other stakeholders, traditional leaders have been at the forefront of asking their constituencies to comply with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions and support government roll-out on service delivery and grants to the people. Participation is crucial for democracies to survive anywhere even though there is the digital divide. Participatory democracy is concerned with affording and ensuring that all citizens participate in policy issues and other issues that are affecting their lives without being limited by disasters (Dacombe & Pavin 2021). Through the Bill of Rights, the South African Constitution (1996) also sets boundaries for citizens to avoid stepping over and infringing other people’s rights. According to Chambers and Nelson (2017), the benefits of participatory democracy can maximise both government and supporters or citizens.

Ethical considerations

This article followed all ethical standards for research without direct contact with human or animal subjects.


This study employed a qualitative case study methodology to collect and analyse data. Data were drawn from secondary sources and an interpretive approach was used to analyse data. Bryman, Bell and Hirschsohn (2021) assert that qualitative researchers prefer induction informed by construction and interpretivism.

Data identification and collection

The researcher used various search engines, for data collection, such as Google Scholar, Ebscohost, Academia and other online open-access journals such as Elsevier. The researcher scanned and filtered the relevant sources from these search engines and remained with more than 50 outputs such as books, articles, and policy documents. The data collection focussed on traditional leadership, good governance, indigenous governance, and public affairs leadership roles. This study is aligned with the qualitative approach that resonates with the worldview of understanding social phenomena that are being studied using an insider’s perspective and real-life situations. The research methodology adopted fits well with what Maree (2021) observes as relevant for analysing a case using a small sample. The author is a participant observer who has been exposed to the indigenous systems of governance.

Inclusion criteria

Botswana and South African government policy documents vis-a-vis customary law, including the House of Chiefs, were used as authoritative data sources as they tended to have credibility. This study adopted the Mohr Ibrahim Index for measuring good governance. The concept of governance is broad and includes all facets of the exercise of power through formal and informal organisations in resource management and wealth of a state. Consequently, the level of governance can depend on the power exerted by parties involved in government and non-governmental structures. This study recognises governance structures that reflect the involvement of traditional leaders, indigenous structures, communities, and government entities as responsible for attaining good governance when power is exerted on residents and communities (Mohr Ibrahim Report 2021; Picciotto 1995).

Data screening and analysis

An interpretive paradigm of interpretation was used to analyse and interpret data on traditional leadership. Formal citizens’ voices and expressions observed from credible and peer-reviewed publications on government, government orientation, participatory development, and economic and social service provision are the main observable characteristics of the governance dimension considered in this article. Sources that were found to be related to the aim of the strategic role of traditional leaders were 68 sources. This study can also confirm that the sources used were drawn from reliable and credible sources. As a result, the researcher created a governance index with four composite indices that have been selected to show how well a government can improve: (1) participation, rights and inclusion, (2) security and rule of law, (3) foundations of economic opportunity, and (4) human development and delivery of efficient and effective public services.

The strategic role of traditional leadership in governance

This section provides a systematic review of the literature. Table 1 provides a glimpse of studies on traditional leadership roles with diverse themes and focusses similar to the aim of this study.

TABLE 1: A summary of included studies in traditional leadership in fostering good governance.

Considering Table 1, there is reality and relevance in evaluating the strategic role of traditional leaders, especially in their support of governance pillars. This study critically assesses the strategic role of traditional leaders in fostering good governance, using the Governance Matrix adopted by the Mohr Ibrahim Index of Governance in Africa. The literature reviewed revealed themes that are discussed as the following: both within their communities and in broader national governance structures. Scholars in mentioned in Table 1 maintain that although traditional leaders are striving to maintain good governance by practising public participation, land administration, and supporting service delivery, they don’t have autonomy because of the constitutional mandate.

The legal mandate in constitutional development of traditional leadership in South Africa

During the apartheid era, there was no legislative focus on traditional leaders, hence government centralised powers of traditional leaders to the national government that reinforced their authority to shape and identify customary law, especially on human rights in Ciskei and Transkei homelands (Khunou 2009). Thus, some changes in the traditional affairs brought indirect ruling, which was introduced by the British ruling and apartheid government, and later infused into the roles of traditional government. Later, the traditional leaders were trapped to be agents of the colonial government and were not faithful and honest to their followers because they were now ordered by the colonial government on how to administer and lead their communities (Beall & Ngonyama 2009).

