The role of traditional leaders in combating COVID-19 in rural areas

All organs of state have been required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by putting in place measures targeted at containing the virus. In urban areas, it is municipalities that are at the forefront of implementing national, provincial and local measures to curb infections. In rural areas, however, municipalities are working with the institution of traditional leadership in tackling the spread of the virus. Cooperation is often times replaced by competition which creates tensions and conflicts between municipalities and traditional leaders. Obviously, these tensions have an adverse impact on the effectiveness of the response to COVID-19.

Nevertheless, both institutions continue to play an important role in the fight against COVID-19. The tensions between municipalities and traditional leaders are not new. They have endured since the early 1990s and strategies to diffuse or resolve them have not been fully successful. This article analyses the role being played by traditional leaders in combating the virus in rural areas. It demonstrates how cooperation between traditional leaders and municipalities is enhancing this role. At the same time, there are also tensions between the two institutions which have undermined effective response to COVID-19 in some rural areas. Before discussing the role played by traditional leaders, it is useful to briefly locate the background of the tensions between local government and traditional leaders given that they continue to be an important dynamic in how these two institutions interact with one another.

Background to the tensions between local government and traditional leaders in South Africa

Before 1994, traditional leaders effectively functioned as the only local governance structure in rural areas, vested with significant powers and responsible for a variety of functions such as land allocation and dispute resolution. Essentially, the institution of traditional leadership was the form of local government with the highest authority in a community or village. Traditional leaders did not welcome the wall-to-wall system of local government in rural areas which was introduced and debated in the early 1990s. This was to be expected as it would mean loss of power for traditional leaders. It is thus unsurprising that many traditional leaders resisted the establishment of municipalities in rural areas. When the system of local government was entrenched in the 1996 Constitution and given the mandate, in 2000, to deliver major public services and drive development throughout South Africa, tensions and contestations between municipalities and traditional leaders began to emerge sharply. These tensions and contestations have once again surfaced during the national Lockdown being implemented to contain the coronavirus. Traditional leaders took significant decisions and are playing various roles which have impacted on the government’s response to COVID-19. A few of these will be analysed below using examples from various parts of the country.  

Suspension of the initiation season

Soon after President Ramaphosa announced the initial 21 Day COVID-19 Lockdown in mid-March of 2020, almost all houses of traditional leadership in the country moved swiftly to announce the suspension of the initiation season at the end of March. This was a response to fears that the initiation schools would become breeding grounds for infections as there was unavoidable close contact among initiates and those assisting with the initiation process. The rapid and decisive intervention was aimed at managing the spread of the virus, particularly, among young men who are already exposed to numerous health risks while undergoing traditional initiation. Despite the preventative measures put in place by the institution of traditional leadership, to help curb the spread of the virus, some residents of Mdantsane, in the Buffalo City Metro insisted on building initiation schools during the outbreak of the virus in defiance of the decision taken the House of Traditional Leadership in the Eastern Cape and in contravention of the Regulations. One of the reasons given for this was initiates who had entered the initiation process before the Lockdown, needed to be given an opportunity to complete their journey of manhood. This perhaps illustrates how people, during the early stages of the Lockdown, were at pains to forego certain cultural practices to prevent the transmission of the virus.

Suspension of gatherings and funerals

At the end of April, the AmaMpondomise Kingdom under King Zwelozuko Matiwane took a drastic decision to suspend all gatherings including funerals as part of efforts to combat the increasing number of infections in the Eastern Cape Province. Although the Lockdown Regulations were in force at the time, which banned mass gatherings of people in general, infections continued to rise partially because people were not adhering to them. The climbing number of infections was mainly attributed to funerals that were held, with scores of people in attendance disregarding social distancing rules and not wearing masks. To ensure that people buried their deceased family members in a manner that was consistent with the safety measures provided under the COVID-19 Regulations, the AmaMpondomise nation revived a historical-cultural practise to combat the spread of the virus insofar as funerals are concerned. The nation resolved to postpone all funerals and only allowed burials that were to be strictly attended by close family members. In other words, a deceased is buried by close family and the dignified funeral is then held at a later date. The provincial government health MEC, as well as municipalities, lauded the Kingdom for its pro-active role in assisting in the fight against the spread of the virus.

The handing out of sanitizers to community members

Traditional Leaders in certain parts of the Eastern Cape handed out sanitisers to their respective communities. These were procured by the King Sabatha Municipality which gave these sanitisers to the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs to officially hand them over to traditional leaders. Similar developments took place in the North West province where the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency (MISA) handed over 3 611 hand sanitisers and soaps to the North West MEC for Cooperative Governance, Human Settlements and Traditional Affairs. These sanitisers and soaps were subsequently handed over to the North West Provincial House of Traditional Leaders which gave them to its members for onward distribution to various communities. Municipalities are often far away from residents who live in villages deep within the rural areas. The presence and role of traditional leaders at the village level have enabled the easy distribution of hand sanitisers to these rural residents. Thus, in this capacity, traditional leaders are playing a significant role in the fight against Covid-19 in rural areas.

Issuing of permits by traditional leaders

During the month of April, some traditional leaders in the KwaZulu Natal Province called for an amendment to the Regulations to declare them an essential service and allow them to continue with their duties in their communities. These traditional leaders wanted to also issue permits for funerals, travelling and business trading for members within their respective communities. While the Regulations were never amended to address the concerns noted above by traditional leaders, some traditional leaders in Mpumalanga Province stunningly went further and began to issue bogus informal trading permits to residents at a small price. This prompted the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality to condemn the issuing of informal trading permits by these traditional leaders. In a statement, the Municipality stated that it was the legal custodian permitted to issue an Informal Trading License. Furthermore, the Municipality correctly stated that anyone found to have a permit issued by any traditional authority will be arrested since the permit is null and void and will be regarded as trading illegally, thus committing a crime. In other provinces, the situation was somewhat different. A traditional leader from the Eastern Cape who was contacted to comment on whether traditional leaders were also issuing informal trading permits in his jurisdiction, responded by saying that,  ‘the issuing of permits is a function performed by municipalities, traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape know this’. This response explains why no cases of traditional leaders issuing fake informal trading permits in the Eastern Cape were ever reported.


The role of traditional leaders in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 has thus far been pro-active in rural areas. The suspension of mass gatherings, funerals (in some places) and the initiation season contributed significantly to saving lives, including, of those young men who had undergone initiation and prone to all sorts of risks. However, not everyone supported or appreciated the importance of these efforts as they insisted that the process of initiation must be completed despite the great risk it posed in transmitting the virus to initiates.

More importantly, the innovation of allowing only burials with a few members of the immediate family in attendance and the deferment of funerals introduced in some rural areas enhanced the establishment of a burial framework which supported efforts to combat the spread of the virus. This cultural, burial practice, ensured that those who are deceased are buried timeously and that their bodies do not stay longer periods in mortuaries, which in many cases carries an additional financial cost to the relevant families.

Despite some challenges, COVID-19 has shown that traditional leaders still play an important role in rural communities as a governing structure. In short, the management of the state of disaster in some provinces has clearly brought to the fore problematic aspects of the relationship between traditional leaders and municipalities which have existed for quite some time between these two institutions. One of those aspects is the tensions between the two institutions which are not new and are more likely to remain a constant feature in the relationship between traditional leaders and municipalities.


by Xavia Poswa, Doctoral Researcher


The publication of the Bulletin is made possible with the support provided by the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Bavarian State Chancellery.

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