Royal succession in the age of social media

New Zulu king Misuzulu's strategy for ensuring the relevance of his monarchy copies from the Windsors in Britain: use the media.

Misuzulu kaZwelithini officially crowned as Zulu king. Image credit GCIS via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0.

In the wake of the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, Zulu royals publicly shared their condolences at a similarly pivotal moment in the amaZulu kingdom’s history. Elizabeth II’s  passing in September 2022 refocused attention on the role of the British monarch in facilitating, and benefiting from, empire. It produced calls for the royal family to grapple with this legacy. Particular attention has been paid to the jewels that feature in royal ceremony–such as those that the family wore to shore up their public legitimacy in Elizabeth’s televised installation in 1953. The new leaders of the amaZulu and the United Kingdom face tremendous challenges.

The amaZulu kingdom has a long history of entanglement with Elizabeth II and her predecessors. The British invaded Zululand in 1879 after King Cetshwayo kaMpande refused to submit. After the initial Zulu victory at Isandlwana, the British defeated the king’s armies in a six-month war. Cetshwayo appealed to Queen Victoria for his restoration to the throne but ultimately the British Colony of Natal annexed Zululand during the reign of his son, Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo. King Dinuzulu sided with the British in the South African War of 1899 to 1902, leading a raid on the Boers in 1901, and later looked to the Crown as an ally against the settler government. King Solomon kaDinuzulu, on the throne from 1913 to 1933, decorated his home with portraits of British royalty and prepared carefully for his meeting with the Prince of Wales, who was on tour in South Africa in 1925. Amid efforts to control King Cyprian Bhekuzulu kaSolomon, who ruled from 1948 to 1968, the South African cabinet refused his request to attend Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. Cyprian had helped to mobilize his subjects for the British royal family’s 1947 tour of South Africa and viewed the proposed trip as part of a long relationship between the two monarchies. Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, king between 1968 and 2021 and Elizabeth II shared the experience of serving as longest reigning monarchs in the histories of their kingdoms.

On October 29, 2022, at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, President Cyril Ramaphosa handed over the certificate of recognition to the new Zulu King, Misuzulu kaZwelithini. Like several of his predecessors, the new king’s accession to the throne was complicated by a succession dispute, which exposed factionalism among Zulu royals who preferred either one of two of Misuzulu’s brothers, Prince Simakade kaZwelithini or Prince Buzabazi kaZwelithini, as the rightful heir to the throne.

Misuzulu is the first-born son of the late king Zwelithini and the late Swazi princess Mantfombi Dlamini, the latter of whom played a key role in his accession prior to her 2021 death. Born in 1974, Misuzulu studied from a young age at eSwatini and later in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, at St. Charles College. After university study in the United States (it is unclear whether or not he completed a degree), he returned to South Africa and remained largely anonymous until his father’s passing. He married Ntokozo Mayisela in advance of his installation.

Not surprisingly, the issues facing the new Zulu king are many. The royal house stands to lose income after a successful court challenge against charging rental fees on the land of the Ingonyama Trust (of which the Zulu king is sole trustee). He faces calls for the dismantling of the trust itself. The land remains perhaps the most pressing concern for impoverished Zulu subjects who rely upon trust land for subsistence and small-scale farming. The cozy relationship between some traditional leaders, government representatives, and mining companies and property developers poses a threat to those on the land, while officials stand to benefit. South African taxpayers tire of supporting the royal family’s exorbitant lifestyle. Will Misuzulu use his kingship on behalf of his family or the Zulu nation? South Africans in general and the people of KwaZulu-Natal in particular wait attentively to see how the new Zulu monarch will deal with the issue of land.

The succession dispute within the Zulu royal family brings forth the urgent need to scrutinize the positions of royal women. It is not widely understood that different royal wives are customarily allocated specific positions depending on when and how they were brought into the royal family as ondlunkulu. Attention to the ranks of the king’s wives can go a long way towards addressing the confusion around custom and distinguishing between it and the colonial interventions that distorted succession practices for kingship positions and those of ubukhosi (chieftainship). This can also minimize the sense of irony that anthropologist Sipho Sithole highlights when he points out that the South African government legitimized Misuzulu in a manner akin to colonial recognition of traditional leaders when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared him King of the Zulu nation in accordance with the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Act.

