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Selected chiefs, elected councillors and hybrid democrats: popular perspectives on the co-existence of democracy and traditional authority*

  • Carolyn Logan (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 February 2009

The long-standing debate about the proper role for Africa's traditional leaders in contemporary politics has intensified in the last two decades, as efforts to foster democratisation and decentralisation have brought competing claims to power and legitimacy to the fore, especially at the local level. Questions persist as to whether traditional authority and democratic governance are ultimately compatible or contradictory. Can the two be blended into viable and effective hybrid systems? Or do the potentially anti-democratic features of traditional systems present insurmountable obstacles to an acceptable model of integration? Survey data collected by the Afrobarometer indicate that Africans who live under these dual systems of authority do not draw as sharp a distinction between hereditary chiefs and elected local government officials as most analysts would expect. In fact, popular evaluations of selected and elected leaders are strongly and positively linked. They appear to be consistently shaped by each individual's ‘leadership affect’, and by an understanding of chiefs and elected officials as common players in a single, integrated political system, rather than as opponents in a sharply bifurcated one. Moreover, there is no evident conflict between supporting traditional leadership and being a committed and active democrat. Rather than finding themselves trapped between two competing spheres of political authority, Africans appear to have adapted to the hybridisation of their political institutions more seamlessly than many have anticipated or assumed.

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I would like to thank Michael Bratton and E. Gyimah-Boadi, as well as the editor and two anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Modern African Studies, for their very helpful comments and critiques. The author, however, bears full responsibility for the paper's contents.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

C. Ake 1991. ‘Rethinking African democracy’, Journal of Democracy 2, 1: 3244.

J. Beall 2006. ‘Cultural weapons: traditions, inventions and the transition to democratic governance in metropolitan Durban’, Urban Studies 43, 2: 457–73.

J. Beall , S. Mkhize & S. Vawda . 2005. ‘Emergent democracy and “resurgent” tradition: institutions, chieftaincy and transition in KwaZulu-Natal’, Journal of Southern African Studies 31, 4: 755–71.

L. Buur & H. M. Kyed . 2006. ‘Contested sources of authority: re-claiming state sovereignty by formalizing traditional authority in Mozambique’, Development and Change 37, 4: 847–69.

J. L. Comaroff 1978. ‘Rules and rulers: political processes in a Tswana chiefdom’, Man 13, 1: 120.

B. de Sousa Santos 2006. ‘The heterogenous state and legal pluralism in Mozambique’, Law and Society Review 40, 1: 3976.

C. Lund 2006. ‘Twilight institutions: public authority and local politics in Africa’, Development and Change 37, 4: 685705.

I. Van Kessel & B. Oomen . 1997. ‘One chief, one vote: the revival of traditional authorities in post-apartheid South Africa’, African Affairs 96, 385: 561–85.

H. G. West & S. Kloeck-Jenson . 1999. ‘Betwixt and between: “traditional authority” and democratic decentralization in post-war Mozambique’, African Affairs 98, 393: 455–84.

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The Journal of Modern African Studies
  • ISSN: 0022-278X
  • EISSN: 1469-7777
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-modern-african-studies
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