At 94, Prince Mangosuthi Buthelezi, the traditional prime minister of the Zulu nation, refuses to back down in his confrontation with South Africa’s new Zulu king, Misuzulu ka Zwelithini. The Zulus — 11 million strong — are South Africa’s biggest ethnic tribe.
When the iconic King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu died in 2021 after a record 50 years on the throne, a bitter palace war raged over his successor – and the political treachery and drama began.
His son, Prince Misuzulu ka Zwelithini, 48, fought out one of his brothers until he triumphed and was crowned the new Zulu king in October last year. Throughout the fight, Buthelezi was instrumental in ensuring the young prince won the throne.
The position comes with privilege as perhaps the person with the most influence in South Africa after the president.
The monarchy owns and runs Ingonyama Trust, a corporate body established by South Africa’s government to give to the monarchy vast ownership of 28,000 square kilometres of prime land across KwaZulu-Natal.
A deepening rift over who appoints the board that controls Ingonyama Trust, and its immense riches of assets worth R25bn ($1.4bn), is at the centre of the bitter fallout between Buthelezi and the new Zulu king.
“The rift between the traditional prime minister and His Majesty is rooted in the chairmanship of the Ingonyama Trust. According to the [law], the king has an obligation to appoint the chair, which he did,” Sihawukele Ngubane, a Zulu culture expert and professor at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, tells The Africa Report.
“The issue of land is a sensitive one.”
In May, the new Zulu king and the South African government appointed a new chairperson, Inkosi Thanduyise Mzimela, to the Ingonyama Trust Board, removing Jerome Ngwenya, a non-practising judge,considered loyal to Buthelezi, from the position. Buthelezi, furious, summoned lower Zulu chiefs and asked them to back him in “defending Zulu land”.
The dispute affects the Zulu nation at large
Hostilities deepened between Buthelezi and the new Zulu king, with both sides exchanging unsavoury words in public. Buthelezi – who has sole authority to sign the king’s court papers and affidavits in the ongoing succession lawsuits – threatened to dump the king unless he gains control over the Ingonyama Trust Board.
“[I am] finding it extremely difficult to serve the nation under the leadership of King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini,” Buthelezi told reporters.
The relations between the king and Buthelezi reached its lowest point in July when Buthelezi announced that the king had fallen ill after being poisoned and was receiving treatment in the nearby kingdom of eSwatini. The king vehemently denied Buthelezi’s claims.
A controversial past
The mercurial Buthelezi has seen it all. His Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) fought bloody turf battles in the 1990s as political violence almost tipped South Africa into a full-blown civil war. He helped broker peace and became a police minister, despite not being part of the ruling party.
“Buthelezi has sustained his strength in politics for many years through his loyalty to the Zulu nation. As a member of the royal family, he is dedicated to protecting the culture, history and welfare of AmaZulu, always. His passion for the nation has made him so [influential],” says Zulu expert Ngubane.
Buthelezi has a fearsome legacy and was called a ‘warlord’ by his opponents in the ANC in the 1990s.
The ANC accused Buthelezi of being sponsored by the then-apartheid government security ministries to sow black-on-black violence. Buthelezi denied the accusations.
His IFP party continues to perform well in KwaZulu-Natal, holding control of mayorships and parliament seats.
If the current tiff between Buthelezi and the Zulu king escalates, observers fear a return of bloody tribal violence in the crucial 2024 elections. The ruling ANC party and Buthelezi’s IFP party are already backing rival sides in the monarchy’s tensions.
“The dispute affects the Zulu nation at large and I agree with [observers fears]. Already, there are signs of division between the two main political parties [the ANC and IFP] in KwaZulu Natal,” Ngubane warns.
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