The provincial home of the royal family has been plagued by violence—in particular, the devastating unrest that erupted after the former South African president, Jacob Zuma, was arrested in July 2021. The widespread destruction included the loss of more than 300 lives. This unrest came on the back of the ongoing assassinations tied to party politics and traditional authority contests—which are a grim reminder of the widespread violence in the last 15 years of apartheid rule. The most recent of these assassinations, the murder of King Misuzulu’s advisor iNduna Dumisani Khumalo after the 2022 Umhlanga Womhlanga, may or may not be related to the ongoing challenge to King Misuzulu’s leadership of the largest ethnic group in South Africa.

How then will King Misuzulu navigate this transition and the accompanying challenges? Recent efforts suggest the media will play an integral role as he publicly ties his royal family to that of the Windsors and invites his subjects into royal customs formerly obscured. Much of this media coverage and budget comes out of government accounts—the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government is responsible for the King’s “salary, allowances, benefits, budget and required tools of trade.”

The Zulu royal family began to make these connections in the wake of the British queen’s passing. uMntwana Mangosuthu Buthelezi shared the royal family’s condolences:

On behalf of His Majesty King Misuzulu kaZwelithini and the Royal Family, as well as on my own behalf as traditional Prime Minister to the Zulu Monarch and nation, I extend our deepest condolences to the House of Windsor in this tragic hour as we mourn the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II… May God comfort the people of the United Kingdom, and all those around the world who felt such great esteem and affection for Her Majesty the Queen.

The new king likened the mourning of his kingdom to that of the British when he connected the queen’s passing to that of his late father who died in 2021: “If you look at the situation they are in at the moment, we have been in that sad situation.” He spoke clearly aware of global condemnations of the monarchy’s role in empire but also the need to shore up monarchies in the face of growing criticisms: “With that being said, I know that the English do not have a good history, they are still monarchs…” He recalled their sharing of condolences when his parents passed and called for respect: “With that, can we please not return bad with bad because they sympathised with us during our dark times.”

Just as Queen Elizabeth II televised her 1953 coronation, the Zulu monarchy—particularly in cooperation with South African government departments—appears to be using radio and social media to shore up King Misuzulu’s legitimacy. The October 29 ceremony was broadcast live on local 24-hour news channels, slick media productions circulated, and the monarchy welcomed the public into previously shrouded ceremonies. Those legally challenging King Misuzulu now must contend with the public support garnered through these efforts.

King Misuzulu gave his first public interview in June 2021, just after the reading of his mother’s will that named him as the heir. In an exclusive sit-down with presenter Ziyanda Ngcobo of Newzroom Afrika, he humbly recognized his privilege while simultaneously asserting his authority as the child of not only the late Zulu king but also Swati royalty. Ngcobo pointed out this savvy performance in several questions about the amabutho (regiments) that surrounded him at his mother’s memorial and about the public reading of his mother’s will. Throughout the interview, King Misuzulu signaled his familiarity with the Zulu culture of respect, pointing out his deference to his parents’ intent for the throne and referring to his interlocutor as MaNgcobo. He astutely sidestepped questions on the controversial Ngonyama Trust of which he is now sole trustee, evading a clear articulation of his stance on land ownership by emphasizing his dedication to rural development in cooperation with the government.

Having come under criticism after struggling to read a speech in isiZulu during his first public address as king—necessitated by the unrest in his home province in July 2021—King Misuzulu sat down for an hour-long interview in isiZulu with Dudu “Lady D” Khoza of UkhoziFM, the premier isiZulu language radio channel in South Africa, in April 2022. As African languages scholar Liz Gunner has pointed out, UkhoziFM is one of the most influential forms of media in South Africa—attracting nearly eight million listeners each day from urban and rural communities. The station serves isiZulu-speakers across classes and has been central to the creation of a sense of community since its establishment as Radio Bantu in 1960.

