Six new Mercedes-Benz E200 Kompressor cars have been bought by the Royal Household department for Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's six queens, at a cost of R2,3-million.

The purchase is intended to provide the king's wives with vehicles "more befitting their status" after previously having been ferried around in Toyota Corollas.

The head of the Royal Household department - responsible for affairs of the royal house - Dr Vusi Shongwe, said last week that Mercedes-Benz cars had to be hired for the queens for the Reed Dance in September, and the six vehicles had been bought at the end of that month.

He said the vehicles were bought after a request from the king that his queens be transported in vehicles befitting their status when they made public appearances.

"Because of this, we were going to incur more expenses if we did not buy these new vehicles," said Shongwe, adding that there was an allocation for the purchase in the 2006/2007 budget.

Last week, Shongwe told the Finance and Economic Development Committee in Pietermaritzburg that his department had run up a bill of R900 000 in hiring top-of-the-range 4x4 vehicles for the king.

This was after the king's luxurious R1,8-million armour-plated S-Class Mercedes-Benz had broken down in Swaziland in February this year.

Shongwe had told the committee that it was too expensive to maintain and run the vehicle, with, for example, a single tyre costing R28 000 to replace. He instead resorted to hiring a BMW X5 and a Range Rover for the king's use. This, and the hiring of six vehicles for the queens for the Reed Dance, would see his department overspending its budget by R3,5-million at the end of the current financial year.

Last year Shongwe tabled a R3,5-million wish list to the government to provide the king with a top-of-the-range Mercedes-Benz S600 and six Mercedes-Benz cars for his queens.

Shongwe said last week that the armoured vehicle currently being used by the king had clocked up too much mileage and was costing a great deal.

He said on Monday that buying the king a new vehicle was a "policy issue" and he had no power to do this.

KwaZulu-Natal Director-General Mandla Mchunu said at the weekend that the government would consider buying a car for the king.

"The government has a duty to provide transport for the king," he said at the time.