Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi is an IFP MP, president of the IFP, an inkosi of the Buthelezi clan and traditional prime minister to the Zulu monarch and nation.

When a researcher spews vitriol against the Zulu king and traditional leaders no one bats an eyelid. Why? asks Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

As one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies welcomed HRH Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana, grand-daughter to Queen Elizabeth II, it would no doubt have sparked public outrage had an obscure researcher from the University of Wisconsin labelled the royal family “parasites”; a “moribund and decidedly medieval institution” that should “quietly be put down”.

Yet when that same researcher spews such vitriol against the king of the Zulu nation and the entire institution of traditional leadership in one of the world’s newest constitutional democracies, South Africa, no one bats an eyelid. Why?

What makes it acceptable for Alexander O’Riordan to disparage a centuries’ old, established social structure in Africa, when he has never been part of that social structure and has never experienced its workings, its benefits or its accomplishments over many generations?

In his article titled “Collecting a king’s ransom”, this American researcher rubbishes an African institution that is recognised and enshrined in our constitution. He speaks about “chiefs” and “chieftainships”, blissfully ignorant of the fact that these are colonial terms, long legislated out of existence in a democratic South Africa.

Clearly ignorant too of the long struggle we have waged for the recognition of our identity, traditions, customs and social structure in Africa, O’Riordan claims that the king has no right to lead and should be taught by the government how “to be a custodian of good community values”.

According to O’Riordan, not only does the government have sole authority on “community values”, it also functions perfectly, offering tremendous economic opportunities to our people, which traditional leaders somehow “deny” them from accessing. If communities “languish in poverty”, he says, that’s the fault of traditional leaders.

Is O’Riordan unaware that 90 percent of municipalities across South Africa fail to receive a clean audit report? According to the auditor general, “the basics of key controls have not yet been mastered”. Within the government, billions of rand disappear annually in irregular, wasteful and fruitless expenditure. The often violent service delivery protests that have popped up everywhere are against the government, not against traditional leaders.

Our communities not only “languish in poverty”, but endure corruption at all levels of government, as well as moral decay that has seen murder, rape and abuse increase in our society. Why then should our traditional custodians of moral values and social cohesion be destroyed? What benefit could that possibly bring to society?

Let me enlighten O’Riordan. The government does indeed expect traditional leaders to support government structures and programmes.

Yet it makes no financial allocation to traditional councils, which paralyses them from initiating or supporting even the most beneficial development programme.

Traditional leaders are far from being “parasites”; there is certainly no symbiotic relationship between municipal councils and the institution of traditional leadership. In a democratic South Africa, legislation prevents many traditional leaders from participating in, or even attending, municipal council meetings, and none of them may vote. They can speak, but council need not take anything they say into account when it makes its decisions.

The institution of traditional leadership has undergone a slow and progressive reform. Over 21 years, it has been incrementally sidelined, ignored and disempowered, to the extent that traditional leaders now have little more than ceremonial value in the eyes of the government. The role, powers and functions of amakhosi are yet to be legislated.

Yet the reality in our communities is quite different. The institution of traditional leadership still plays a pre-eminent role in South Africa’s communities, ensuring good governance, justice, social cohesion and shared development.

Today, many communities in KwaZulu- Natal are able to embrace sustainable development projects simply because of their background of self-help and self-reliance that has been championed by traditional leaders. When HRH the Prince of Wales spoke at the University of Cape Town in 2011, he praised our rural communities for honouring traditional methods of farming. Surely this was not one “parasite” praising another.

Amakhosi are far from being “an aloof and disconnected leadership”, unaccountable to the people they serve. I challenge O’Riordan to say this of Inkosi Albert Luthuli, the first African recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who urged me to take up my position as inkosi to strengthen our liberation struggle. Or about President Seretse Khama, who was born into the royal family and became Kgosi of Bamangwato, yet created one of the most democratic countries in southern Africa. Was he too a “parasite” to “be put down”?

What about the traditional leaders who gave permission to white missionaries to build schools and hospitals in South Africa? Or those who partnered with the erstwhile KwaZulu government to raise funds, matched rand for rand, to build most of the schools and training colleges of KwaZulu-Natal? Apartheid afforded us a negligible budget, yet we built about 6 000 schools through the efforts of amakhosi.

Traditional leaders, of their own volition, raised funds to build the University of Zululand. Our detractors called it a “bush college”. Yet after my 21 years as chancellor, President Jacob Zuma had no qualms in becoming chancellor of this now respected university.

As soon as we had the power to do so, I and other traditional leaders in the KwaZulu legislature repealed the Code of Zulu Law, imposed on us by the colonial government. We enabled women to have locus standi in judicio and to own property.

We were leagues ahead of other provinces in enshrining women’s rights.

Today, all disputes in traditional areas are tried by traditional courts, at very little cost to the litigants. Nevertheless, no one is obliged to go to a traditional court and can choose to go straight to a magistrate’s court. Moreover, any case tried by a traditional court can be appealed in a magistrate’s court and will be heard de novo.

Thus the “subjects” of traditional leaders, those whom amakhosi serve, are assured of justice, just as they are assured of having enough land to feed their families.

Clearly O’Riordan has no idea who benefits or how they benefit from being part of a traditional community structure.

It is amazing that we still have to fight for respect from those who don’t understand our culture, yet feel entitled to denigrate it. Over many generations, kings and amakhosi have been directly involved in this struggle.

Both my grandfather, King Dinuzulu, and my great-grandfather, King Cetshwayo, suffered imprisonment for trying to preserve the heritage we received from King Shaka ka Senzangakhona. King Cetshwayo even travelled to London to plead his case before Queen Victoria.

Yet his kingdom was dismembered by British colonialists.

During the Anglo-Zulu War, my paternal great-grandfather, Inkosi Mnyamana Buthelezi, led King Cetshwayo’s regiments into battle. My father’s father fought at Isandlwana. Thus I take strong exception to O’Riordan’s vitriol.

South Africa’s struggle for freedom was born out of this older struggle of kings, warriors and amakhosi for the recognition of the Zulu kingdom. Democracy was their victory.

It was not the signal for everything “African” to be set aside.

The intention of our constitution was to see the institution of traditional leadership operating in partnership with the structures of local governance.

That has not yet translated into empowering legislation. But amakhosi remain the recognised custodians of our traditional values, customs and way of life.

That is a reality that would best be beneficiated, rather than ignored, sidelined or denigrated.

* Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi is an IFP MP, president of the IFP, an inkosi of the Buthelezi clan and traditional prime minister to the Zulu monarch and nation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Star