Time to end SA’s taxpayer-funded monarchies
By Nicholas Woode-Smith, an author, economic historian, and political analyst, is a contributing author for the Free Market Foundation.

Why are SA taxpayers expected to foot the bill to keep self-styled monarchs and traditional charlatans living in luxury?

It is almost three decades since the advent of democracy. Yet we exist as a hodgepodge of feudal kingdoms funded by an urban citizenry that owes no loyalty to these so-called traditional leaders. It is time for state support of traditional monarchies, and their control over tribal trust lands, to end.

In 2023 SA has eight officially recognised monarchs, who receive an annual salary of more than R1.3m each. That’s over R10m being used to pay monarchs in a self-styled “republic”.

Imagine how many children could be fed for that amount of money; imagine how many patients could be treated; imagine the economic growth had that money stayed with the taxpayers and been reinvested back into the economy.

And that’s just the monarchs. There is a whole hierarchy of traditional leaders whose remuneration ranges from the humbler but still unjustifiable R123,000 a year to an annual salary of R1.2m — a salary comparable to that of the king.

This does not include other privileges and funding dolled out by local municipalities for the benefit of these self-described “royalty”. Consider the Zulu king’s Royal Reed Dance facility. It was originally budgeted to cost R129m, but by 2017 was said to have cost R1bn. This was due to inflated prices by contractors and consultants, which the Zulu king wouldn’t care about because it’s not his money. It’s being given freely by the department of arts & culture, ultimately funded by taxpayers.

But why do we have such an expensive, nonproductive parasite class of so-called traditional leaders and monarchs?

The National House of Traditional Leaders is meant, according to government, to advise the executive on traditional matters while fostering traditional leadership throughout the country. Frankly, this seems like an opportunity to place cadres and friends in salaried positions where they can receive state funds and dole out bribes.

But let’s give it a temporary benefit of the doubt. Corrupt appointments aside, traditional leaders are a legacy of the apartheid-era homelands, as well as pre-1910 leadership structures. The latter, I am more sceptical about. Not much survives for over a century — especially when faced with the unification of SA in 1910, apartheid in 1948, and democracy in 1994.

In reality, traditional leadership was destroyed over the course of SA’s colonial and postcolonial history. When the National Party wanted to forcibly push SA’s majority into homelands it established hierarchies of local leaders. This was a common tactic of colonialism — indirect rule.

These indirect rulers were incredibly important to the functioning of the apartheid state. They governed their populations, ensured they were well-behaved, and were given privileges by their apartheid overlords in return.

Fast-forward to post-1994, and the biggest relic of apartheid still exists. We might not have racialised bathrooms, benches or controlled movements (at least, not for South Africans — foreigners still face their own dompas system), but so much of the land that is romanticised and brutally fought over by the EFF and other political pundits is still held in tribal trusts, governed by traditional leaders.

This so-called communal land is, in effect, a medieval feudal fiefdom. Traditional leaders can exile tenants, decide who stays and who goes, and reap the fruits of the land. South Africans who are born on this land and have lived here for generations are little better than serfs, having to work the land at the behest of their traditional leader.

How is it that 29 years after the first democratic election, countless South Africans still live in bantustans ruled by the same institutions the apartheid government constructed to keep people in line?

Well, the ANC enjoys traditional leaders for the same reason the Nats did: control. Traditional leaders exercise influence over their localities and are able to use this influence to manipulate their communities to support a corrupt government that actively impoverishes them. It is as simple as that.

We should be far more vocal about abolishing these relics of apartheid and ensuring that residents of these lands get title deeds so they can become property owners in charge of their own economic destinies. The Free Market Foundation’s Khaya Lam Project leads the way in this regard.

Tradition shouldn’t require protection or subsidies by the state. Tradition is an organic beast that grows, shifts and changes with its people. Propping up traditional leaders is simply a way of controlling people, and a good way to funnel corruption money.

Taxpayers should not be forced in any way to fund traditional leadership. If a tax was levied on taxpayers to fund Orania it would, rightly, be seen as ridiculous. Why then should taxpayers be expected to foot the bill so modern-day kings can live in luxury?

SA is a democracy. Traditional leadership should be funded voluntarily, like a tithe paid to a church. Better yet, they should be expected to get productive jobs. And they should have no more political influence than that of any other person.

All citizens are equal, and wearing a traditional headdress shouldn’t give one person more clout over any other.