In post-apartheid South Africa, a new constitutional dispensation ushered in a new direction to uphold the tenets of democracy, equality, fundamental rights, and the promotion of government of national unity and reconstruction. The role of traditional leaders surfaced significantly in the 1993 Constitution (s 181–183, Principle XIII, Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 200 of 1993; cf. also Traditional Authorities Research Group [TARG] 1999). Later, a fraction of some of the roles emerged in the 1996 Constitution (s 211 and 212 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa 108 of 1996). The South African Constitution (1996), recognises the status and role of indigenous and traditional leaders in section 212 of the Constitution (1996), which provides the following roles:

  • The institution, status and role of traditional leadership, according to customary law, are recognised, subject to the Constitution.
  • A traditional authority that observes a system of customary law may function subject to any applicable legislation and customs, which includes amendments to, or repeal of, that legislation or those customs.
  • The courts must apply customary law when that law is applicable, subject to the Constitution and any legislation that deals explicitly with customary law.

The new democracy revitalised the role of traditional authorities and their communities, focussing on the newly formed national unity to enhance human basic needs, which was constitutionally mandated by parliament. The White Paper on Local Government (RSA 1998) proceeded with clear roles on traditional affairs, encompassing issues dealing with the structure and role of traditional leadership and institutions, the principles relating to remuneration, a national audit of traditional leaders, the role of women, the role of traditional leaders in politics, the future role of the Houses and the Council of Traditional Leaders and the rationalisation of current legislation dealing with traditional leaders and institutions. Ubink and Duda (2021) observe the historical background of the traditional leaders as having existed before colonial rule. They argue that traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape governed according to their traditional rights and royal ways in the Eastern Cape, where the headsman and the ‘Amabhunga’ were responsible for the administration and the allocation of communal land tenure. In some instances, the involvement of the colonial administrators led to the fading of cultural practices (Ubang & Duda 2021). However, Eberbach et al. (2017) contend that the constitutions still must give more power to traditional leadership institutions, since they are restricted to customary law and land rights.

Strategic role of traditional leaders in promoting good governance

In this section, various mechanisms for promoting good governance are discussed based on the systematic literature review.

Participation, rights and inclusion

There has been increasing participation of traditional leaders in community matters and local government matters in South Africa and Botswana. It is believed that Africans can unchain themselves from the colonial legacy by harnessing their leadership capacity and using strategies to respond to global environmental factors that threaten their existence and the quality of life of their constituencies. In the current dispensation, the visibility and involvement of traditional leaders are accepted by communities in service delivery (Nzimakwe 2014). In South Africa, there is more recognition of traditional leaders by communities in their endeavour to restore human values and dignity in communities (Kumalo 2017).

During the COVID-19 epidemic, traditional leaders worked with local municipalities to tackle the scourge of the spreading of the virus (Hlati & Maziwisa (2020). They pursued community members to comply with the instructions from the president on the suspension of gatherings, funerals, and other historical traditional practices such as circumcisions during the lockdown (Jaja, Anyanwu & Iwu Jaja 2020). The traditional leaders, worked with municipalities in areas such as the King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality to distribute sanitisers to the communities. In North West province, the Municipal Structure Support Agency (MISA) also handed over sanitisers and soaps to the Ministerial Executive Council (MEC) for Cooperative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs. However, from the same point of view of traditional leaders participating in controlling the COVID-19 epidemic, Southern African states experienced gaps in the health systems and food security. The COVID-19 epidemic has hit the continent as hard as other regions of the world. The problem of COVID-19 posed risks and fallout in human security, human rights, and participatory factors. Traditional leaders were also part of the monitoring team to monitor the civic space to protect human rights and assure the safety of people in the communities (eds. Dreyer et al. 2017).

It is a fact that traditional leaders in both South Africa and Botswana experience tensions with the local government because they are sharing power in the same space of local communities. According to Katisi and Daniel (2015), there are inconsistent clashes between traditional leaders and local officials in cultural practices such as traditional initiation and circumcision planning, implementation, and procedures campaigns in South Africa. On the other hand, Meel (2016) agrees that while chiefs participate in community activities, there are procedural clashes with the law, like in the case of South African cultural activities that include human health status, which is clouded by the clashes of procedural mandates between local government and local health practitioners. Meel (2016) contests the nexus of politics and culture that creates clashes and focusses less on the restoration of peace and safety. However, there is a good intention for traditional leaders to participate in community activities and restore the culture and safety of their communities. The South African government has created interface platforms to balance customs and health, especially in traditional healing and prevention of diseases (Sharma et al. 2023).

Security and rule of law

The South African law, in line with the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act, of 2003, states clearly that the State seeks ‘to transform the institution of traditional leadership in line with the constitutional imperatives’, and specifically provides that ‘the State must respect, protect, and promote the institution of traditional leadership in line with the dictates of the Constitution in South Africa’.

