Thousands of Zulus gathered in Ulundi for an Imbizo convened by King Goodwill Zwelithini. At the top of the agenda was the issue of communal land. Picture: Sibonelo Ngcobo/African News Agency (ANA)

Yesterday, following days of assegai-rattling on war shields, President Cyril Ramaphosa assured King Goodwill Zwelithini that the government had no intention of grabbing land held by or interfering with the Ingonyama Trust.
The trust, established in the dying days of apartheid, effectively ceded direct control of vast swathes of land - 30% of KwaZulu Natal - to the Zulu king, upon which his subjects live at his discretion. They have no security of tenure whatsoever.

The latest row over the land arose when former president Kgalema Motlanthe released his report into the land earlier this year, recommending that the trust be dissolved and the land be given back to municipalities - or the state.

Many South Africans will agree with Motlanthe. It seems incongruous that in a country where land hunger is so real and so prevalent that an anachronous system that harks back to feudal times - even though it was conceived in the dying bastardy of apartheid - should be one of the first to fall. It and the other tracts of land held by the government, which are either under-utlised or lying fallow, should be among the first to be expropriated and given to landless South Africans, with which to finally own property and from there to begin the process of creating and adding to their wealth.

Instead the president appears to have blinked - acceding to the wishes of the king, at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of Zulus who will continue to live on land to which they have neither title nor even assured occupation despite being South Africans and, as such, entitled to the same protection, the same hope and the same reality as the rest of us.

The Ingonyama Trust is unique in its scope and its context - as is the king, some will argue. He costs the South African taxpayer (three-quarters of whom are not Zulu) a considerable amount of money every year to maintain - far in excess of the allowances paid to our other traditional royalty, who enjoy neither the status nor the special treatment that Zwelithini not only takes for granted but perennially asks to be increased.

Ramaphosa has a full plate at the moment, trying to unravel the venal perfidy of the legacy bequeathed to him by Jacob Zuma and his state capture project while attempting to forge a coherent whole to the party he ostensibly leads.

A key victory in this regard would have been to stand firm and effectively emasculate Zwelithini for being wholly out of sync with the letter and spirit of our constitution. Ramaphosa, though, has let that opportunity slip through his fingers and, in the process, made his land restitution programme that much more difficult to apply. He may well rue this day - as might we all.