South Africa


King Goodwill Zwelithini’s death marks the end of an era – and the beginning of a bitter tussle

Zulu warriors at the funeral of King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu on March 18 2021 in Nongoma. (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

The king presided over an important and eventful chapter in the history of the Zulu monarchy. Now, the proverbial vultures in the royal family cannot wait to pounce on the spoils of incumbency.

He may have been the key character on the central stage of an exalted dynasty of the Zulu monarchy, but well before King Goodwill Zwelithini took the final bow, the proverbial vultures were already circling over whatever will remain of this institution as we knew it under his reign.

Understandably, the news of his Covid-19-related demise after more than a month of intensive care in hospital, has generated considerable curiosity around the succession plan and the identity of the successor. The murder of the first-born son, Prince Lethukuthula, in Johannesburg towards the end of 2020, may also add an element of intrigue and fuel baseless speculation.

However, in the greater scheme of things and with an understanding of how the current monarchy has evolved over almost half a century of the departed king’s occupation of the throne, there are more than enough pointers to a very rocky road and an extremely unpleasant journey ahead for whoever is chosen.

Such is the nature of matters of inheritance and succession since Biblical times, the Zulu royal family has also never been immune to the complications of transition from one king to another. Famously, King Shaka, the legendary founder of the nation and forebear to the departed ruler, was himself brutally executed by his own brothers who could not wait for their turn. The feuding over succession has continued to plague the family. Indeed, history does record a Zulu civil war between brothers. 

King Zwelithini’s own ascension to the throne was mired in controversy. When his father, King Cyprian Bhekuzulu, passed on in 1968, Senior Prince Israel Mcwayizeni was appointed regent since the future king was still a minor. A nasty royal dispute ensued between him and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the traditional prime minister, when the regent had to vacate the seat. 

That is an important milestone in Zulu history because for many decades later, that role of the traditional prime minister, and his role in the affairs of the royal family, was to characterise the frosty relationship between Prince Buthelezi and some key members of the royal family. There was a sense among some that Prince Buthelezi had no business meddling in Zulu family matters, and in later years he was accused of using the young, malleable king to further his own political ambitions when in 1975 he revived Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe, which had been formed by King Goodwill’s forebear, King Solomon, in 1923. 

That King Zwelithini was a patron of the organisation fuelled suspicion among Prince Buthelezi’s royal detractors that he was drawing the monarch closer for his own ends. That was why, by the time the conflict between Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress erupted and claimed the lives of thousands of people in KwaZulu-Natal in the late 80s and early 90s, the ANC had identified and cultivated strategic members of the royal family who resented the IFP leader’s presence in their lives. 

It therefore came as no surprise when the aggrieved former regent, Prince Mcwayizeni, made it to Parliament on an ANC ticket after the historic first democratic elections in 1994. He might not have needed to utter a word throughout his stint in the hallowed corridors of power, but his recruitment was a deft political manoeuvre carefully crafted in the best clandestine traditions of one Jacob Zuma. By any account, it was a shrewd move on the part of the ANC as it tangibly demonstrated to members of the Zulu royal family that there was indeed life beyond the traditional Zulu prime minister and his political preferences. 

Those of Zulu royalty could rebel and chart their own political path without Buthelezi. 

So deep was the rift that at some point Prince Mcwayizeni boldly proclaimed that he was finally excommunicating “Gatsha Buthelezi” from the affairs of the Zulu royal family. Of course, the IFP leader and longevity are synonymous. In his long life he has swatted bigger political flies.

And so it came about that Prince Buthelezi buried King Cyprian and now his heir, King Zwelithini. As he has often stated of late, he had hoped that he would not have to bury the younger king as well, considering Prince Buthelezi’s own advanced age. Although he is remarkably strong for his 92 years, he understands that he has done his part for the institution of Zulu monarchy.

That, however, does not detract from the fact that there are many among the royal family who cannot wait to see his back and “reclaim” the institution from his influence. As he remained steadfast in service of the king even after the monarch had drawn the last breath, the knives were out for him. Much as he tried to project an image of a family united in grief, it was evident that some among the royals were ready for life without him. His communication of the decisions of the family since King Zwelithini’s passing has been contradicted, to the extent that he was not consulted when the family convened their own media briefing to advise on the funeral arrangements. 

It was also evident that they were at odds regarding the number of mourners who could attend, considering that not only had President Cyril Ramaphosa declared this a top-level state funeral, Covid-19 regulations had to be adhered to.

