Traditional leaders are demanding royal treatment, and say they cannot be expected to do their work wearing loincloths and driving donkey carts.
They want security details, luxury vehicles, cellphone allowances and state-owned accommodation "fit for living or working" for some of the more senior leaders, fully furnished with, among other things, tumble dryers and dishwashers.
The department of traditional affairs this week presented a draft framework for the provision of resources for leaders to the parliamentary oversight committee on traditional affairs.
Masenjana Sibandze, a deputy director general in the department, said the resources were necessary to enable members of the national and provincial houses of traditional leaders and other traditional leaders to perform their duties efficiently.
"They are commonly referred to as tools of [the] trade," he said.
Sibandze said the committee had found that there was an inconsistent application of resources in the provinces.
He said four traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape, for example, had qualified for Mercedes-Benz MLs as well as double-cab bakkies, and had R10 000-a-month petrol cards, car services and insurance at the state's expense, but those in the Free State had only qualified for a Mercedes-Benz of a "lower level" E class with an unlimited petrol card.
Traditional leaders in Mpumalanga were also driving Mercedes-Benz MLs, but paid for the servicing of the cars.
Sibandze said some traditional leaders receive R2 000 monthly cellphone allowances, and others have an unlimited cellphone allowance.
"You can see there is no uniformity. Each province does what it wants. These frameworks seek to standardise and come up with an approach within affordable resources of the state."
When the document was presented to a meeting of ministers and members of executive council (MinMEC) on August 16, it was rejected and the department was told to re-examine it with a view to decreasing "the financial implications on the state".
"MinMEC was very scared that what the department was presenting was not affordable. We were told [to] go back to the drawing board, look at your model again and provide something that will be affordable. We have done that'," said Sibandze.
It is still not clear how much this will cost the state, if approved, but Sibandze said the provinces would foot the bill.
'Kings and queens'
The document will be resubmitted to MinMEC on September 26 for consideration.
MPs did not seem to be buying into the idea, saying the "tools of the trade" are luxuries and that it was pathetic for "kings and queens" to drive luxury cars when their communities struggled in poverty.
They pointed out that traditional leaders do not have a specific term of office, and the proposals would mean giving them a state-owned house for life. They also said their functions were a duplication of what ward councillors and ward committees were doing.
ANC MP Dumisile Nhlengethwa said: "Even at the MinMEC, it was pointed out that traditional leaders are custodians of African customs and culture. When you want all these modernised things, where are the customs and culture issues?"
ANC MP Mntwabantu Matshoba was even more scathing and said it appeared that traditional leaders wanted to be treated like ministers.
"When we were fighting for liberation, we were not fighting for the liberation of a certain group. The resources that the government has are to improve the lives of the people," said Matshoba.
Inkosi Sipho Mahlangu, an executive member of the national house of traditional leaders, shot back, saying it was Parliament that had decided to make traditional leaders public office bearers, and that in 2011 the Independent Commission for the Remuneration of Public Office Bearers had made a determination for all public office bearers.
A political decision
Mahlangu said traditional leaders, as presiding officers of a structure, should be able to carry out their work effectively and there should be tools of the trade that would allow the structure to do its work.
"What has been determined by the commission doesn't give traditional leaders anything more than what it has given to public office bearers.
"I'm not sure if as a traditional leader earning R170 000 I can get myself a house for R170 000. I could say 'why doesn't an MP use his money and get himself or herself own accommodation in Cape Town?' It could be the same argument," said Mahlangu.
"From some of the MPs' comments, I thought maybe I should be wearing ibheshu [a loincloth], coming here in a donkey cart. That's what I could gather, that as a traditional leader, I should living in a guqasthandaze [hut] or what is it that am I supposed to do?"
Mahlangu said when the country had transitional authorities in 1996, some councillors were earning about R1 000 a month, but now councillors earned R400 000 a year.
"Was it affordable? That was not a decision we could make, but it was a political decision. We are hoping that as politicians we need to allow the institution to evolve."
There are about 8 000 traditional leaders in South Africa. About 7 400 are headmen and women, and the others are more senior leaders.