Chiefs by the People: Land, Conflict, and Authority in Twentieth-Century South Africa


ACLS Fellowship Program




“Chiefs by the People” explores the disjuncture between local and national narratives of South Africa’s transition-era civil war. The book challenges popular notions of the conflict as driven by innate tribalism or the struggle for political legitimacy between the Zulu nationalist Inkatha and Mandela’s African National Congress. Drawing on archives and oral history interviews, the project examines two Zulu chiefdoms that contested boundaries and chiefly legitimacy during colonialism, apartheid, and civil war. The Nyavu made claims on land and authority based on hereditary land use against the colonially-created Maphumulo. Though Maphumulo chiefs received power by colonial decree, they promoted their legitimacy through connections to both land and their followers. The establishment of apartheid-era Tribal Authorities exacerbated these contests, erupting in violence during civil war. Following the relationship between these chiefdoms across the twentieth century reveals how chiefs and their people adapted and deployed strategies for building social and political relationships.