South Africa: Will the new Zulu king wield his father’s political influence?

By Romain Chanson, in Johannesburg
Posted on Friday, 17 June 2022 11:22

Misuzulu Zulu on 7 May 2021 during one of the last tributes to his mother, Queen Shiyiwe Mantfombi Dlamini Zulu. ©AFP

Half a century after his father was crowned king of the Zulus, it is Misuzulu kaZwelithini's turn. However, without executive power, will the monarch wield the same political influence as his predecessor?

“Political leaders of all persuasions regularly sought his advice, including me,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa during his eulogy to Goodwill Zwelithini.

After a 50-year reign, the Zulu king died of Covid-19 on 12 March 2021 at the age of 72. Ramaphosa said: “His Majesty was one of our most revered traditional leaders.”

The South African constitution recognises the role and status of traditional leaders, but republican rule prevails throughout the country.

The Zulu king is primarily a cultural authority and guardian of customs. Goodwill Zwelithini notably reintroduced the reed dance, a controversial celebration of young women’s virginity, which is also found in the Kingdom of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). Teenage girls parade around in traditional dress, topless, before offering a reed to the king. The ruler also exercises moral authority over his subjects. Goodwill Zwelithini argued that by promoting women’s virginity, the reed dance helps fight against HIV.

Traditional leaders can play an intermediary role in the state’s deployment of health and education practices. In 2020, Ramaphosa called on them to take part in the national plan to combat gender-based violence, and Goodwill Zwelithini notably denounced the large number of rape cases in his province.

A voice that counts

The voice of the Zulu king counted, for better or for worse, as he also happened to be homophobic and xenophobic. In April 2015, riots broke out after he asked foreigners to pack up and leave the country.

Following an investigation, the South African Human Rights Commission found him guilty of using “offensive” and “harmful” language but did not hold him responsible for the deadly riots.

Goodwill Zwelithini claimed that his words had been mistranslated and distorted by the media. “If I had started a war in this country, it would already be in ashes,” he said.

Goodwill Zwelithini sometimes took a belligerent tone with authorities in order to put pressure on them, but this descendant of the famous Shaka Zulu warrior also worked towards the pacification of KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s. The apartheid regime was coming to an end and war was raging between the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC) militants. “As the country moved towards democracy, he called for an end to political killings,” Ramaphosa said at his funeral.

[Goodwill Zwelithini] switched sides depending on who was able to fund him

At this crucial moment in South African history, the domination of Nelson Mandela’s party at the gates of power forced the monarch to review his alliances. The king distanced himself from his cousin, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, founder of the IFP.

“He switched sides depending on who was able to fund him,” says sociologist Gerhard Maré, professor emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a specialist in ethnic issues.

In fact, successive ANC governments have looked after the royal palace. In 2022, the province of KwaZulu-Natal contributed €4m ($4.1m) to its operating budget. In addition to this, the king and queen are paid an annual salary of €74,000 – pocket money for the Zulu king, who is first and foremost a rich landowner.

A remnant of apartheid

The king runs the Ingonyama Trust, a structure that owns one-third of the land (three million hectares) in KwaZulu-Natal province. The Trust was hard-won by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi just before the April 1994 elections.

It manages part of the land of the former Bantustan of Zululand, which was formerly reserved for Blacks under the logic of “separate development” desired by the white minority in power.

The Ingonyama Trust is therefore a remnant of apartheid. This structure allows the king to exercise economic power over his subjects. He collects rent on his land and grants concessions to the private sector (mines, agriculture, shopping centres, etc.). The inhabitants have to sign a lease with the trust and also pay rent to it – a controversial privilege in a country that is fighting against land dispossession.

“There is an urgent need to change this relationship, as provided for in the Constitution. The people own the land, not the chiefs,” says lawyer Tembeka Ngcukaitobi in his book Land Matters, published in 2021.

Indeed, the Ingonyama Trust may be under threat. The South African government is working on a law that would prohibit expropriation without compensation. As a result of the segregationist laws of the early 20th century, 72% of agricultural land is now owned by whites. The land grab by the Zulu king, therefore, contradicts the spirit of the current reform.

