Traditional, Democratic, Accountable? Navigating Citizen-Subjection in Rural South Africa

Robin L. Turner


Nearly two decades after South Africa’s democratization, questions of tradition and accountability continue to trouble the polity as more than 14 million black South Africans remain subject to state-recognized, so-called “traditional” leaders – kings, queens, chiefs and regents. This article deepens our understanding of contemporary governance by exploring the agency of these citizen-subjects through close examination of traditional leaders’ strategies and citizen-subjects’ mobilizations in four rural localities. These cases illustrate how citizen-subjects are working with, against and through traditional leaders and councils, hybrid organizations and independent groups to pursue community development and effective, accountable governance, and show how the present governance framework enables traditional leaders to block or undermine collective initiatives. In drawing attention to citizen-subjects’ agency and their difficulties in holding traditional leaders accountable, this analysis of contemporary traditional governance underscores the need for further democratizing reforms.

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