King Zwelithini’s reckless use of personal power

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the Zulu King’s complicity with apartheid machinations, political violence, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia – and the exploitative Ingonyama Trust.

It has been said that the powerful state King Shaka kaSenzangakhona constructed in the early 19th century was not, as has often been suggested in colonial literature, entirely unique. There is archaeological and archival evidence, fragmentary but certainly suggestive, of an Mbo state in the same region reaching back to the 17th century and quite possibly further into the past.

But there is no doubt that the state Shaka built – in part, some have said, in response to pressures generated by Portuguese slave raiding from the East – rapidly became a powerful regional force. When the first British invasion of the Zulu Kingdom was decisively defeated at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, it became a world historical force.

But when the Zulu state was finally defeated, aspects of what remained of its system of political authority were incorporated into what became the standard colonial mode of rule, often in a distorted form. Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani has shown how, across colonial Africa, the idea that Africans naturally inhabit the realm of tradition and are therefore interlopers into modernity was fundamental to colonial ideology. One way in which colonialism used this deliberately cultivated fantasy to legitimate and organise domination was to fabricate the “tribe” as a geographically, linguistically and ethnically fixed form of political affiliation, and to then use it to divide Africans and subordinate them to a separate form of rule described as traditional authority. 

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The apartheid system took this up with enthusiasm. It is worth recalling that this was not merely a matter of using traditional authority or what Mamdani called “decentralised despotism” as a mode of social control. There was a wider ideological project at work.

Apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd sponsored the first celebration of Shaka Day, now known as Heritage Day, in 1954. The outfit that the then department of native affairs persuaded King Cyprian Bhekuzulu kaSolomon, the reigning Zulu monarch, to wear was based on images in a colonial text published in 1855 and procured for the purpose by the department. Neither Cyprian nor his father, King Solomon kaDinuzulu, had worn these sorts of clothes before the intervention of Verwoerd’s officials.

Before, during and after apartheid there have been leaders of various kinds, whose authority eminates from long-standing and living African practices, who have stood with the people who accept their authority against powerful forces. Today it is not unusual for people to prefer certain izinduna or amakhosi to some ward councillors. 

But there is also a history of authority that has been imposed in the name of tradition becoming entangled and complicit with colonialism, apartheid and now the most corrupt and rapacious elements of the ruling party, post-apartheid state and capital, mining capital in particular. In the case of the late King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, any lucid and empirically grounded appraisal of his record can only affirm the veracity of Mondli Makhanya’s assessment published in the City Press newspaper.

11 January 1992: From left, King Goodwill Zwelithini and then president FW de Klerk after negotiating the king’s participation in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Mangosuthu Buthelezi is on the left in the background. (Photograph by Media24)

An ally of apartheid

Makhanya noted how in the name of the Zulu King, and Zulu sovereignty, the progressive movement and many ordinary people were subject to sustained organised violence in what was then Natal as well as in Johannesburg. That violence was, undeniably, organised and carried out in partnership with the apartheid state. 

There is much more to say about the monarch’s record. There was his long alliance with Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the KwaZulu Bantustan during apartheid. Buthelezi made the deal with apartheid South Africa’s last president, FW de Klerk, to set up the exploitative and authoritarian Ingonyama Trust on the eve of the first democratic elections in 1994. The Trust controls around 3 million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal and the king is its sole trustee. He was willing to threaten violence to protect his fiefdom. Speaking at the opening of the provincial parliament in Pietermaritzburg in February 2018, he infamously threatened to call on his subjects to take up arms to defend the Ingonyama Trust.

The king was explicitly opposed to some of the human rights won in struggle and inscribed into the Constitution after apartheid. He made crude xenophobic and homophobic statements, and his denial of the rights of women to equality and bodily autonomy was clear. There was also the matter of the king’s partnership with Afriforum, founded on a mutual hostility to land reform.

