On March 12, 2021, Goodwill Zwelithini, the king of the Zulus in South Africa, passed away from COVID-19 complications while being treated for diabetes at Chief Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in Durban. He was 72 years old. The longest-reigning Zulu monarch, Zwelithini’s reign stretched across the apartheid-era, the civil war in Natal, the political transition, the fight against HIV/AIDS (which hit the province of KwaZulu-Natal especially hard), and the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, his rule has not been without controversy and, for many, his reign has coincided with major economic burdens and societal strains. Despite these issues, for two weeks after his death, South Africa’s attention turned fully to Nongoma in the KwaZulu-Natal province where South Africans’ political elite and Zulu royalists struggled to chart the path forward.
In the wake of the announcement of his passing, high profile South African political leaders, especially from the ruling African National Congress, traveled to KwaKhethomthandayo palace in Nongoma to pay their respects to the late monarch and his family. They include former president Jacob Zuma, ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, and Kwazulu-Natal Premier Sihla Zikalala. Additionally, on March 16, Julius Malema, the leader of opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, traveled to Nongoma to warn the royal family against division in the wake of the monarch’s death. Malema urged the royal family to stick together: “The Zulu nation is celebrated as a united monarchy and we want to see that unity continue beyond this.”
While the ANC’s deference to the Zulu royal family doesn’t come as a surprise – it’s been part of its electoral strategy since the end of apartheid—Malema’s actions came more of a surprise. Zwelithini is the largest landowner in the province; he owns 29.67% of the province’s land as the sole trustee that controls Zulu ancestral land through the Ingonyama Trust. Founded in 1994, the Ingonyama Trust serves as a fund to manage land formerly owned by the KwaZulu Bantustan government. These lands (nearly 2.8 million hectares) are vested under Zwelithini as a trustee. Earlier this year, in January 2021, the Trust came under scrutiny for poor bookkeeping and issues of governance. Rural black people in KwaZulu complain of exploitation and excessive rents under the Trust. In 2018, Malema drew the ire of the Zulu Royal Family when he spoke out against the Ingonyama Trust as part of its larger focus on land reform as the EFF’s primary political strategy. However, in more recent years, Malema has changed his tone towards Zwelithini, courting the monarch’s favor, most ironically by gifting the king five cows in 2017. Given the centrality of land reform to the EFF’s political strategy, Malema’s praise of Zwelithini seems out of character.
Then there is Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. During apartheid, as I have written here earlier, he enjoyed a testy and at times needy relationship with the king (his KwaZulu Bantustan paid the king a salary). Buthelezi claims to be Zwelithini’s “prime minister.” Right after Zwelithini’s death, he publicly complained of being disrespected by the Zulu royal family over how the king’s corpse was being prepared for burial, claiming “I cry because I take unnecessary hits.”
Buthelezi also railed against negative press coverage of the late king in the days following his death; not surprising since complaining about the press coverage (and frequently suing South Africa newspapers is kind of Buthelezi’s modus operandi). Most of the initial coverage of Zwelithini’s legacy was quite fawning, including in Euro-American media. The BBC called him a “straight talking king,” while the New York Times credited him with “”shepherd[ing] his people from the apartheid era into a modern democratic society.” This is not very surprising, given the lack of critical engagement with the king’s actions during the apartheid-era. Africa Is a Country’s tweets about my 2018 post about Zwelithini, “The Emperor has no Clothes,” surprised a few younger South Africans, unaware of the king’s collusion with apartheid since the start of his reign.
One exception was City Press editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya. Makhanya wrote that the deceased king “should be remembered for what his most prominent role was in our history: a useful idiot in the hands of the apartheid government, whose willingness to lend his powerful position to the service of that regime cost tens of thousands of lives.” Sunday Times journalist Chris Barron similarly penned an opinion piece which described Zwelithini as a “kept man,” referring to the extravagant government salary enjoyed by the late monarch. Buthelezi responded that the royal family had “been pierced to the heart by the vulgar lies splashed across two national newspapers by the editor of the City Press and in the obituary of the Sunday Times.” The two articles, Buthelezi charged, amounted to “sadistic cruelty.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the distinction of a Special Official Funeral Category 1, which is a distinction reserved for “outstanding persons specifically designated by the President of South Africa on request by the Premier of a province.” Ramaphosa has also granted this distinction to former Chief of State Protocol Billy Modise in June 2018, BaPedi King Victor Thulare in January 2021 and human rights lawyer and social activist George Bizos in September 2020. Obviously, holding a state funeral in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic posed challenges and measures were taken to lessen the number of mourners who would appear in person to celebrate the late king. Buthelezi sent out a plea to mourners to “not to travel to Nongoma to pay their respects,” adding that it is “vital that we avoid crowds gathering at this time, as this would place lives in jeopardy;” with this in mind, the family decided not to have Zwelithini’s body lay in state as had been done with his father, Cyprian.
