Essay on the Difference Between Chiefdoms and Tribes

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The Swazi of Southern Africa and the Mayogo of Northern Democratic Republic of Congo represent two different chiefdoms that live in Africa. The two chiefdoms share more with states than with tribes, a reason which explains its existence within the boundary of many states in Africa. The Swazi chiefdom is situated in the southern Africa in a landlocked country that was rule according to the chiefdom rules even with the coming of the white man and obtaining independence 1968. The chiefdom share many aspects with the state, a reason which explains the absence of conflict that inflicts the two institutions in comparison with the state and the tribe. The research paper will analyze the two chiefdoms of Mayogo and Swazi through the use of comparison with the state and the tribe by focusing on such points as kinship, marriage, citizenship.

The Mayogo

The Mayogo are people who live in the Northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, they used to live independently as chiefdom until the 19th century when the country was invaded by the Mangbetu who formed the state under which the Mayogo were governed. However, the internal affairs of the chiefdom were in control by the chiefs. The Mayogo speak a language that belongs to the same family of Swazi which is Bantu, most of them have converted from animism to Christianity mainly Catholicism. The areas in which the Mayogo live have certain autonomy as the people pay allegiance to the Chiefdom. Although the flag was apparent in the documentary but no allegiance is paid to the national anthem. One of the reason, why the state of Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire is not bother by the presence of the chiefdom of Mayogo in its territory is because it is not menaced by it in addition to the fact that the chiefdom provides protection to its population which the state cannot afford to due to the vast surface of the territory and its vicinity to war zones exemplified by the refuges that live in the country in addition to a civil war that it is undergoing.

The Swazi

The Swazi took their name from their king, Mswati, Swaziland is a chiefdom that is organized into dual monarchy with the king and the queen at its head, the king is refereed to by the Swazi as Ngwenyama (Lion) while the queen is known as Ndlovukazi (Lady Elephant).[1] The chiefdom is based on common ancestry and fictive kinship, like the state the chiefdom is based on a social contract between the population of Swaziland who accept top pay allegiance to the king by obeying his orders, providing goods and services, and paying taxes in return for protection from outsiders mainly Zulu and Shaka. For instance, King Sobhuza maintained the loyalty of his population by protecting them from Shaka to the extent that he sent his daughters to be married by Shaka knowing that they will be killed once they are pregnant.[2] The successor of king Sobhuza, Mswati, was left with “a strong Kingdom, respected and feared by neighboring tribes, with a centralized political system controlling several thousands of people scattered over areas reaching far beyond the boundaries of modern Swaziland.”[3]

The interest of Europeans to colonize the area came from two parties the Dutch Boers and the British, in 1865 the two parties are going to find an excuse to enter the country which to provide peace and end civil war. The year coincided with the death of King Mswati which entered the country into a civil war due the rivalry of who is going to become the new king. Eventually Mdandzeni was the king and even during his reign instability was present.[4]

A Comparison between Chiefdom and Tribe

The tribe and chiefdom have a similar aspect in terms of their value of raiding while the Swazi during the reign of king Mswati acquired a reputation of terror and fear many of their warriors were indulging in raids with neighboring chiefdoms and the looting was distributed by the King.[5] Likewise, the Famous tribe chief Auda abu Tayi the leader of the Howeitat tribe who said that he is like a river to his people meaning that all what he obtain from raids is going to be redistribute to his tribe.[6] Moreover, Hospitality is another characteristic that shared between tribes and chiefdom. Regarding chiefdom, the headman is expected to be magnanimous.[7]

Kinship is an important factor that distinguishes chiefdom from the state and put on equal footing with the tribe, it used to define who is going to be married from a particular person and other issue as it is stated by Hilda Kuper “kinship by descent and ties by marriage influence behavior in a great number of situations; they determine where and with whom a person lives, his range of friends and enemies, whom he may or may not marry, the positions to which he is entitled.”[8] Regarding tribes the preference is being given to first cousins but instances of incest are not absent though rare, both among Tribes Swazi, especially the king who is allowed as he is “the only man permitted to marry a clan sister.”[9] This network of kinship was kept even when the British administration was in the country, it was only a current move to incorporate the dual monarchy as a single government for the whole country of Swaziland.[10]