Based on the provision of the Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act (2003), there is a constitutional mandate to support and transform traditional leadership in South Africa. Therefore, there must be balance between the practice of traditional leaders and the rule of law through a process of judicial immunity for the traditional leaders to provide sustainable governance by maintaining a proactive and reciprocal relationship with community members (Mdhluli 2021). There must be judicial immunity that will protect the rights of both traditional leaders and the communities they serve, as it is expected to stimulate the effectiveness of Traditional Courts and the Magistrate Court concurrently. A case in point is the conviction and sentencing of the traditional leader in the case of Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others [2017] 2 All SA 463 (WCC). The traditional leader was found guilty of exercising his civil and criminal authority, violating section 211(1) of the constitution, by violating the principle of judicial immunity extended to traditional leaders when they exercise their judicial power; declaring that the decision of the National Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute. Therefore, the rule of law was applied when the leader took the law into his hands. The legal intervention indicates clearly that the South African Constitution provides directives on how to balance the government support of traditional leaders with the community interests in the right to human dignity.

The good reputation of Botswana over the respect of the Botswana culture and respect of traditional leaders is seriously threatened by ignorance of human rights issues. A matter of concern pertains to the intricate and protracted rapport between the San, an ethnic minority, and the governing class, the majority of whom are Tswanas. Furthermore, the removal of the San bushmen from their homeland in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) by the Government of Botswana (GOB), ostensibly to advance the exploration of possible diamond mines, is the best example of the limitations of democracy in Botswana (Cook & Sarkin 2010). The CKGR case, the lengthiest and most costly legal dispute in the nation’s history, resulted from the land rights dispute between the San and the GOB. The GOB’s general disregard for many fundamental human rights principles, particularly about indigenous people and other oppressed groups, is reflected in the CKGR case.

Traditional leaders are custodians of principles of good governance such as values, responsiveness, and accountability. Henn (2023) asserts that the interests and responsibilities of traditional leaders in sub-Sahara Africa are undermined when the power is centralised to the national government. Traditional leaders explore various strategies to strengthen their decision-making, by endorsing public participation in the best interest of their communities especially in forums such as Inkundla (public meetings and/or hearings). They can enhance their decision-making capacity when they possess enough relevant information at their disposal before ruling in local matters.

In addition, traditional leaders are expected to promote and support human rights and use the ubuntu approach to listen to community members and to be transparent about public issues. The ubuntu approach is an old African value that promotes unity and collectivism, which is still relevant today. Winkler (2021) notes the accountability of traditional leaders to respond to the issues of customary law and rural land tenure through collectivism. These perceptions underpin the different approaches of the legislature and the Constitutional Court in applying rulings on customary law. In the case where a traditional leader has transgressed the law while practising customary law, the elders and community members have a right to seek a rule of law. They can advise the leader to accept the punishment that is suitable for them without infringing on their dignity. Furthermore, customary law is applicable where it is consistent with the constitution (Baldwin 2016). However, in Botswana and South Africa, it becomes a shame to the chieftaincy and the community when a traditional leader is ruled against their act and confined by the court to serve a sentence. That is why the Kgotla and Inkundla become the first places of hearing to resolve problems before they escalate to seriousness and end up in a court of law.

Because of several occurrences of autocratic traditional leaders and abuse of power, the modernist approach calls for a transformed institution of traditional leaders to meet specific values such as non-sexist and non-racial democracy in matters of customary law and governance. Some of the institutions of traditional leaders have been practising rural patriarchy (Chauke 2015). The transformed traditional institutions working with the House of Traditional Leaders and the National Council of Provinces are challenged by the red tape and legal rules and protocols to be followed. They are required to comply with this prescript and support their communities to be part of development efforts. In some accounts, traditional leaders have been accused of abusing human rights while shadowing the abuse of patriarchs and tribalism (Chauke 2015). Chauke (2015) calls for the restoration of justice and transformation in traditional leadership councils that must focus on removing the patriarchal tendencies that block female traditional leaders from practising their royal responsibilities. The recognition of the Kings and Queens in South Africa is progress in fighting patriarchy. The Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Bill (2003) supports the recognised royal family members who arise to be Kings and Queens with due regard to applying customary law – (i) identify a person who qualifies in terms of customary law to assume the position of a king or a queen, as the case may be, after taking into account whether any of the grounds referred to in section 10(1)(a), (b) and (d) apply to that person. There is a need for more representative structures that are inclusive of all genders to be appropriate for governance in communities.

According to Mothlaping (2007), Botswana ignores human rights, which is an issue that most evaluate. Although Botswana is commended for its accomplishments like the country’s remarkable economic growth, political stability and regular elections frequently take precedence over them. Still, ethnic division has led to the San’s vulnerable position in Batswana society today.

