Monarchists in South Africa seek renewed powers

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Niccolo and Donkey
South Africa's kings without clout yearn for full, traditional power

The Globe and Mail

Geoffrey York

December 31, 2010

The king of the Thembu tribe is a modest man, and he knows that his subjects are busy people. He doesn’t expect them to doff their hats whenever they see him. “Some people don’t have the time to stop on the streets,” he says, forgivingly.

He is less modest when he defines the vast breadth of his kingdom, which he says could cover 60 per cent of the country. “Ultimately, it is the greater portion of South Africa,” he says. “But we have to develop the idea without humiliating people. We are not autocratic about it. All we need to do is to mobilize the people and market what we believe in.”

King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, one of South Africa’s traditional royal leaders, is glorified by many of his followers and ridiculed by many others. He is one of the most controversial figures in the country: A ruler who is symbolically recognized by law, financially supported by the taxpayers, yet embroiled in legal battles, convicted of homicide and kidnapping, and a secessionist to boot.

The kings of South Africa, ranging from a flamboyant Zulu monarch to a pragmatic Bafokeng mining tycoon, occupy an ambiguous position today. They have been rewarded with privileges, rank and money – yet they lack the full powers for which they still yearn. They hover on the margins of South Africa’s political elite, trying to edge closer. They dream of sovereignty, yet are painfully conscious of their largely ceremonial role and their dependence on government largesse.

Sixteen years after the fall of apartheid, South Africa’s ruling party is reviving the African side of its heritage. The new President, Jacob Zuma, is proud of his Zulu traditions and his close links to the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini. His government has recognized polygamy (including Mr. Zuma’s multiple wives) and other traditional African practices. But this raises an awkward question: Should the government give more power to the tribal kings? And if it does, what does this mean for the country’s hard-won democracy?

In the apartheid era, South Africa’s white minority regime was able to manipulate some of the tribal kings, making them puppet rulers of black “homelands.” Now the kings are jostling for position in the new order.

There are a dozen tribal kings in South Africa, but a government commission concluded this year that only six of the kings – including King Dalindyebo – are fully legitimate. The Thembu king is one of the most prestigious because the anti-apartheid hero, Nelson Mandela, is a member of the Thembu tribe and had close connections to its royal house.

The kings, together with the village chiefs that they appoint, portray themselves as the traditional leaders of South Africa. “We are so fortunate to have the traditional leaders,” says Mr. Mandela’s daughter-in-law, Rayne Mandela. “We know our traditions because of our traditional leaders. If we didn’t have the traditional leaders, everything would be lost.”

But those traditions are often obscured by political controversies. King Zwelithini of the Zulus, for example, is often criticized for his lavish lifestyle, his luxury cars, his six palaces, and his annual $6.4-million budget from the taxpayers for the cost of his homes and his seven wives and about 30 children. He is also criticized by animal-rights activists for his annual festival that involves the bare-handed killing of a bull by dozens of young men.

To gain an audience with the Thembu king, you simply drive to his Great Place – a collection of modern houses inside a fenced compound in the rolling hills of the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest provinces in the country. If one of his five wives is at home in the kitchen, she might offer to talk to the king on your behalf to arrange an audience.

The next day, you find yourself in his living room, staring at his big-screen television and resting your feet on his floor rug, made from the skin of a springbok (a South African antelope). The doors and windows of his bungalow are rattling in the wind. The walls are covered with portraits of the king’s father, a famed anti-apartheid leader who was forced into exile in Zambia for much of his life.

While you wait for King Dalindyebo, you can chat with some of his loyal subjects, awaiting their own audience with the monarch. They tell you how it was in the old days, when villagers would trek to the Great Place to seek his verdict over the theft of a pig or the rape of a girl. If he judged someone guilty, they could be whipped five times with a cane, or, in serious cases, banished from the community.

When the king finally emerges from a back room, he is nothing like you might imagine. He is a small, wiry man, 46 years old, athletic-looking, with a tidy beard, wearing jeans, a T-shirt and running shoes. His subjects hail him with a traditional greeting, calling him Zwelibanzi, his praise name, while he smiles a warm welcome and waves them onto a sofa.

In an interview, he is eloquent, expansive and talkative, yet evasive on a few key issues about his income and his 15-year prison sentence (now under appeal) for organizing an attack on rebellious villagers who had occupied land near his farm.

In his version of history, South Africa’s liberation from apartheid in 1994 was merely the first step toward freedom. To achieve “total emancipation,” he says, the country needs to move beyond democracy and embrace royalty.

“We live under a highly Westernized environment, simply mimicking Europe,” he scoffs. “But are democratic institutions more legitimate than royal institutions? The government wants to keep control of the traditional leaders. That is why I speak of secession. We’re not asking for something illegal. We’re saying that we need to be empowered, so that we can fly on our own, like a bird.”

King Dalindyebo argues that the Thembu tribe is far older than the bigger tribes such as the Zulus and Xhosas. While they originated in the 18th and 19th centuries, he says, the Thembu can trace their roots back more than 2,000 years, first in Congo and then in Southern Africa.

At least 10 million people should be under his jurisdiction, based on traditional definition of the Thembu territory, he says. In effect, he is claiming ownership of 60 per cent of South Africa’s territory.

King Dalindyebo, who went into exile at the age of 13 and lived in countries such as Botswana and Zambia until returning to South Africa after Mr. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, has revived many of the traditional roles of the monarch. He appoints some of the village chiefs in his region (including Mr. Mandela’s grandson). He adjudicates disputes and helps decide whether a matter should be turned over to the police and courts.

“We believe that the king is the custodian of national assets,” he says. “We are supposed to be lords of the community. We’re supposed to maintain not only the cultural activities and the social fibre, but also the economy.”

Yet he fumes at the leash that the national government keeps him on. Instead of giving him an independent financial budget, the government gives him occasional cars, stationery, home repairs and other supplies, he says. “I won’t accept this any more. It makes us completely bow down to civil servants.”

When he asked for money to finance his appeal of his homicide conviction, the government refused. “They answered that I’m not a government employee, so I’m not entitled to assistance,” he complains.

“The government collects taxes from the kingdom, so I have the right to this assistance. I do not have any alternative resources. One has to harness what is one’s rightful privilege.”