Traditional authorities were recognised and revitalised in several African countries in the 1990s. Based on conventional perceptions of the nature of traditional rule it is regarded as unethical for traditional leaders to be partisan. Policies which specified the political neutrality of traditional institutions were therefore adopted in Malawi, South Africa and Uganda. The responses of 423 local actors, examined in historical, comparative perspective, reveal how the requirement that traditional leaders be neutral contributes to the pull towards the incumbent party in these countries. The concept ‘neutrality’ is interpreted as ‘support the government of the day and not the opposition’. This is explained by traditional leaders' dependence on government for their resources and survival and the latter's reliance on traditional leaders as allocators of customary land and providers of local justice. Dependence makes traditional leaders easy to manipulate by governments that want to retain power. The important function they play in society explains why governments demand their support.

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