The emperor has no clothes

South Africa’s most famous monarch holds fast to power and prestige at no cost to himself.

King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu of the Zulu. Image: Wiki Commons.

On December 3, 2018, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu celebrates 47 years since his coronation as Isilo (King) of the Zulus of South Africa. Zwelithini (literally, “What does the world have to say?”) was born on July 14, 1948, the eldest son of Paramount Chief Cyprian Bhekuzulu and his second wife, Thomozile Jezangani kaNdwandwe. Groomed to become king from a young age, Zwelithini was enrolled at Bhekuzulu College, the training institution for the sons of chiefs and headmen in Nongoma, and tutored in Zulu customs privately at the Khethomthandayo royal residence. Following his father’s death on September 17, 1968, Zwelithini went into hiding amid assassination threats. In his absence, the South African government installed his uncle, Prince Israel Mcwayizeni, as regent. Mcwayizeni served as regent until Zwelithini’s return to South Africa soon after his 21st birthday and marriage to his first wife. On December 3, 1971, Zwelithini was installed officially as Paramount Chief of the Zulus before 30,000 Zulus and a number of white administrators, including P.W. Botha (later Prime Minister and then State President under apartheid). Associated Press video footage from the event show a young man still in mourning for the father he never properly bid farewell to, struggling to keep his emotions in check at the mention of his father’s name. Watch:

From the moment of his installation, a pattern was established which would come to characterize Zwelithini’s reign, in which his political will was utilized to promote another’s end game. At the installation, it was M.C. Botha, the apartheid Minister of Bantu Administration (basically, the minister in charge of indirect rule), who used the occasion to remind the young king of his tenuous hold to power and his debt to the white authorities who allowed him to maintain his position.

In 1970, the KwaZulu Territorial Authority was established. In 1972, it got its own parliament, the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly (KZLA). Under the terms of the homeland’s new parliament, as defined by the Zulu Territorial Authority constitution and negotiated while Zwelithini remained in exile, the young king’s position remained ceremonial and the Zulu royal household remained alienated from the leadership of the new Bantustan. Mangosuthu Buthelezi, as chairman of the KZLA, emerged as the major authority and utilized his position to foster a Zulu nationalist movement. Buthelezi, who claimed familial ties to Zwelithini as well as a historical role for a member of his family (in this case, himself) as the king’s “prime minister,” named Zwelithini as the symbolic figurehead to promote his own agenda.  On March 21, 1975, Buthelezi launched the Inkatha movement, paying homage in name to Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe (Inkatha Freedom Nation), a cultural organization started by Zwelithini’s grandfather, King Solomon ka Dinuzulu in the 1920s. Inkatha ushered in a new era of Zulu nationalist politics. Ironically, the formation of the KwaZulu bantustan rested on an understanding on the part of apartheid’s rulers that Zwelithini would be easier to manipulate given his lack of experience in politics, as opposed to Buthelezi who represented a significant threat to white authorities’ plans for KwaZulu.

In the early years of his reign, Zwelithini occupied a subordinate position to Buthelezi, following his lead on matters of local politics and finding himself subject to the whims of the KZLA. Overtime, however, rumors of a feud between Buthelezi and Zwelithini escalated, gaining in intensity following the Isandlwana centenary celebrations in January 1979. (Isandlwana was an important battle between British colonial forces and Zulus ending which the latter won.) Although multiple news outlets published photos of the two leaders side-by-side, rumors spread that tensions were exposed when Zwelithini was excluded from making a speech during the day’s events. In reality, this tension had been festering since 1975, when Zwelithini became involved in the Inala party, a political organization spearheaded by Chief Mhlabunzima Maphumulo, with a more open hostility to apartheid and designed to oppose Inkatha. In reaction to this perceived slight, Buthelezi had been working to officially restrict Zwelithini’s power through his position in the KZLA. In the wake of the Isandlwana slight, Zwelithini refused to appear before the KZLA, at which point Buthelezi moved to lower his annual salary from R21,000 to R8,000. At this point, the king agreed to appear before the KZLA, only to be accused of unconstitutional conduct and to storm out of the session.