Improving foundations of economic opportunity and human development

Scholars are calling on African leaders to oversee their destiny in improving governance and taking charge of their wealth (Ramontsha 2019). Very few traditional leaders managed to control their wealth sustainably like the Royal Bafokeng and plough it back to develop communities. Africans can take control of their development when they harness their social experiences and innovations. According to Mbigi (2009), global factors influenced African leaders in advancing economic development efforts to serve the people. As a result, some projects lack sustainability. According to Zhang and Gong (2021), chiefs are major drivers of development and are trusted by their constituencies. Chang (2021) demonstrated a reciprocal relationship between traditional leaders and village people, and observed a ‘paradox in the perception of the followers.’ While some people show an elevated level of satisfaction, others are dissatisfied with their autocratic rule.

Some traditional leaders can also improve their resources by partnering with local municipalities and other non-governmental entities. In the case of Royal Bafokeng, the chief and elders relate with the local municipality in the Rustenburg areas, by forming cooperation with a municipality to support service delivery (Selemela & Du Plessis 2016). They have built schools and health clinics to offer support to community members. They have formalised their relationship with Moses Kotane local municipality by signing their memorandum of understanding (MOU) as well as with the Bojana Platinum District Municipality (Royal Bafokeng 2021). There are joint public meetings between the Chieftaincy, local officials, and other non-governmental institutions to create democratic spaces and public participation to discuss matters of common interests.

According to Munyai (2016), most studies on recent history provide evidence that traditional and cultural leaders have contributed to purporting social maladies that are confusing their roles in many African states. Likewise, Hillblom (2015) asserts that colonial masters invited chiefs into their administrative apparatus and deployed them into local colonial administrators and communities (like homelands in South Africa) to plant propagandist control of people’s mobility from rural to urban settlements. This history can be reversed by allowing traditional chiefs and headsmen to share their experiences with communities and establish a long-lasting solution to poverty, inequality, and racism eradication.

Community developments reside within the broader development context that upholds the inevitability of development being fostered by engaging various stakeholders including rural governance and traditional leaders. Community development aims to address community needs by empowering people and providing them with the opportunity to advance their lives quality (Simelane & Sihlongonyane 2021). However, there is an assertion that the economic underdevelopment among indigenous peoples is because of their choice of a slow pace of development.

Modernisation brought neo-liberal values that promoted capitalism and eventually clashed with indigenous people regarding land use management and ownership (Al-Haija & Mahamid 2021). While modernisation theories are associated with liberalism and capitalism, South African democratic values allow tribal authorities to participate in decision-making and service delivery, relating to community development in areas of housing, water, and land affairs. Through their elders, they all practice ‘ubuntu philosophy’ by acknowledging collectivism and society’s beliefs in the spirit of sharing ideas collectively. With a strong belief in collectivism, African societies strongly believe in collectivism with a spiritual connection to their land and resources, and natural resources rather than exclusive ownership of it (Calliou 2012). Traditional leaders were deliberately disadvantaged from participating adequately and meaningfully in the economies of their societies (Mangori 2017). It is further argued that this was done openly by using social structures that marginalised the indigenous populations deliberately.

According to Mathonsi and Sithole (2017), the roles of the local government clash with those of traditional leaders in the sense that the municipalities are now responsible for providing services to communities that are under the custodianship of traditional leaders across the country. This is a huge challenge to traditional leadership in promoting good governance while they are sharing power with municipalities, and do not have resources. In addition, the African philosophy of ubuntu is adopted by traditional leaders in Africa as an added tool to promote unity and advance humanity. According to Nzimakwe (2014), ubuntu is an old African value that has been practised by African leaders by treating people with respect, without compromising values such as brotherhood and protection of human beings as a unity.

Mangori (2017) agrees that the Botswana government considers the African way of protecting communities by supporting development projects within their area of jurisdiction in partnerships and understanding with local government. Chieftaincy could do more than just administer land and culture; they must support human development projects in areas that affect community health and livelihood. Traditional leaders can also convince communities to change their paradigm of thinking toward prioritisation of health. Drummond and Nel (2021) assert that some chiefs were active in development while others appeared not to be supportive of development efforts because of a lack of skills and knowledge to engage in development efforts. Dipholo and Mothusi (2015) agree that traditional leaders in Bostwana support development efforts, while they also do that to masquerade their political interests, by playing a winning card when they form ties with the government during national elections. In the absence of local government authority that has separate responsibilities, neither local government nor traditional leaders have full autonomy in decision-making that affects communities, according to Diplolo and Mathonsi (2015). Botswana’s government supports traditional leaders for political convenience, which makes up for why the Chieftainship Act provides absolute power to the Minister and less power to indigenous leaders (Dipholo & Mothusi 2015). Good (2017) agrees that Botswana’s governance has a hidden enormity that constitutes its essence as a highly elitist authoritarian democracy. Hamusunse (2015) posits that limited autonomy and lack of statutory powers of local government is a challenge to traditional leadership institutions in Botswana, especially in decision-making relating to areas such as the apportionment of land and mining rights. These challenges raise mixed feelings when it comes to their roles in promoting good governance. There would be less progress when too much power is confined to traditional leaders to promote development. Public participation strategies must be fully realised to provide a platform for informed consent of proposals and plans for resource allocation and participatory budgeting in South Africa and Botswana, and for drafting Bills and policies.


