Outrage over the budget allocated to Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini in recent months has concentrated attention on the salaries and resources set aside for traditional leaders.
The king’s annual budget of more than R50 million has been defended by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government, while it simultaneously complains that it cannot afford to pay headmen in the province an annual salary of R84 125.
Why is it that some traditional leaders are provided with resources to facilitate their roles in traditional communities while others are not?
Traditional leaders’ salaries are set as national standards in proclamations by President Jacob Zuma, following recommendations by the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office-bearers. The same general process applies to the salaries of other public office-bearers, including ministers, premiers and members of Parliament.
Although the standards are set nationally, provincial governments are responsible for the actual payment of traditional leaders’ salaries.
Despite its complaints about budgetary implications, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government should have been paying monthly remuneration to headmen in the province for over a year already.
In February 2014 the president, for the first time, proclaimed that headmen across the country were entitled to a standard annual salary of R80 875, to be backdated to April 1, 2013. In 2015, the president increased the annual salary to R84 125, backdated to April 1, 2014.
Media reports have noted that, since more than 2 000 headmen in KwaZulu-Natal are eligible for this salary, the additional cost to the province will be substantial. Yet the province has had since 2011 – when the Remuneration Commission first recommended this national stipend to plan how it would make the necessary adjustments to its budget.
The province’s reluctance seems particularly one-sided when viewed against reported indulgences for the Zulu Royal Household’s overspend of its annual budget in the past.
Headmen have argued that their important role in governing local community affairs has been overlooked by the province, and their grievances are not new.
In 2012, Inkosi Phathekile Holomisa, then the president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), criticised the controversial Traditional Courts Bill because it failed to acknowledge the headmen’s involvement in local dispute resolution.
On another end of the remuneration spectrum are South Africa’s traditional kings. According to the president’s latest salary proclamation, all recognised kings in the country are entitled to annual remuneration of R1 078 599 – more than 10 times that of headmen. But this salary schema operates separately to an annual budget allocated by KwaZulu-Natal for the benefit of the Zulu king and his family, which is about 50 times the salary amount.
It is this separate budget that has caught the attention of other kings and senior traditional leaders, who view it as the government’s preferential treatment of one royal family.
In June, both traditional leaders and members of Parliament expressed dissatisfaction with the existing unequal treatment of kings during a National Assembly committee meeting. The Deputy Minister responsible for Traditional Affairs, Obed Bapela, responded by saying that a task team was working towards standardising the benefits enjoyed by kings across provinces, but that the Zulu king’s benefits were a 1994 “inheritance”.
It is within this politically charged context that the Royal Household Trust Bill was introduced into the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature during May.
The Royal Household Trust was first established in 2007 as a vehicle through which to provide for the material needs of the Zulu king and his relatives. According to this new Bill’s explanatory memorandum, changes in the law are needed to provide the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government with a more “hands-on” role in managing the trust, which has been a “constant source of embarrassment” for the province. A further, somewhat contradictory, stated aim of the bill is to allow the trust’s operations to become more independent and less reliant on government funding.
Given acknowledged challenges with past administration, one would expect KwaZulu-Natal to ensure accountability in the trust’s management processes through clear legislative guidelines and enforcement mechanisms.
Yet according to a submission by the Centre for Law and Society (CLS) from UCT, the bill has done the exact opposite. CLS points out that instead of providing a “hands-on” role, the bill relaxes provincial oversight of the trust. CLS also argues that standard public finance requirements should apply to the trust in all respects, rather than being applied only to some funding.
This is because the trust’s funding will still predominantly be sourced from public revenue, while serving a public purpose and being managed by employees of the provincial government. CLS highlights that the climate in which the bill was introduced is one of increasing public concern about past overspends and mismanagement of Royal Household Trust funds, and of criticism by other traditional leaders about the disproportionate resources afforded to the Zulu king.
This, they argue, amplifies the need for transparency regarding the trust’s financial activities.
As CLS indicates in its submission, people have a right to democratic governance under the constitution. Yet they also have a right to accountable leadership in terms of African customary law principles, which recognise that leaders source their power from the people who affiliate to them.
This means any conversation about traditional leadership (or resources for their benefit) must also be a conversation about processes for accountability to the public.
CLS’s points were discussed in the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature in early August and the premier’s office indicated that it would relook at the Royal Household Trust Bill in light of the comments.
The province’s response is encouraging. Headmen can only hope their pleas for payment of the salaries they are owed will be received with an equally positive response.
Otherwise, the province may again be guilty of foregrounding the interests of only the highest level of traditional leadership at the expense of the basic necessities of those at lower, and more hands-on, levels of customary authority.
This article first appeared in The Mercury – 27 August 2015 and The Star