7 September 2019: Young Zulu women gather at the annual Umkhosi Womhlanga reed dance at the Enyokeni Royal Palace in Nongoma. The Zulu royal family hosts the annual event in partnership with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sports, Arts and Culture. (Photograph by Sandile Ndlovu/ Sowetan/ Getty Images)

With Zulu kings referred to as umlomo ongathethimanga (a mouth that never lies), thousands of amaZulu hang on their every word. King Zwelithini often used that power recklessly, promoting hate and bigotry if it suited his pocket and warped view of the world. When criticised for his utterances, the ideal of respect was mobilised as a convenient shield to protect the king and batter those who dared hold him accountable into moral submission. 

Even in death, the moral weight accorded to respect has been conveniently used against those who highlight questionable elements of the king’s legacy. This at a time when most commentators and politicians are waxing lyrical over a man whose rule oppressed many of the very people deemed to be his subjects, one who allowed his name to be used in the political violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Speaking not ill but truth

In a province where Zulu nationalism is strong, although certainly not uniform, the king was an influential figure. That power was abused by successive ruling forces during his lifetime, from the apartheid government to Buthelezi, and then later the ANC when Jacob Zuma rose to power to displace Inkatha. King Zwelithini’s influence meant that the two strongest parties in the province both courted his influence and the ruling elite rewarded him for his political support by protecting the Ingonyama Trust, as well as his readily escalating perks and the millions he received every year. 

Many have raised the matter of not speaking ill of the dead. This value is central to ubuntu. But it is important to speak honestly of those in power because their decisions and utterances affect many people. If we whitewash the king’s history, we license his successor to do as they please.

26 July 2014: From left, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela with King Goodwill Zwelithini, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Jacob Zuma during the king’s wedding in Ulundi. Mafu, 18,  Zwelithini’s sixth wife, was selected at the 2003 eSwatini reed dance. (Photograph by Thulani Mbele/ Sowetan/ Getty Images)

Take Margaret Rawlings for instance. The 65-year-old has a title deed that dates back to 1926 for the Phambanisa farm she lives in Ntunjambili village under the Ingonyama Trust. But that hasn’t stopped traditional leaders in the area from selling pieces of her land.   

“When I protested to the chief and asked him why he was allocating my land without even speaking to me, he ignored me and continued selling and putting up other families,” she said. “When I went to lodge an official complaint at the tribal court, he told me in my eyes that he cannot discuss land issues with ‘a woman’ and he will do as he pleases with the land under his jurisdiction, and I can go and jump at the nearest lake if I am not happy with that.”

She went to the Ingonyama Trust office and had no luck. “This is happening at the time when there are people who are threatening me with death if I don’t leave this area,” she said. “At other times, people shoot several rounds of ammunition. But I will not leave this place and I will fight until I win. I have to fight this fight so that my children will be able to inherit the land for which my father worked very hard to buy and keep.”  

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The torment that Rawlings is living through is one of the legacies of the late king. Her experience needs to be highlighted because when the king’s transgressions are left unspoken in the name of “not speaking ill of the dead”, how will we arrive at a point at which Rawlings is able to live in peace in her home? 

The king did a stellar job of promoting the many positive aspects of Zulu culture that an unthinkingly narrow and chauvinistic conception of modernism was eroding. That has to be applauded, and is something on which his successor has to build. But the king also did a lot of damage, turning a respected position into a political plaything, being for sale to the highest bidder, oppressing many of the very people he claimed to serve, and supporting forces that destabilised parts of the country during a turbulent and dangerous period. 

It is disgraceful that, thus far, every president in democratic South Africa has allowed the oppressive, exploitative and downright corrupt nature of the Ingonyama Trust to continue. One president kneeled – literally – to the king’s whims. But the ground is fertile for a new monarch to bring progressive change to the most powerful ceremonial position in the country. 

Circa 1996: Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini at the KwaKhethomthandayo Royal Palace in KwaNongoma. (Photograph by Yves Gellie/ Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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