The king’s succession threat

This project provoked the late Goodwill Zwelithini’s anger. “[President Ramaphosa] must assure us that Zululand will be preserved, and then sign an agreement,” he told supporters in Durban in 2018. The following year, he compared the plan to “Zuluphobia” and threatened to secede if it was implemented.

The reform could soon return to the desk of the new ruler, Misuzulu kaZwelithini, 47. “The most important thing is to see whether he will allow the Ingonyama Trust to continue in this manner,” says sociologist Gerhard Maré. Taking control of this issue could allow the king to establish his authority over the 11 million Zulus who live in South Africa.

The king’s strength depends upon who is pulling the strings

The man who is taking over the largest of the country’s eight recognised kingdoms has no track record. Will he prevail? “The king is weak or strong depending on who is pulling the strings and how he behaves politically during elections,” says Gerhard Maré, author of Ethnic Continuities and a State of Exception, published in 2020.

The book explains how the Zulu identity became political through three leaders: King Goodwill Zwelithini, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Jacob Zuma.

Ethnicity played a big role in the former head of state’s political career. When he was prosecuted for rape, Zuma’s supporters referred to him as “100% Zulu Boy”.

“Since the 1990s, Zuma’s role has been central to the king’s survival. [Zuma] placed ethnicity at the centre of his politics in KwaZulu-Natal province and throughout the country,” says Maré, a win-win relationship that helped him come to power in 2009.

The former president was able to count on a broad base of loyal followers. ANC membership in the region tripled between 2007 and 2012.

However, KwaZulu-Natal would also be the scene of his downfall, first with Nkandla, a vast estate nestled in the hills and partly funded by embezzlement of public money. The revelation of this scandal contributed to the weakening of his last mandate. Then there was a last-chance visit: beleaguered by corruption cases, and pushed toward the exit by ANC top brass, Zuma visited King Zwelithini’s home in early February 2018. Ten days later, he resigned. Had he come to seek advice or support? The content of the meeting remained secret. Goodwill Zwelithini would describe Zuma’s withdrawal as “courageous”.

Then it was Ramaphosa who needed to be addressed. The South African president is – literally – a kingmaker. It was he who officially recognised Misuzulu kaZwelithini as the new Zulu ruler.

His communiqué of 16 March 2022 provided the seal of legitimacy that had been missing for the ‘king-elect’, who had simply been designated in a will contested by part of the royal family.

“I join all the people of South Africa in wishing His Majesty King Misuzulu Zulu a long and prosperous reign,” Ramaphosa said. White smoke.

One of the late king’s friends has expressed his expectations for the successor. “I would be happy if he stayed out of politics,” says Bantu Holomisa, MP and founder of the United Democratic Movement. “His priority is to unite the royal family. Then he will have to establish himself and earn the support of the Zulus.”

The Inkatha Freedom Party has also called for neutrality. “We believe that a traditional institution is above politics. It does not need to belong to a political organisation,” says Velenkosini Hlabisa, chairman of the IFP, the second-largest party in KwaZulu-Natal in the 2021 local elections.

Zulu nation

With the ANC’s internal elections scheduled for December, the temptation for candidates to mobilise the “Zulu nation” will be great.

The province, with its large number of delegates, is key to winning the election, and contenders for the presidential office have already been spotted there. Former health minister Zweli Mkhize dismissed suspicions of corruption and used his son’s wedding as a showcase for his support. At the Zulu ceremony, traditional chiefs – dressed in leopard skins and armed with a shield – rallied around this ANC executive.

These manoeuvres are primarily intended to appeal to the grassroots rather than to attract the new king’s attention. Misuzulu Zulu recently posted photos of himself on social media alongside the provincial premier, Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Patrice Motsepe, and Zuma. The new Zulu king may be keeping a low profile for the moment, but he seems to have learned his father’s lesson: in politics, the money comes from the victor.

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