In 1980, news broke that Zwelithini had attempted to join the apartheid army, a move interpreted by many as a further challenge to Buthelezi. Buthelezi, as chairperson of the KZLA, rejected the king’s application. The ANC historian, Mzala, in the 1988 book Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda (a book Buthelezi has had banned), interpreted these events as symbolic of a new era in the kingship. “Never before in the history of the Zulu had their king been subject to the control of a chief,” he wrote, “Yet the Bantustan system was able to make this possible.” This moment made it clear that while Zwelithini enjoyed increased status under the bantustan system, it came at the expense of his autonomy; he was expected to support Inkatha and rail against its enemies, especially the ANC and other organizations involved in the armed struggle. (The Zulu royals and the KZLA’s relationship was a series of shifting alliances during the 1970s and 1980s, at least according to Buthelezi’s own telling.)

After the boycotts of the Tricameral Parliament elections (which granted voting rights to coloureds and Indians and local governments to blacks) of 1984 and the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), to oppose the reforms of Tricameralism, violence broke out which spun into a brutal civil war that lasted from 1985 to 1995, claiming 20,000 lives and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Inkatha supporters faced off against an alliance of UDF-ANC-South African Communist Party members who aimed to not only make South Africa ungovernable for the white minority government but also to punish those viewed as Apartheid sympathizers. The KwaZulu homeland by this point controlled most black people in the province’s lives – schools, health care, rental housing – and Buthelezi and the KZNLA was seen as an extension of apartheid.  The violence between Inkatha also spread to areas around Johannesburg. It later emerged, via public commissions and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that Inkatha had been supplied with weapons by the police and aided by government hit squads.

Throughout this period, Zwelithini attempted to maintain neutrality, but criticized the ANC at several critical junctures, which did little to endear him to a coalition who aimed to see the disbanding of traditional authorities once independence came. The leaders of the newly formed Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA) sought guarantees from the ANC that traditional authorities’ positions would be protected under the new dispensation; at a meeting in Lusaka in 1989, led by Zwelithini’s old ally Maphumulo, the ANC assured the leaders that they would protect traditional authorities. This guarantee from the ANC came just in time, as the government legalized the liberation movement in February 1990, signaling the final years of Apartheid. In response to the new presence of the ANC in South Africa as a legitimate power, Buthelezi transformed Inkatha into the Inkatha Freedom Party, intending it to mount a major challenge to the ANC’s political future in KwaZulu and South Africa more broadly.

The king and his “prime minister” enjoyed an uneasy peace into the early 1990s. As John Laband writes in the newly released biographical study of the eight Zulu kings, “it seemed that the bullied monarch had decided to make the best of it,” enjoying “a lavish lifestyle paid for by the KwaZulu administration.”

At the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), where the major parties negotiated South Africa’s political future, Zwelithini’s role emerged as a major point of contention between Buthelezi and the other CODESA delegates; Buthelezi refused to attend CODESA 2 (the second round of negotiations) in May 1992 in protest of the refusal by the ANC to clarify Zwelithini’s position. In 1993, the formation of the National House of Traditional Leaders secured Zwelithini’s future as the pre-eminent monarch of South Africa. Throughout this time, Zwelithini continued to struggle to find his place under Buthelezi’s regime, though he threw his support behind the Inkatha leader, pledging to protest the democratic elections if Inkatha was not allowed to participate. This presented one of the strangest alliances of the transition, with Zulu nationalists lined up next to two other unpopular homeland leaders (Gqozo in the Ciskei and Mangope of Bophuthatswana, who both refused the dissolution of their administrations as agreed at CODESA) as well as unrepentant white nationalists, to stop the elections.

In March 1994, armed Inkatha marched on the ANC headquarters in downtown Johannesburg. It ended in violence—it became known as the Shell House Massacre. Buthelezi and Zwelithini presented a united front. The newly elected South African President, Nelson Mandela, bypassed Buthelezi to foster a relationship with Zwelithini. Although Zwelithini’s position remained largely ceremonial in the final version of the Constitution (passed in 1996), President Mandela regularly included the Zulu monarch in decisions, both to maintain goodwill with the Zulu nation but also to bypass Buthelezi whom he found difficult to work with (to say the least).