As it turned out, thousands of people, including warriors who could not care less about the small matter of a piece of cloth over the mouth, descended upon the palace to bid farewell to their king. Death from the pandemic, they declared, was secondary to the death they were suffering as a result of the loss of their beloved monarch.

Those in the ANC who have always wanted to reduce the influence of the institution, will seize the opportunity to attempt to whip the Zulus into line and dispel any semblance of autonomy over the land that King Zwelithini’s forefathers fought for against the imperialists. 

It took Prince Buthelezi, in his capacity as the traditional prime minister to the king (as he reminded them), to chastise them for not complying with Covid-19 regulations and order them to disperse.

Symbolically, out of respect for him, they pretended to obey but proceeded to honour the king as if the departed one were still among them. 

A chapter of the centrality of this particular traditional prime minister was closing.

With it, will shift the sands of the Zulu monarchy as we have come to understand it under the last king. 

A key issue of contestation between some members of the royal family and democratically elected structures of governance, is the distinction between a constitutional monarch, as King Zwelithini was, and an absolute monarch, as we have in neighbouring eSwatini.

This point is particularly critical now that the ANC is in charge of government in KwaZulu-Natal and will have an opportunity to craft a new kind of relationship with whoever takes over the reins.

The broad church that it is, the ANC has many powerful dissenting voices within who despise the institution of traditional leadership. They could barely stand the king and grudgingly deferred to him when he officially opened the KwaZulu-Natal legislature before the premier delivered the State of the Province Address.

Some declare themselves republicans, and of course those with inclinations of liberalism will not be seen dead bowing before a king. 

But the biggest source of tension, from the days of the old KwaZulu Government under Inkatha in Ulundi, are laws and regulations that govern the disbursement of public funds – even towards the maintenance of a king.

There is a notion, even among some current members of the Zulu Royal Family, that every wish of the king should be fulfilled without the necessary constraints that come with irritants such as the Public Finance Management Act. A famous example when the IFP was in charge of government, was the accusation that the king and queens had limits placed on the airtime on their cellphones and that they needed to submit requests before undertaking trips in vehicles procured by the state. As a result of such matters, over decades and successive governments of both the IFP and the ANC, the issue of the finances of the royal household remains a perennial challenge. 

Fortunately, because of his own persona and individual relationship with all political leaders, King Zwelithini commanded the respect of those who interacted with him. That they came from all corners of the country to ask for his blessings ahead of the last general election, and trekked to Nongoma to pay their last respects on his passing, bear testimony to the legacy he leaves. 

The issue of the Ingonyama Trust and the vast tracts of land over which he had custodianship has remained a bone of bitter contention between the monarchy and the central government under the ANC. Because King Zwelithini had a personal interest on behalf of his people, even Ramaphosa had to tread very carefully, lest he upset a man who, as his funeral demonstrated, commanded a lot of respect.

But he is gone now. 

And the person who did much to preserve the institution of the Zulu monarchy will not be around to hold the hand of any future king, whoever they are. 

King Goodwill Zwelithini’s departure marks the end of an important and eventful era in the history of the Zulu monarchy. 

The proverbial vultures in the royal family cannot wait to pounce on the spoils of incumbency. The tussle will be bitter.

Those in the ANC who have always wanted to reduce the influence of the institution, will seize the opportunity to attempt to whip the Zulus into line and dispel any semblance of autonomy over the land that King Zwelithini’s forefathers fought for against the imperialists. 

The sense of tranquility and stability that marked the last days of this king could dissipate. DM

Cyril Madlala is a former editor of Umafrika and the The Independent on Saturday in KwaZulu-Natal. Over the years he has reported extensively on provincial and national politics, particularly the transition from apartheid to the democratic dispensation.


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  • One does not wish to speak ill of the dead but really the King was a remnant of the past, with very expensive tastes and an ancient view of land. He fought successfully to retain control over hundreds of thousands of hectares of tribal land,and really was the sole authority. This must change.

    • To what? The ANC and its allies have a strong desire to assume control of all land in the country, assuming the benefactor role in its distribution and control.
      He had his failings but Zwelithini always put his people first

  • I find it difficult to mourn the passing of a king who did so little for his subjects most of whom live in abject poverty while he lived a life of splendour and luxury. Things need to change to bring about change especially those in the rural areas

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