Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Once and Future Chief

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

The Once and Future Chief

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Roots of Resilience" by Carolyn Logan, in African Affairs, Summer 2013.

ONE DAY LAST YEAR IN A VILLAGE IN SOUTH Africa, a court heard two different cases. A man whose wife had run off demanded that her father return the cows he had provided as a bride price. Another man stood accused of letting his cows graze on public land marked for conservation. Presiding over the court was not an official magistrate but Chief Luthando Dinwayo and a tribal council of four women and five men. This arrangement was no anomaly. The council's word was law, and the villagers paid it heed. Similar stories could be told in much of Africa, where traditional authorities wield considerable power in some areas of life.

That's disastrous, say critics. Many see the survival of traditional authorities as a troubling sign of governmental weakness, especially in Africa's young democracies. Some argue that unelected tribal chiefs wield power only because they control land or other valuable resources, and that they are prone to abusing their authority. Anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University, perhaps the harshest critic, argues that traditional authorities were willing tools of the European powers during the colonial era and have an equally corrupt relationship with central authorities today.

But Carolyn Logan, a political scientist at Michigan State University, draws on a wide-ranging survey of African countries in arguing that traditional authorities enjoy popular legitimacy and play an important role in resolving local conflicts and allocating land in their communities.

Indeed, in 17 of the 19 nations polled, a majority of those surveyed said traditional leaders wield "significant influence," and in 16 of those countries, most respondents believed that the influence of traditional authorities should increase. Support wasn't limited to the hinterlands, the usual bastion of tradition: Relatively affluent urbanites didn't differ from poor farmers in their support.

And although traditional institutions are commonly assumed to be detrimental to the interests of women, men and women were equally likely to praise them--at least in the presence of pollsters.

Africa is an enormous and diverse landmass, of course, and the tribal councils of South Africa wouldn't find exact counterparts in, say, Mali. …

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