With the threat of a super-spreader event in mind, Eskom, South Africa’s electrical provider, decided to suspend load shedding to allow as many mourners as possible to watch the livestream of the service. A statement from Eskom explained: “This extraordinary measure has been implemented to allow the nation to witness a key and significant historical event at this difficult time in the life of the Zulu nation. Afterwards, load shedding will then be implemented and continue as previously communicated.” It is estimated that this suspension of load shedding cost 20 million rand; the last in a long line of government-shouldered expenses stemming from the late Zulu monarch and his family of six wives and estimated 32 children.
Even with this effort to avoid large crowds (and extravagant expense to be shouldered by taxpayers), hundreds flocked to Nongoma on March 18, 2021 to honor the life of Zwelithini. Although the king had been buried privately the night before, his subjects, South African political elite, and celebrity mourners (including Princess Charlene of Monaco). Numerous speakers took to the stage to honor Zwelithini’s legacy, including Buthelezi and Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa’s comment that Zwelihtini “was a bridge-builder between cultures,” stands in harsh contrast to the xenophobic and homophobic comments that Zwelithini has made in recent years At the end of Ramaphosa’s remarks, Zulu amabutho (warriors) attempted to storm the stage. An anonymous source reported that this was meant to embarrass the President and let him know “that he isn’t welcomed in the province until he has smoked a peace pipe with Zuma and others,” referring to Ramaphosa’s negative comments on the former president’s refusal to appear before the Constitutional Court.
As for Buthelezi, he propagated a similarly revisionist version of the late monarch’s career and political legacy, purporting that “his reign saw no wars … yet he reigned through one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history.” Not long after this statement, however, Buthelezi contradicted himself, noting that Zwelithini “was always a king at war and we, his warriors, were always in battle.”
Now that the king has been buried and honored, attention now turns to the future of the Zulu Kingdom. With the late monarch’s estimated net worth valued at R284 million and an annual budget of R71.3 million awarded to the royal house by the government in 2020, the next monarch of the Zulu kingdom is already a very wealthy man. At a private reading of the Zwelithini’s will, his “great wife” (and sister to current Swazi King Mswati III) Mantfombi MaDlamini Zulu was named as regent and the king indicated that he wished his successor to come from her Kwakhangelamankengane palace. Many expected Zwelithini’s successor to be his first-born son, Lethukuthula, but his suspicious death in November 2020 complicates the path to succession. The selection of Mantfombi as regent indicates that her son, Misuzulu, is likely to be the next Zulu king, though we will not know for sure until the three-month mourning period comes to an end.
In addition to the issues surrounding succession, the future of the Ingonyama Trust immediately emerged as a major source of concern. Debates over the future of the Trust have proliferated for years, with Zwelithini standing as a staunch defender of this land-holding organization. This role as protector of the Ingonyama Trust is of particular importance as a new trustee (in the form of the new Zulu king) will collect profits from the Trust, while collects funds for each “permission to occupy” certificate and lease agreements. Many have expressed concerns about the future of the trust, including a prominent chief, Mabhudu Tembe, who shared with IOL.com reporters on that interested parties (namely, the state) “may exploit the vacuum and rush the process to grab it.” Tembe, a chief in the Manguzi area, warned of the repercussions is the state disbanded the trust. “I must warn them that they must know we are still around as traditional leaders and we will defend the trust,” Tembe declared. With the pressures of COVID-19 and decades of economic downturn pressing on the Zulu nation, these tensions threaten to boil over if the situation is not managed carefully.