Adherents of tradition argue that customary institutions in Africa and the traditional leaders that uphold them have a stabilizing influence, particularly given the inadequacies of many post-colonial African states. It is suggested that this remains the case for South Africa as well and that chieftaincy, though tainted by its association with segregation and apartheid, has nevertheless provided continuity of governance, particularly in rural areas where there were scant alternative structures. Opponents see the return to tradition as a regressive step that undermines progress towards democratic consolidation in Africa generally and in South Africa more particularly. In many respects these concerns are not new and reflect careful historical debate in South Africa that remains relevant in informing and understanding the contemporary period. With this in mind this paper explores the institution of ubukhosi, or chieftainship, in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where resurgent tradition is particularly vociferous, but also part of a longer history exhibiting both continuities and discontinuities. Against this background it considers whether the recognition of traditional authorities and the powers and functions accorded to them in South Africa, and more particularly KZN, constitutes a potential faultline of crisis in South Africa's fragile emergent democracy or a site of stability in a politically volatile province. The question is framed by recourse to institutional theory and is answered by setting the contemporary experience of 'negotiating tradition' in KwaZulu-Natal against a background of apartheid government, resistance and political violence in the province
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