Inkosi Mpiyezintombi Mzimela's family has ruled a remote patch of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, for eight generations.
Through a century of colonial-era meddling and decades of apartheid aggression, the Mzimela men - born and bred to be chiefs - mediated disputes, distributed land, and represented their people, about 80,000 Zulu tribesmen.
But now, much to their dismay, their dynasty may be coming to an end in a sweep of democratic reforms.
"We are not something of the past," the powerfully built Mr. Mzimela protests, and warns: "We shall move heaven and earth to be recognized. We will fight until all rivers run dry."
This November, South Africa plans to complete the most tangible part of its democratic transformation with the election of municipal councilors to represent every village from the Kalahari Desert in the north to the winelands in the south. The new local government officials are expected to control land use, plan development programs, and enforce social order - usurping many of the time-honored duties of traditional leaders.
"The people of South Africa have demanded a democratic and accountable government," says Monde Nkasawe, the deputy director of the national government's Traditional Affairs Department. "We must create a democratic culture. That is our mandate."
Few other issues in South Africa so poignantly illustrate the difficult transition this new nation is negotiating. With one foot in the third world and the other in the first, the nation is determining the role that aristocratic and patriarchal, but much beloved, traditional customs and values will play in the new South Africa.
The government sees traditional leaders not only as a relic of the old South Africa, but also as a powerful threat to the ruling party, the African National Congress, says Michael Whisson, an anthropology professor at South Africa's Rhodes University.
"The government is now saying it will tolerate traditional leaders," says Whisson. "It will give them some symbolic power and slowly let them fade away like the British House of Lords."
But tribal leaders have no intention of fading away. Some have threatened to lead a boycott of the November local elections. Others have vowed to take the government to court to seek an injuction against the municipal elections.
Mzimela, chairman of the National House of Traditional Leaders, which advises the government on tribal affairs, promises to bring what he sees as a cocky government to its knees. Shed-ding traditional robes for business suits, with cellphones fastened to their belts and briefcases in hand, Mzimela and his fellow leaders have descended on this capital city from villages throughout the country to lobby.
The traditional rulers still enjoy a strong following in this nation, where they have acted as de-facto local government for generations. In recent rallies, thousands of their subjects, brandishing traditional spears, cowhide shields, and fighting sticks vowed their allegiance.
Government officials, including President Thabo Mbeki, have attempted to placate the leaders while remaining true to their democratic ideals - a difficult balancing act.
Traditional leaders are demanding the power to appoint half of each local council, with citizens electing the other half. And they want assurances that new municipal boundaries will follow accepted tribal demarcations, and not divide their territories or peoples.
Mbeki has so far offered them only nonvoting seats on local councils and more advisory power on the national level. The tribal rulers have called Mbeki's offer "an insult."
The impasse could force a delay of November's local elections because any boycotted election would not be seen as legitimate.
As South Africa emerges from apartheid and builds a new democracy, it is examining the efficiency and use of traditional institutions across the board. The Department of Justice is currently drafting legislation on the future of traditional courts, where village headmen or chiefs have decided punishment for minor offenses for as long as anyone can remember. The department is also investigating changes to customary inheritance laws - until now, the domain of traditional rulers.
The Department of Land Affairs is reviewing the status of the age-old communal land systems headed by traditional chiefs.
"We are fighting for our survival," says Mathealira Mopeli, the soft-spoken chief, or morena, of 20,000 Basutho tribesmen in the Free State, and the deputy chairman of the National House of Traditional leaders.
In a nod to the country's new democratic principles, the government has asked citizens to decide the future of traditional leaders. In newspaper and radio advertisements, the government has asked residents to write, call, or email with their views on such questions as: What powers should these rulers retain? Should the government continue to pay chiefs and headmen their annual stipends? If so, should they have job descriptions, yearly evaluations and performance contracts? And what of the women clamoring to be chiefs - should tribes be required to be equal-opportunity employers?
In the areas of South Africa where councils have already been elected, they have come into conflict with traditional leaders. "We call it two bulls in one corral," says Basutho chief Mopeli. "They don't seem to appreciate that we have certain duties and responsibilities."
South Africa's new government needn't be a mirror image of European or American democracies, says Mopeli. Why not "democracy with African characteristics?" he asks. Traditional leaders can work with democratically elected officials to govern. "We bring the stability that democracy lacks," Mopeli says.
Mopeli and other leaders say the present debate calls for compromise on both sides. Traditional leaders must harmonize their customs and behavior with South Africa's new democratic Constitution. For example, Mopeli - who is an attorney as well as village chief - is currently developing a code of conduct for traditional leaders and is not opposed to performance evaluations by the government. For its part, the government must ensure that the new South Africa incorporates important traditions from the old South Africa, Mopeli says.
"We are grappling with this transition," he says. "We are trying to make this miracle work and understand how [to] play a positive and meaningful role."
"The values and customs and culture of our people are vested in traditional leaders," says Zulu chief Mzimela. "Destroy us and you destroy our culture, and our society cannot survive."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society