The importance given to law seems to be a feature shared by both the tribe and chiefdom as the tribe regulates its problems according to its tribal law while the Swazi “have a highly developed legal system and a graded hierarchy of courts that coincide roughly with the political structure.” In case of the Swazi seems to be working with the introduction of the state while it is the opposite for tribes as in some instances revenge requires killing a person as compensation. While the Swazi differentiate between private matters such as theft and cases that require death penalty such as murder. In The former the guilty party pays compensation directly to the ill-treated person while on the latter the compensation is given to the king as he “the representative of the state.”[11] Hilda Kuper mentioned an example that would illustrate this dichotomy of law among the chiefdom. It involves the case of a woman called Velepi Hlatshwako who deserted her husband, Alpheus shongwe, after 20 years of marriage because of his bad treatment of her and eloped with her lover, Isauk Mabuzo. In order for the lover to marry the Velepi he has to pay lobola (bride price) to her family which it refused. The matter is going to exacerbates when Velepi had a daughter and Alpheus asked for both of them as a he paid lobola. This time the two couple became convert to Wesleyan church therefore the matter was taken to different court and in the end the court stated that Velepi “soiled the law.”[12] The state and chiefdom law tend to overlap and contradict each other, however the likelihood of going against the states is less than the tribe where state rule is absent. For instance, the Swazi people who work in the administration or “white-controlled bureaucracy”[13] but their loyalty falls under their chiefdom.

One of the major difference between chiefdom and tribe lies on the fact that the way the tribal chief chosen has nothing to do with his noble heritage or family instead what matter is his reputation for hospitability, honor and experience while for the Swazi as well as the Mayogo of Northern Democratic Republic of Congo the chief is hereditary position which is banqueted only by inheritance. Therefore, competition and rivalry is major aspect of chiefdom and this best seen during the death of Kind Mswati, that resulted in a civil war between his sons whereas tribal people tend to elect a chief of their tribe based on reputation, which means that once the chief is being seen as corrupt the tribal people outstrip of his leadership automatically by not listening to him. And even the way the tribe vie their chief is different from chiefdom whereby the Swazi regard their king as a father and not a dictator.[14]

Marriage is an important institution upon which a the follower of the king is taken, polygamy is abundant among kings and in order to avoid conflict between kings` sons it is the child of the senor wife that is entitled to the throne however, seniority is not always decided by age but by other factors as it is pointed out by Hilda Kuper “Among the Swazi aristocracy the first wife is never the main wife. Seniority in marriage brings certain advantages during the headman`s lifetime, but upon his death other factors are considered. The most important is pedigree, and the daughter of a king or leading chief generally takes precedence over all other wives.”[15] The Swazi developed a sophisticated system of succession to protect the future king from the rivalry of his brothers to the extent that the first son of king is never going to take his place, Seniority and pedigree play an important role in selecting the future king.[16] Regarding tribal law, it is very different from state law and does not tend to be mixed as is the case with both Swazi and Mayogo as knowledge of the chiefdom law and court procedure are part of the daily life of chiefdom people.[17]

A Comparison between the Chiefdom and the State

Just like the state, the country of Swaziland is divided into different districts. The queen shares power with the king, however her realm is situated in the area of household and rituals. Unlike Western countries, religion in Swaziland is an important aspect of the country that is governed by the queen; it is one of the characteristics that differentiate an outsider from a Swazi. The Swaziland chiefdom maintains its political system and insures its survival by following a system of military fear based on executions so that any enemy would think twice before trying to invade the country. The second way is upgrading lineage through marriage, whereby women play a major role in succession mainly the queen mother, as the children of a senior wife are supervised and shunned from going outside to protect them from magic spills. In other words, the king rules outside while the queen rules inside the household. Even though the country is big, the king insure that it stays in order by dividing into district and letting local chiefs (sikhulu) reign them and in cases of district that the king does not trust he appoints his brother or his half brother to rule them, a practice used during the reign of King Mswati, when the Kingdom of Swaziland rule over a large territory and have a reputation.