In the new Kwazulu-Natal Province, which incorporated the KZN homeland, the IFP won the most votes (the election was marred by irregularities). One of the new Provincial Assembly’s first pieces of business, was to pass a provincial House of Traditional Leaders Act, designed to establish an advisory council of Zulu chiefs which virtually stripped the King of his authority as leader of all Zulu chiefs. The royal house issued an ultimatum that the IFP should repeal the Act or face the consequences, sentiments echoed by the ANC. The IFP passed the Act anyway, which was considered a blatant attack against the king. Though it was eventually repealed by presidential intervention, the die had been cast.

In September 1994, Zwelithini extended an invitation for newly elected President Mandela to join him for the annual Shaka Day celebrations (honoring the founder of the Zulu nation) in Stanger. Buthelezi responded to this news by boycotting the annual Reed Dance and inciting his supporters to storm a meeting between himself, Mandela and the king at the eNyokeni Palace. Attempting to calm tensions, Mandela agreed to not attend the celebrations, but the king cancelled that year’s Shaka Day festivities. Buthelezi and his supporters carried on with the events in the absence of the king. On the next day, Prince Sifiso Zulu, a member of the new advisory committee to the king, appeared on television to discuss the dispute and distance the royal family from Buthelezi. Buthelezi, in a nearby studio in the same facility, came on to the set and verbally attacked Zulu on camera before taking over the broadcast to present his version of events. After this outburst, the king’s legal adviser, S.S. Mathe, publicly denounced the events of that day as an insult to the king’s dignity and announced the severing of all ties between the Zwelithini and Buthelezi.

This rift came at an opportune time for the king, who no longer relied on Buthelezi for his financial security. Just before the transition in 1994, negotiations between the then ruling National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party resulted in the formation of the Ingonyama Trust, a fund established to manage land owned by the KwaZulu government. These lands, representing approximately 2.8 million hectares of KZN’s 9 million-hectares, are vested under Zwelithini as a trustee. As Carolyn Hamilton notes in her book, Terrific Majesty (1998), “With this transfer, Zwelithini was, for the first time in his reign, freed from direct financial dependence on the local authority headed by Buthelezi or his predecessors.”.

Under the administration of Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki (1999-2008), the king continued to enjoy regular visits from the new president. At the same time, however, Mbeki depended on his deputy president, Jacob Zuma, to ameliorate relations between the ANC, the IFP, and the royal house. The journalist William Gumede argues that Zuma “was more than able to match Buthelezi’s gift for using the symbols of Zulu culture for political ends,” proving a “natural at addressing traditional ceremonies in leopard-skin outfits, brandishing a shield and spear.” Zuma’s adroit ability to bridge the gap between traditionalists and the ANC proved doubly important as he helped convince Zwelithini that he did not have to be an IFP loyalist in order to protect Zulu traditions.

Zwelithini also found increased security in both his position and his financial well-being under the Mbeki administration. The Nhlapo Commission, established by Mbeki under the Traditional Governance and Framework Act 41 of 2003, reaffirmed Zwelithini’s rights to rule, while also denying other claims to the Zulu kingship and rejecting applications for smaller kingdoms within KwaZulu-Natal. The confirmation of his status came with financial benefits. Zwelithini’s personal stipend from the provincial Department of Royal Affairs, a government body tasked with management of the royal household, has steadily increased in recent years. For the 2014/2015 fiscal year, the Department of Royal Affairs was granted a budget of R54.2 million; this sum proved to be too paltry as the royals returned to the KZN provincial government just a few months later to request a R5 million bailout following the acquisition of new cars for each of Zwelithini’s wives. The government also covered nearly R3-million in this same year for the king’s travel expenses.

Mail and Guardian journalist Alexander Riordan argued that the Zulu royal household is parasitic, while Zwelithini himself argues that he should be receiving more. His justification? “Don’t Zulus pay tax? Am I not supposed to receive this tax from subjects? They [media] don’t understand how I live; I don’t live on that money, I work for myself. That budget you see doesn’t help me at all.” He publicly announced, in September 2017, that he feels he is not being paid a salary “fit for a king.” In May 2018, KZN Premier Willies Mchunu announced an increase of R7-million per year for the king, bringing his annual budget to R65.8-million. Zwelithini is not the only royal figure to receive a government salary; the seven royal families recognized by the South African government (the Xhosa, Thembu, Venda, Ndebele, Mpondo and Bapedi ) also receive royal salaries, albeit only R1.3-million per year

