What it was like reporting from inside the Zulu royal palace during a time of mourning

By Sihle Mavuso Time of article published May 16, 2021

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Senior political journalist Sihle Mavuso reflects on his coverage of two Zulu royal funerals and the tense succession debate as he takes readers behind-the-scenes at the royal palace.

Beyond one’s call of duty as a journalist to write and inform the public, one indirectly records history. That was the case for me from March 12 to 18 and April 29 to May 8 this year.

The process of indirectly archiving history started on March 12, when King Goodwill Zwelithini, the longest-reigning Zulu king, passed away at age 72, throwing the monarch and the Zulu nation into mourning.

Spending 8-consecutive days camped at Kwakhethomthandayo palace in Nongoma, northern KZN proved to be an experience. In my career as a journalist, I have extensively covered royal assignments like weddings and the reed dance ceremony and historic commemorations like the battle of Isandlwana, but this assignment was fairly new.

However, coming from another second-tier monarch from another kingdom and having once attended the burial of a queen in the village of Lulakeni in southern Eswatini, many years ago, the knowledge came in handy at the right time.

While the world saw most of what was happening in the royal court, how the body of the late king was solemnly brought home by Zulu regiments who had escorted the party when it departed from Durban and when it arrived in the town of Nongoma and later to the palace, was held in private with only a few journalists present.

Even before the king was buried, there was tension between Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the king’s traditional prime minister, and Prince Mbonisi who was working with Princess Thembi. While senior princes and other royals spent most of their time in the main mourning house, Mbonisi and Thembi spent considerable time outside the house, sometimes locked in parallel meetings in one of the main mansions opposite the main mourning house within the palace’s compound.

Getting inside the palace was not easy as security was instructed not to allow journalists inside. Buthelezi conducted most of his interviews outside the palace.

The only interview that allowed the media contingent access to the palace was the one hosted by Mbonisi and Thembi, on March 16, when they gave a conflicting burial dates and the process to be followed in burying the king, publicly contradicting Buthelezi’s earlier version.

Leading to the burial of Zulu Queen Regent Mantfombi Dlamini-Zulu, at KwaKhangelamankengane, another royal palace in Nongoma, the royals there were friendlier and more open towards the media.

I was one of the people who were allowed inside the palace to take photographs (with some restrictions in place, of course) and conduct interviews.

The preparations for the queen’s burial was done mostly by women from the women-only regiment, Isiphithiphithi, which the queen had revived many years ago.

Behind the scenes, the regiment was responsible for rebuilding the dilapidated traditional huts behind the palace. The huts hold significance in the royal court because that’s where the queen’s body had to pass through before burial and they had to be in good shape.

The burial was done and dusted in the thick of dawn on Thursday, May 6. While it was a private affair, those who attended told me that she was laid to rest in the Dlamini rites of wrapping one in cow’s hide. The burial was conducted with precision by a joint team of traditional experts from Eswatini and the Zulu monarch.

All the while the tension in the royal court continued. At its centre were the succession, the estate of the late king and the validity of his will. Unexpectedly, we heard the matter was heading to court, but those plans were eventually halted.

South Africa - Nongoma - 05 May 2021 - Ndabe dignified funerals hearse arriving with the body of her Majesty Queen Shiyiwe Mantfombi Dlamini at the Khangela Royal Palace from Johannesburg.Picture : Motshwari Mofokeng/ African News Agency (ANA)

Royal sources told me that they had no idea why Queen Sibongile Dlamini, the first wife of the late king who wanted to inherit half of the king’s estate, decided not to go to court. However, they feared that she and her two daughters, princesses Ntando and Ntombizosuthu, might, at a later stage, take legal action if they felt the bargaining strategy of constantly threatening legal action did not work.

After days of meetings and backing down by Thembi and Mbonisi, the royal fights were settled with the two even pledging their loyalty to King Misuzulu KaZwelithini. Prince Simakade, who was also tipped to take over the throne until it was given to King Misuzulu, also indicated his support for the king.

Buthelezi later confirmed this, but royal insiders had alerted me that the matter was resolved internally. There had been fears that should the squabbles continue, the government might withdraw its support for the royal court and everybody would lose. Moreover, the royals realised that further fights would weaken them, as the custodian of Zulu culture, and diminish the stature of the Zulu nation in the world.

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