Modernity catches up with Zulu monarchy
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Talk of “modernity”, generally, is frowned upon by those who view Western systems of governance as unsuitable and undesirable in African settings where traditional leadership is still revered.
But the tumultuous state of affairs currently pervasive in the Zulu Royal Family following the demise of the king and queen within weeks has, perhaps inadvertently, created an opportunity to overhaul and refine those traditional ways of doing things.
From when King Goodwill Zwelithini drew his last breath, it became clear that confusion and uncertainty would prevail as his grieving subjects and family tried to reconcile Zulu customs and traditions, with the realities of being a monarchy in a country that respects a Bill of Rights under a most modern Constitution.
Ordinarily, it would not be expected that a wife would challenge a king’s wishes as reflected in his will, notwithstanding the legal merits of her argument. Yet, King Zwelithini’s first wife, Queen Sibongile, has done exactly that on the basis that the five subsequent customary marriages the King entered into are not the “real” thing.
Irrespective of how the matter will eventually be resolved in the Pietermaritzburg High Court, this kind of litigation, or even the thought of it, points to a disjuncture between arrangements in an African traditional marriage and nuptials in a South Africa where women are not only equal to men, but there is also currently consideration in Parliament of legislation to allow women to have multiple husbands. This is among the proposals in the Green Paper on Marriages.
That would mean, therefore, that in future the late Queen Mantfombi, who had been appointed by King Zwelithini in the disputed will to take over from him, could have chose among any of the Zulu warriors two or more husbands. Unthinkable, to say the least.
We have also seen coming to the fore once again, differences of opinion about the process to appoint the traditional prime minister to the Zulu king and nation. Some among the royal family contest Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s authority to fulfil this role and have openly challenged him. This is exactly what transpired when the late queen’s will was read in Nongoma last week and the nation watched aghast on television as family squabbles erupted.
Clearly, in modern-day South Africa the filling of this important post could be done differently and transparently. This is not to suggest a Judicial Service Commission-type of grilling faced by South Africa’s aspirant judges, but even a letter of appointment that sets out conditions of employment and deliverables would be helpful.
For instance, is the traditional prime minister’s role confined to the king’s institutional powers and responsibilities, or does the mandate extend to the monarch’s matrimonial and personal family affairs? The blurring of these lines is at the heart of the conflict between Prince Buthelezi and some members of the Zulu Royal Family.
As it happens now, the position is defined around him as an individual. His strong personality and the manner in which his character traits have elevated him as a leader in charge of Zulu royal affairs during the prolonged bereavement would have done no harm to the profile of his organisation, Inkatha Freedom Party. As would be expected, it must rankle his arch political rivals, the ANC, that a few months ahead of the crucial local government elections, Prince Buthelezi is making the most of the attention on him as well as the intense media spotlight.
But at 92 years of age, there can no longer be much fire in the veteran’s belly. After more than six decades of his centrality in Zulu politics and royal affairs, life beyond his involvement can now be contemplated in earnest.
It was Prince Buthelezi that initiated and pushed through the promulgation of the Ingonyama Trust Act that had the king as the custodian of vast tracts of land in areas under traditional leadership in KwaZulu-Natal. He has vowed that the one outstanding assignment for him in Parliament is to protect the interests of the monarch’s subjects on this land when the Constitution is amended to allow for the expropriation of land without compensation.
The national government has great discomfort with the Ingonyama Trust and the manner in which it has conducted its operations over the years.
The provincial government has for many decades been unable to find a workable mechanism to regulate its relationship with the monarchy which it funds from the public purse.
As much as the deaths in the royal family are unfortunate, they open up possibilities for the ANC, as the government of KwaZulu-Natal, to craft new approaches to issues around the institution of Zulu monarchy.
It is, after all, the government, and not the royal family that has the ultimate power to appoint the new king or queen.
The family, after finalising its own processes which must take into account those that are currently being contested in court, will only nominate.
Modern times, under a constitutional democracy, allow people to exercise rights that could have been denied in the past when kings or queens were installed.
Modernity has caught up with the traditional ways of doing things and the Zulu monarchy cannot be left behind.
* Cyril Madlala is the former Editor of Independent on Saturday and a political commentator.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.