Traditional leaders need to adopt a multifaceted approach that complies with laws and policies relevant to them and creates a balance in the application of their roles to progress with governance in their areas of jurisdiction. The adoption and practice of these changes depend on the commitment of the government to including traditional leaders in various issues that have constitutional mandates to make policies.

Government must listen to the demands of their constituencies and reverse risks that retard their progress now 10to future opportunities. Instead of allowing their Imbizos to rule against the local crimes of their constituencies, they need to collaborate with the local community police forum and other associations interested in combating crime and let the law run its course. They can also convert the ‘Inkundla’ into democratic public spaces and allow people to debate and engage freely on social issues affecting their communities.

This article also recommends that local government officials nurture collaboration and partnerships with traditional leaders through stewardship and servants’ leadership and address gaps in fostering good governance. Technical forums conducted by the House of Traditional Leadership, local government and the Department of Land Affairs and Rural Development must be encouraged to tackle the challenges of traditional roles and focus on improving the governance of all the stakeholders involved.

Lastly, there is a need for traditional leadership to be empowered with skills through informed capacity building and the government must ensure that they participate fully in decision-making regarding issues affecting the lives of their people in Botswana and South Africa.


This article explored evidence to support the hypothetical question of why the strategic roles of traditional leaders are limited in promoting good governance. The study revealed some strategic roles with their valued and limited roles towards good governance. It can be observed that traditional leadership cannot be stretched towards total achievement of good governance, as demonstrated by the cases in Botswana and South Africa. This article attests to instances where traditional leaders are striving towards good governance, while they are challenged by diverse socio-economic and political environmental factors. Using both the case of South Africa and Botswana, the Mohr Ibrahim tool to measure good governance was used and settled with factors associated with good governance such as public participation rights and inclusivity, security and rule of law, economic opportunities, and human development. This article settles that the problematic issue with traditional leadership roles is that their original rights have been curtailed by constitutional democracy in serving communities, mainly rural development strategy and land administration. It is revealed that there are gaps in the traditional governance models of South Africa and Botswana, and they are impeding their plight to foster good governance. Those few traditional leaders who are participating in cliental political relations seize conflict with the interests of their communities, hence some of them end up facing judgements and punishments through the rule of law. This article settles on the fact that the limited involvement of traditional leaders mainly in rural development and land administration has negatively affected the capacity of traditional leadership to positively impact good governance.


Competing interests

The author declares that no financial or personal relationships inappropriately influenced the writing of this article.

Author’s contributions

N.S.M. is the sole author of this research article.

Funding information

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author, N.S.M., upon reasonable request.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and is the product of professional research. It does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any affiliated institution, funder, agency, or that of the publisher. The author is responsible for this article’s results, findings, and content.


Al-Haija, Y.A. & Mahamid, H., 2021, ‘Trends in higher education under neoliberalism: Between traditional education and the culture of globalization’, Educational Research and Reviews 16(2), 16–26. https://doi.org/10.5897/ERR2020.4101

Ali, M., 2015, ‘Governance and good governance: A conceptual perspective’, Dialogue (Pakistan) 10(1), 65–76.

Avittey, G.B., 2010, Africa in chaos, St Martin, New York, NY.

Bache, I., Bartle, I. & Flinders, M., 2016, ‘Multi-level governance’, in C. Ansell (ed.), Handbook on theories of governance, pp. 486–498, Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton.

Baldwin, K., 2016, The paradox of traditional chiefs in democratic Africa, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Baldwin, K. & Raffer, P., 2019, ‘Traditional leaders, service delivery, and electoral accountability’, in J.A. Rodden & E. Wibbels (eds.), Decentralised governance and accountability, Cambridge University Press, CA.

Basheka, B.C., 2015, ‘Indigenous Africa’s governance architecture: A need for African public administration theory?’, Journal of Public Administration 50(3), 466–484.