The government stipend is not Zwelithini’s only source of wealth, however. In return for endorsing use of the controversial Tara Klamp device for the province’s medical male circumcision campaign, Ibrahim Yusuf, director of Intratek Properties, gifted Zwelithini a luxury vehicle (a Lexus  valued at R1-million). In June 2015, the Isandlwana Heritage Project, under the management of the Ingonyama Trust, received R30-million from the National Lotteries Board to begin development on facilities to house the king and his royal amabutho on the occasion of celebrations at the site of the famed battle in 1879 in which the Zulu defeated British troops. Additionally, for each resident who holds a “permission to occupy”-certificate, the Trust receives R100, in addition to R1000 for every lease agreement. Though these funds are allocated to the trust, as its sole trustee, Zwelithini benefits from the wealth generated. Recently, Zwelithini allegedly acquired and gifted a government house meant for poor families to his daughter, Nqobangothando Zulu, resulting in allegations of corruption.

Zwelithini’s role remains largely unthreatened, despite these financial concerns and various public pronouncements contrary to the spirit of the Constitution, including homophobic comments that resulted in an inquiry by the South African Human Rights Commission in 2012 and xenophobic sentiments expressed in a speech in 2015 that resulted in an outbreak of violence in the province,. Zwelithini’s substantial efforts to stem the spread of HIV/Aids in KZN, with the revival of many Zulu practices, including the controversial Umkhosi Womhlanga (Reed Dance) and the initiation of a voluntary medical male circumcision campaign, might explain why he enjoys high levels of financial support at both the provincial and national levels. However, the upward trend in  HIV prevalence rates in the province suggest that his efforts have not made the impact hoped for.

Zwelithini relishes his role as king, as he demonstrated in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera in 2016. Zwelithini stated that South Africans saw him as “the king of all of KwaZulu-Natal,” because he “embrace[s] all of them . . . even the different religions . . . and different race groups are looking at me as their king . . . all political parties . . . they accept me as their monarch.” In September 2016, he took this one step further publicly declaring that Zuma should step down so that he could rule the country, citing the ANC’s losses in the local elections as justification.

As Zuma’s popularity waned in the face of gross exploitation of public funds for construction on his personal residence at Nkandla and increasing evidence of state capture (how widespread corruption became known), the distance between Zuma and the king grew. Zwelithini regularly criticized Zuma’s leadership and the shifts in South African politics under his administration. At the Reed Dance in September 2016, Zwelithini directed his comments at Zuma: “If you fail, step aside and allow us to lead the country. We can lead it very well. Anyway, God gave me powers to lead.” When it became clear that Zuma’s time as president was nearing its conclusion, Zwelithini invited Zuma to come to Nongoma where he asked Zuma to consider stepping down. Following Zuma’s resignation, Zwelithini praised the former president as a “hero.” “Only a fool would not appreciate that what he did ensured that our country is not plunged into crisis as it sometimes happens in other African countries,” he proclaimed during a keynote address at the Royal Showgrounds in Pietermaritzburg.

Before Zuma’s resignation, Zwelithini was courted by the top candidates in the run-up to the ANC’s National Conference in December 2017. Then ANC secretary general Zweli Mkhize (a former KZN premier) joined Zwelithini at the annual Reed Dance in Nongoma, while former foreign affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (she is also Jacob Zuma’s ex wife and was favored by him) made a special visit to the king. The frontrunner, Cyril Ramaphosa, also paid a visit to the king, gifting him with cattle from his own herd and receiving a Zulu shield in return. Following his victory at the National Conference, Ramaphosa traveled to Nongoma with a contingent of newly elected officials to pay a visit to Zwelithini and gift him a number of his (Ramaphosa’s) prized Ankole cattle. The ANC leadership showed a deep understanding of the influence and impact the Zulu king maintains among his people.

