Watch the Sitholes every Thursday at 17h30 on e.tv
By Janet Smith and Bonile Bam
The king was handsome in a black pin-striped suit. The chief, a man of some influence, was in the front row. The people gathered all around them. Priests and pastors. A row of traditional leaders. The king's subjects and the randomly curious.
It was quite the spectacle, before a hush fell over the Mthatha High Court.
Judge Sytze Alkema cleared his throat. He glanced at Nkosi Zwelivelile in the front row.
In mid-October, the judge found the abaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo guilty of culpable homicide, assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm, kidnapping and arson. He delivered a 129-page judgment. On Friday morning, seated before a packed courtroom, he readied himself to sentence the king.
Dalindyebo has had a torrid reign as one of only a handful of rightful monarchs in the land. The judge described it as beset by fear and violence as he detailed the charges, noting these dated back to a terrible night in 1995 when the young king lost his head on his farm in Tyalarha, and took part in an attack on a group of villagers. That night triggered events which would ultimately damn the young monarch in the dock.
Since then, Dalindyebo has apparently remained quietly out on bail of R6 000, spending a lot of his time in the garden outside his house at the Sithebe Great Place near Mthatha. It would be true to say that anyone who has met the king, without knowing him, would have a difficult time accepting he is capable of brutality.
Nonetheless, Alkema expressed his disappointment when he gave his verdict in October. He said Dalindyebo had been "self-righteous and contemptuous of the court", and he revealed a grim tale of the king's subjects being beaten up and thrown out of their huts while their possessions burned. When the trial started in 2004, with 34 charges against Dalindyebo, the king's defence was calm: "the community", they said, had committed the crimes.
Eleven different legal representatives later, the monarch continued to insist he had never issued instructions for violence. But the judge rejected this. He said Dalindyebo had kidnapped a mother and her six children after setting their home on fire. The seven kidnapping counts would be treated as one.
He declared that the king had committed culpable homicide, referring to the death of a young man who had been viciously beaten before he took his last breath. The judge related how the king had assaulted the dead man's three friends. It was claimed the four had raped women and robbed before Dalindyebo ordered they be caught and beaten.
During that appearance, the judge went on to tell how the king had also burned down the homes of three other villagers. As dark tales go, this was a litany of terrors.
Alkema reiterated his unhappiness in court on Friday morning. Dalindyebo - who is better known by his praise name, Zwelibanzi - had not shown the qualities of a monarch, he said. The king had the grace to look uncomfortable as the judge read out the charges one last time.
Dalindyebo's youth at the time of the crimes should be considered, said Alkema, but what he had done was not in the interests of the community, whose needs should come first. The king should lead and not punish.
Dalindyebo stood in the dock, brushing his beard throughout. He was a different man when he pounced on villagers occupying land around his farm. It was more than 10 years ago, shortly after he had returned home after being an MK soldier in the camps of Angola.
Dalindyebo was rather reluctant to become a monarch, taking up a contested throne in a kingdom characterised by poverty and desperation. His father had been a beloved figure, driven into exile by the rivalry of the Matanzimas, the puppets of apartheid.
But Alkema said the king had not shown remorse during the trial. He chastised Zwelibanzi. He believed that people who had lost their lives during the attack deserved dignity and respect.
For Mandla Mandela - known here as Nkosi Zwelivelile, chief of Mvezo and an ANC MP - this must have been a verdict to endure. Dalindyebo is his king and the king of all the abaThembu, wherever they may be. This includes Mandela's grandfather, Nelson Mandela, and small groups of people scattered in other parts of the country, particularly KwaZulu-Natal.
In a highly political act, designed to show support for his king, the young Mandela went into that province earlier this year to discuss the reincorporation of the abaThembu people into their nation. This trip was taken without prior discussion with King Goodwill Zwelithini, and it raised the ire of the royal house at Nongoma.
Although the constitution says kings are largely ceremonial figures who must act upon the official advice of the provincial premier, it has been a complex transition for the men who occupy the thrones. And particularly for Dalindyebo, who has not yet received the kind of official government notice he believes he requires to certify his monarchical status, kingship has been hard.
Before the verdict on Friday, he seemed to be in a good mood. He embraced his family members and other traditional leaders. Mandela kept close to his side. The king shared jokes with his brother and talked amiably to the many people who came to support him and give him strength.
Apart from the undeniable agonies of the trial, and the seemingly never-ending claim on his throne, Dalindyebo has found that his provincial and local government do not always pay him heed, even on his own land. And despite his pedigree, cash is not liquid. Being a king is not at all about wearing a crown. But he says he is proud of other things, such as being a father. He has several wives. He longs to claim his birthright completely.
So when Alkema stated his sentence loudly and clearly on Friday morning, the hopelessness that Dalindyebo has been feeling for some time must have been even more intense.
The king of the abaThembu has been sentenced to 15 years in prison. It's not going to get easier.