Beall, J. & Ngonyama, M., 2009, ‘Indigenous institutions, traditional leaders and elite coalitions for development: The case of Greater Durban, South Africa’, Crisis States Working Paper, Crisis States Research Centre, viewed 01 October 2021, from https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/28487/1/WP55.2.pdf.

Börzel, T.A. & Risse, T., 2021, Effective governance under anarchy: Institutions, legitimacy, and social trust in areas of limited statehood, Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

Bryman, A., Bell, E. & Hirschsohn, P., 2021, Research methodology: Business management contexts, Oxford University Press Southern Africa, Cape Town.

Buchanan, D.H., 2013, Development of capitalistic enterprise in India, Routledge, London.

Calliou, B., 2012, Wise practices in indigenous community economic development, viewed 15 April 2017, from www.reseaudialog.ca.

Chambers, S. & Nelson, W.E., 2017, ‘Black mayoral leadership in New Orleans: Minority incorporation revisited’, in M. Michell (ed.), Black women in politics, pp. 117–134, Routledge, New York, NY.

Chauke, M.T., 2015, ‘The role of women in traditional leadership with special reference to the Valori tribe’, Stud Tribes Tribals 13(1), 34–39. https://doi.org/10.1080/0972639X.2015.11886709

Cook, A. & Sarkin, J., 2010, ‘Is Botswana the miracle of Africa-democracy, the rule of law, and human rights versus economic development’, Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 19, 453.

Dacombe, R. & Pravin, P., 2021, ‘Participatory democracy in an age of inequality’, Journal of Representative Democracy 57(2), 145–157. https://doi.org/10.1080/00344893.2021.1933151

De Kadt, D. & Larreguy, H.A., 2018, ‘Agents of the regime? Traditional leaders and electoral politics in South Africa’, The Journal of Politics 80(2), 382–399. https://doi.org/10.1086/694540

Dipholo, K. & Mothusi, B., 2015, ‘Decentralisation in Botswana: The reluctant approach’, Journal of Social Development in Africa 20(1), 40–58. https://doi.org/10.4314/jsda.v20i1.23893

Dreyer, J., Dreyer, Y., Foley, E. & Nel, M. (eds.), 2017, Practicing ubuntu: Practical theological perspectives on injustice, personhood and human dignity, vol. 20, LIT Verlag Münster, Zurich.

Drummond, J. & Nel, V., 2021, ‘Mahikeng: Where traditional leadership and development frameworks collide’, in C. Rogerson & G. Visser (eds.), South African urban change three decades after apartheid: Homes still apart? pp. 197–214, Springer International Publishing, Cham.

Düsing, S., 2002, Traditional leadership and democratisation in Southern Africa: A comparative study of Botswana, Namibia, and Southern Africa, vol. 6, LIT Verlag Münster, Hamburg.

Dziva, C., 2020, ‘The potential and challenges for traditional leadership in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in rural communities of Zimbabwe’, African Journal of Governance and Development 9(2), 510–523. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3599770

Eberbach, K., Kubera, A., Okoth, N.L. & Watanabe, A., 2017, ‘Contemporary traditional leaders a study on land and governance in South Africa’, in M. Sauquet & S.A. Bellina (eds.), Meeting process for debate and proposals on governance in Africa: The Southern African perspectives, Colloquium Proceedings Polokwane, Pretoria, 17–20 June 2008, 20 June 2008, p. 185.

Enwereji, P.C. & Uwizeyimana, D., 2020, ‘Engaging traditional leaders in municipal governance: The case of South African municipalities’, Indilinga African Journal of Indigenous Knowledge Systems 19(1), 126–140.

Frideres, J., 1988, ‘The political economy of natives in Canada’, in J. Frideres (ed.), Native peoples in Canada: Contemporary conflicts, 3rd edn., p. 366, Prentice-Hall, Scarborough.

Good, K., 2017, ‘Democracy and development in Botswana’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies 35(1), 113–128. https://doi.org/10.1080/02589001.2016.1249447

Grieco, K., 2020, Beyond the state: The role of traditional leaders in COVID-19, Oxford Policy Management, Maintains, TN.

Hajkowicz, S.A., Cook, H. & Littleboy, A., 2012, Our future world: Global megatrends that will change the way we live. The 2012 Revision, pp. 1–28, CSIRO, Canberra.

Hamusunse, P., 2015, ‘The role of traditional leadership in supporting municipal service delivery: A case study of Polokwane municipality in Limpopo Province’, Doctoral dissertation, University of Limpopo.

Henn, S.J., 2023, ‘Complements or substitutes? How institutional arrangements bind traditional authorities and the state in Africa’, American Political Science Review 117(3), 871–890. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003055422001137

Hlati, P. & Maziwisa, M.R., 2020, ‘The role of traditional leaders in combating COVID-19 in rural areas’, Local Government Bulletin 15(3), 1–9.