According to Hilda Kuper “power moves down through a chain of British-appointed officials on the one side and the traditional hierarchy on the other, with conflict centered in a few leading personalities. Educated Swazi, including some of the traditional system for reaching rapid and major decisions, but they are seeking to build on certain accepted foundations and do not want an imitation of constitutional techniques developed in alien context.”[18] In a chiefdom both power can be shared with states with small incidents of conflicts compared to tribes, and most of the time when the chiefdom laws came to contradict laws of the states it is usually driven by personal interest. For instance, the reason for changing the Westminster constitution that the British brought to Swaziland has to do with the failure of a Prince Mfanasibili in elections against Ngwenya, therefore to get rid of his rival he found the loophole that since he is a South African he was deported to the border in may 25 1972 and because the conistution was in favour of Ngwenya regarding his deportation, it was also changed.[19]

The independence of Swaziland brought the problem of who is entitled toser ve in an office with such factors as loyalty and family playing a major role in appointment the educated Swazi who are not from a royal kinship posed a problem to the royal group and raised their concern over education as a means to secure their positions. The opposite is apparent in the Mayogo of Northern Democratic Republic of Congo. Unlike the British colonies where education was emphasize, the French colonies relied on military people to rule on their colonies

Citizenship is an important aspect of defining who is Swazi and who is not, in practice all those people entitled to be Swazi have the privileges of security, that is protection from enemies, they can acquire land; and most importantly they can have the national mark in order to wear Swazi consume which is “a slit in the lobes of the ears.”[20] The chiefdom shares with the state the concept of citizen and who is entitled to be a citizen? Such a question is going to raise problems in Swaziland due to its diversified population and the changing concept of allegiance, as it system by which Swazi express their loyalty to their king. However, the influx of many non-Swazi who were brought by the white settlers brought the issue of loyalty to the fore as they plead their allegiance to their employers instead of the king, in addition to their different traditions and culture which makes the Swazi feel threatened about their status to the extent of putting the blame on crime on the non-Swazi population.[21] According the Swaziland law “Citizenship was a privilege, not a right; a commitment, not a label,”[22] which means that factors such as language, history, race and religion come to define who is a Swazi and who is not, therefore citizenship is exclusive and not inclusive. Another problem that is brought the issue of citizenship is the fact that South Africa is home to 700, 000 Swazi people which indicates the problem of the king to grant them citizenship without land support and most importantly the problem of dual citizenship as they are both citizens of South Africa and also entitled to the citizenship of Swaziland, while the non-Swazi who live in Swaziland are not regarded as citizens as they lack the features of a Swazi.

Land is an important accepts in Swaziland in addition to pastorals rooted in its “cattle complex”[23] due to the importance of lobola which is usually expressed in cattle’s. The land posed to be a problem in 1907 as 45% of the land in Swaziland was owned by non-Swazi owing to the Land Proclamation of 1907.[24] Unlike, its neighboring country Zimbabwe, the Swaziland government response to reform the land by taking into consideration the local Swazi without alienating the white community

A major component of the state in addition to sovereignty and territory is monopoly over the use of violence. The distinction between police and soldier does not exit in Swazi chiefdom it was only brought by the British. The Swazi rely on emabutfo to provide protection; they are a mix of soldier and police. However by the coming of the British they introduced police force which was viewed as a rival by Emabutfo.[25] However the role of Emabutfo is going to be underscored due to the regional incidents that occurred in Ethiopia where Haile Selassie was deposed and Mozambique where the socialist Samora Machel was recognized as the leader of the country. These events prompted Swaziland to develop an army by relying on emabutfo. [26]


To conclude, the chiefdom share many point with tribes and states. however, the fact it has many point to share with the state that the tribe make it adaptable to survive even within the boundary of the state because it does not threat the establishment of the state. It shares with the state the social contract under which the population pays loyalty through obedience and taxes in return for protection. And unlike the tribe the chiefdom does not have the problem of minority group. Because even in their meeting not everybody in the chiefdom is invited in the secret meetings save the elders, whereas in a tribal society every person who is an adult has a saying that the chief has to take into consideration as he has the power to influence decision making but to the extent of making an order.


“Chief Anga Ganga Kangolo” Lost Kingdoms. Discovery Channel, 1988.

Kuper, Hilda. The Swazi: a South African Kingdom. Mason, Ohio: Cenage Learning, 2002.

Lawrence of Arabia, DVD, Directed by David Lean. 1962.

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