King Misuzulu used this interview to connect to his subjects—smiling, laughing, and focusing on topics such as family, love, and sports. He spoke of his new wife—the new mother of the Zulu nation—who joined him halfway through the interview, and talked of his royal family upbringing. While he played rugby as a youth, he shared with his followers his longtime support for the AmaZulu football club.

His late father, King Zwelithini, was close to the AmaZulu FC, which explains why the team is called Usuthu—a reference to the senior section of the Zulu royal family since the 1870s. The usuthu originated as a distinguishing war cry or war chant of Prince Cetshwayo kaMpande’s supporters when they fought the supporters of his half-brother, Prince Mbuyazi kaMpande, at the Battle of Ndondakusuka in 1856. When Cetshwayo ascended to the Zulu throne in the 1870s, it became the Zulu national cry or chant. By the 1880s it was particularly associated with the followers of the loyalist Zulu cause that rallied behind King Dinuzulu and his uncles Princes Shingana and Ndabuko kaMpande, among others, during the resistance against the imposition of British colonial rule over the Zulu kingdom. King Zwelithini allegedly played for the AmaZulu FC.

By the time of his coronation speech in isiZulu in August 2022, commentators noted Misuzulu’s noticeable improvement with isiZulu. For the first time, the Zulu monarchy welcomed the public into the coronation ritual of Ukungena Esibayeni (entering the kraal) at KwaKhangelamankengane Royal Palace on August 20. Buthelezi, present at the same ceremony for Misuzulu’s grandfather Cyprian Bhekuzulu, described it as “a traditional prayer and ritual wishing the king well and declaring the people’s loyalty to him.”

Prince Simakade Zulu, who challenged Misuzulu to the throne, similarly held Ukungena Esibayeni at Enyokeni Palace, but without the fanfare and crowds of Misuzulu’s (journalist Chris Makhaye called Simakade Zulu’s event “a damp squib” in comparison). KwaZulu-Natal provincial government social media accounts—in accordance with central government’s recognition of Misuzulu as the heir—heralded the day as historic. Images of Amanda Mapena, the MEC in the Department of Sport, Arts & Culture,  in attendance lent legitimacy through the department’s Instagram page.

A polished media production highlighting Misuzulu’s Ukungena Esibayeni began to circulate on Twitter (with more than 150,000 views at time of writing). The video is unattributed but has close-ups of the king on the hunt that suggest media access. eNCA journalist Siphamandla Goge received praise on social media for his respectful interviews and coverage of royal ceremonies for both Misuzulu and the late Zwelithini as amaZulu and other spectators tweeted using hashtags #ZuluRoyalFamily #ZuluKingdom #Zulu and #KingMisuzulu among others. One fan page in Misuzulu’s name already has nearly 80,000 followers. On the Move Media claims to run Misuzulu’s official social media pages.

The scheduling of the Ukungena Esibayeni prior to two of the amaZulu’s annual cultural events, including the Umkhosi Womhlanga (the Reed Dance ceremony) and Umkhosi Welembe (a commemoration of King Shaka kaSenzagakhona’s death), enabled Misuzulu to proceed over these customs in subsequent media coverage. At Umkhosi Womhlanga, Misuzulu accepted his first reed as king and used his speech to offer an olive branch to his detractors.

This mobilization of amaZulu via social media stands in contrast to that of the family of former president Zuma who stoked the 2021 unrest with celebratory tweets as the violence unfolded.

About the Author

Jill E. Kelly is an associate professor at Southern Methodist University and a writing fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.

Jabulani Sithole is a commissioner in the KwaZulu-Natal Commission for Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims.

Further Reading

The king is dead

The death of the Zulu king highlights the unresolved issues that continue to shapes lives in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa.

Learning Zulu

The author, a German journalist new to South Africa, writes about her first impressions and experiences, especially with local whites; so different from anything she knew or experienced before.