Holzinger, K., Kern, F.G. & Kromrey, D., 2016, ‘The dualism of contemporary traditional governance and the state: Institutional setups and political consequences’, Political Research Quarterly 69(3), 469–481. https://doi.org/10.1177/1065912916648013

Hull, S., Babalola, K. & Whittal, J., 2019, ‘Theories of land reform and their impact on land reform success in Southern Africa’, Land 8(11), 172. https://doi.org/10.3390/land8110172

Jaja, I.F., Anyanwu, M.U. & Iwu Jaja, C.J., 2020, ‘Social distancing: How religion, culture and burial ceremony undermine the effort to curb COVID-19 in South Africa’, Emerging Microbes & Infections 9(1), 1077–1079. https://doi.org/10.1080/22221751.2020.1769501

Katisi, M. & Daniel, M., 2015, ‘Safe male circumcision in Botswana: Tension between traditional practices and biomedical marketing’, Global Public Health 10(5–6), 739–756. https://doi.org/10.1080/17441692.2015.1028424

Khunou, S.K., 2009, ‘Traditional leadership and independent Bantustans of South Africa: Some milestones of transformative constitutionalism beyond apartheid’, Potchefstroom Electronic Law Journal/Potchefstroomse Elektroniese Regsblad 12(4), 81–122. https://doi.org/10.4314/pelj.v12i4.50050

Koenane, M.L.J., 2018, ‘The role and significance of traditional leadership in the governance of modern democratic South Africa’, Africa Review 10(1), 58–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/09744053.2017.1399563

Kumalo, R.S., 2017, ‘The changing landscape of South Africa and implications for practicing Ubuntu’, in J. Dreyer, F. Foley & M. Nel (eds.), Practicing Ubuntu: Practical theological perspectives on injustice, personhood and human dignity, pp. 20–22, Global Book Marketing.

LiPuma, E. & Koelble, T.A., 2009, ‘Deliberative democracy and the politics of traditional leadership in South Africa: A case of despotic domination or democratic deliberation?’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies 27(2), 201–223. https://doi.org/10.1080/02589000902867287

Magaloni, B., Díaz-Cayeros, A. & Ruiz Euler, A., 2019, ‘Public good provision and traditional governance in indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico’, Comparative Political Studies 52(12), 1841–1880. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414019857094

Mangori, M., 2017, ‘African leadership systems or leadership in Africa’, Unpublished thesis, Woburn Business School, Johannesburg.

Maree, K., 2021, First steps in research, Van Schaik Publishers, Pretoria.

Mathonsi, N.S. & Sithole, S.L., 2021, ‘South African politics at the crossroad: Issues of welfare, governance and service delivery’, Journal of Public Administration 56(2), 198–212.

Mawuko-Yevugah, L. & Attipoe, H.A., 2021, ‘Chieftaincy and traditional authority in modern democratic Ghana’, South African Journal of Philosophy 40(3), 319–335. https://doi.org/10.1080/02580136.2021.1964206

Mbigi, L., 2009, In search of the African business renaissance: An African cultural perspective, knowledge resources, Knowledge, Randburg.

Mboh, L., 2021, ‘An investigation into the role of traditional leaders in conflict resolution: The case of communities in the Mahikeng Local Municipality, North West Province, South Africa’, African Journal on Conflict Resolution 21(2), 33–57.

Mdhluli, S., 2021, ‘Do traditional leaders enjoy judicial immunity?’, De Rebus, Issues 1, 01 February.

Meel, B.L., 2016, ‘License to cut and kill practice: A case report on botched circumcision in Mthatha region of South Africa’, South African Family Practice 58(Suppl. 1), S5–S6. https://doi.org/10.1080/20786190.2014.978116

Moh Ibrahim Foundation, 2021, Moh Ibrahim index on good governance in Africa, viewed 12 December 2021, from https://mo.ibrahim.foundation/iiag.

Mothlaping, S.O., 2007, ‘The role of indigenous governance systems in sustainable development – The case of Moshupa village, Botswana’, Masters dissertation, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Mpungose, M.S.C., 2018, ‘Assessing the role of traditional leaders and ward councilors in promoting community development in Umlalazi municipality’, Masters Degree dissertation, University of Zululand.

Msindo, E., 2021, ‘Presidential address: Rethinking histories of Southern Africa and the contemporary challenges: Delivered at the 27th Biennial Conference of the Southern African Historical Society, Rhodes University, 25 June 2019’, South African Historical Journal 73(2), 223–240. https://doi.org/10.1080/02582473.2021.1962960

Munyai, S., 2016, ‘The tenacity of African traditional religion in Venda Christianity: A missionary investigation’, Doctoral thesis, University of Pretoria.