In November 2017, former interim President Kgalema Motlanthe (he ran the country between Mbeki’s resignation in 2008 and Zuma’s election in 2009) assembled an independent panel to investigate the Ingonyama Trust based on many of the financial abuses listed above, finding that the Trust should be dissolved and the law establishing it be struck from the Constitution. The Panel reported that “there is little evidence that the revenue generated by leases is used for the benefit of communities or their material well-being.” Motlanthe also saw in the land issue larger concerns over the actions of traditional authorities, especially Zwelithini. “The approach which confronts us as the ANC, must really be to understand that the ANC enjoys support from the people, not traditional leaders,” Molanthe explained. “The majority of them are acting as village tin-pot dictators to the people there in the villages.”

In response to this panel, Zwelithini threatened the secession of KwaZulu from South Africa. Traditional leaders, represented by Inkosi Phathisizwe Chiliza, threatened war if the ANC did not “condemn Molanthe before it’s too late.” Following this reaction, the ANC distanced itself from Motlanthe, claiming that “Comrade Molanthe’s views are not the views of the ANC and if there is any apology that has to be offered to anybody, including the king, the ANC will do that of its own accord, led by its leadership,” the ANC’s head of elections Fikile Mbalula explained. “Everyone must disabuse themselves [of the idea] that the ANC is anti-Zulu king, and it wants to annex [the Zulu kingdom] or do anything in relation to this question based on the recommendation of Molanthe’s high-level panel.”

At the #ImbizoKaZulu in July 2018, Zwelithini railed against the intervention by the ANC into the Ingonyama Trust:

It is shameful that we live in a country and under a leadership who are activists for other people in other countries to have their land back, while here at home they want to take land that belongs to the Zulus … The issue of land is a very sensitive one for the Zulu people as it is more than just about land… It is about food security, housing and political economy, among others, and it is for this reason that Zulus will not be pedestrians that will sit and watch while major decisions about their ancestral land are made…We must not be provoked… I warned Mr. Ramaphosa . . . as the governing party, they must not make the mistake of taking away the land of the Zulus because all hell will break loose.

Zwelithini announced the formation of a new amabutho named Inqaba to protect the Ingonyama Trust. In a statement released following the Imbizo, Zwelithini connected the land issue with the well-being of his people. Following the Imbizo, Cyril Ramaphosa met privately with Zwelithini, assuring him “that [neither the] government nor the ANC has any intention whatsoever to take the land from the Ingonyama Trust.” 

A few months later, during the Shaka Day celebrations in Durban, Zwelithini shocked audiences worldwide when he announced plans to partner with Afriforum, a white minority lobbying group recently brought to international attention by U.S. President Donald Trump. The group has spent huge amounts of time and capital attempting to convince the world of the existence of a murderous campaign targeting white farmers in South Africa. Although framed in terms of food security, the partnership between these unlikely bedfellows cannot be disentangled from the struggles over land. At the Shaka Day celebrations, Zwelithini called on Afriforum to “come help us as they’ve introduced themselves to me that they are willing to work with me and my father’s people to uplift agriculture in our land in order to have food.” Zwelithini had hinted at this partnership at the July 2018 Imbizo, commenting that just because the organization was led by Afrikaners “doesn’t mean that I actually should not lend them my ear or time just like the rest of us.” With the upcoming 2019 elections in mind, Zwelithini addressed the crowd, insisting that “anyone who wants to be elected by us must come and kneel here and commit that [they] will never touch your land.”

In November 2018, Zwelithini was served a lawsuit by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) and the Rural Women’s Network (RWN), challenging the conversion of Permission to Occupy (PTO) certificates and informal land rights to long-term lease agreements.

“Since 2007, the trust and board has been undermining the security of tenure of residents and occupiers of trust-held land in KwaZulu-Natal and extorting money from them by unlawfully compelling them to concluded these agreements and pay rent to the trust to continue living on the land,” ASAC chairman Lawson Naidoo told The Citizen.

While Zwelithini has enlisted his subjects to contribute donations to fight any potential threats to the Ingonyama Trust in court, other tenants of Ingonyama Trust lands have called for the repayment of rents collected unlawfully over the past decade. Bongani Zikhali, a former policeman, told City Press, “Isilo is our father and if need be that we have to take care of him, we can. But not by paying rent, as if we are foreigners in the land of our ancestors.”

Although on the surface Zwelithini’s stance in the continuing land claim saga seems strange, in hindsight, it is a logical move for the Zulu monarch, whose reign has long depended on his ability to work with powerful figures to advance his position and status.

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