Niedlich, S., Kummer, B., Bauer, M., Rieckmann, M. & Bormann, I., 2020, ‘Cultures of sustainability governance in higher education institutions: A multi-case study of dimensions and implications’, Higher Education Quarterly 74(4), 373–390. https://doi.org/10.1111/hequ.12237

Nzimakwe, T.I., 2014, ‘Practising Ubuntu and leadership for good governance: The South African and continental dialogue’, African Journal of Public Affairs 7(4), 30–41.

Oloruntoba-Oju, T. & Van Pinxteren, B., 2023, ‘Issues in introducing indigenous languages in higher education in Africa: The example of Nigeria’, Language Problems and Language Planning 47(1), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1075/lplp.22005.olo

Picciotto, R., 1995, Putting institutional economics to work: From participation to governance, vol. 304, World Bank Publications, Washington, DC.

Porter, L., 2017, ‘Indigenous planning: From principles to practice’, Planning Theory & Practice 18(4), 639–666. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2017.1380961

Qumba, M., 2021, ‘The interface between local government and traditional authority: Exploring infrastructure development in Mbizana Local Municipality’, Doctoral dissertation, University of KwaZulu Natal.

Ramolobe, K.S., 2023, ‘The dynamics of traditional leaders’ relationship with municipal councillors and service delivery’, Journal of Local Government Research and Innovation 4, 95. https://doi.org/10.4102/jolgri.v4i0.95

Ramontsha, N., 2019, ‘The influence of traditional leaders on teacher appointments in Limpopo schools’, Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria.

Republic of Botswana, 2015, Botswana land policy, Department of Local Government, Republic of Botswana.

Republic of South Africa, 1996, The constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Government Printers, Pretoria.

Royal Bafokeng, 2021, Annual results for the year ended 31 December 2021, Royal Bafokeng, Rustenburg.

Ruhanen, L. & Whitford, M., 2021, ‘Cultural heritage and Indigenous tourism’, in M. Whitford & L. Ruhanen (eds.), Indigenous heritage, pp. 1–13, Routledge, London.

Schönwälder, G., 2018, Democracy promotion and pluralism – Mapping study.

Selemela, P. & Du Plessis, D.J., 2016, ‘A comparative analysis of urban growth and development in traditional authority and non-traditional areas: The case of Rustenburg and Mahikeng municipalities in the North West Province, South Africa’, Urban Forum 27, 433–446. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-016-9288-6

Sharma, A., Sundaram, S., Malviya, R., Verma, S., Fuloria, N.K., Fuloria, S. et al., 2023, ‘Patient care and treatment strategies for skin diseases in sub-Saharan Africa: Role of traditional and western medicines’, Infectious Disorders-Drug Targets (Formerly Current Drug Targets-Infectious Disorders) 23(3), 69–85. https://doi.org/10.2174/1871526522666220919105643

Simelane, H.Y. & Sihlongonyane, M.F., 2021, ‘A comparative analysis of the influence of traditional authority in urban development in South Africa and Eswatini’, African Studies 80(2), 153–171. https://doi.org/10.1080/00020184.2021.1932417

Som, E.K. & Asenso, K., 2020, ‘Leadership development: Influence of Christianity on Akan leadership formation – A case study of Kwaebibirem’, Leadership 57.

Tieleman, J. & Uitermark, J., 2019, ‘Chiefs in the city: Traditional authority in the modern state’, Sociology 53(4), 707–723. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038518809325

Traditional Authorities Research Group, 1999, ‘The role and future of traditional leaders in South Africa’, Koers-Bulletin for Christian Scholarship/Bulletin vir Christelike Wetenskap 64(2–3), 295–324. https://doi.org/10.4102/koers.v64i2/3.505

Ubink, J. & Duda, T., 2021, ‘Traditional authority in South Africa: Reconstruction and resistance in the Eastern Cape’, Journal of Southern African Studies 47(2), 191–208. https://doi.org/10.1080/03057070.2021.1893573

Woldeyes, Y. & Belachew, T. 2021, ‘Decolonising the environment through African epistemologies. Descolonización ambiental mediante epistemologías africanas’, Gestión y Ambiente. 24(1), 61–81.

Zhang, H. & Gong, X., 2021, ‘Leaders that bind: The role of network position and network density in opinion leaders’ responsiveness to social influence’, Asia Pacific Journal of Marketing and Logistics 33(10), 2019–2036. https://doi.org/10.1108/APJML-03-2020-0126

Crossref Citations

No related citations found.