Fewer than two out of 10 South Africans see King Goodwill Zwelithini as their king. And yet we taxpayers pay him about R60m per year to keep his bloated household going and he behaves as if he really is the national monarch who is above the law and our constitution.
South Africans should not simply sweep Zwelithini’s reckless statements on foreign nationals, the most obvious trigger of the latest wave of xenophobic attacks, under the carpet. Any influential public figure guilty of such provocative, irresponsible utterances should be forced to face the consequences of his actions.
Traditional leaders obviously still have a role in South Africa. About a third of its citizens still live in traditional communal areas and especially older folk still respect the chiefs and their structures. It is part of who we are as a nation and all of us should respect that.
The natural process would have been for this traditional culture to gradually weaken and evolve as urbanisation increases and communities modernise. But it is increasingly clear that the ANC is trying to stunt this development to make up for the support it is losing in the urban areas. Recent statements by President Jacob Zuma and legislation that give traditional leaders more powers are indications of this strategy.
Zwelithini treated differently
Zwelithini is treated very differently from other kings and chiefs. The Tembu, the Xhosa, the Mpondo and the Pedi also have kings, but they are only paid about R1m a year. There are more than 800 senior traditional leaders and more than five thousand chiefs in the country who get much smaller salaries from the state.
Zwelithini has allowed himself to be used as a political pawn for decades, first by Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Inkatha during the bloody conflict with the UDF and ANC and when Buthelezi tried to sabotage the Codesa talks, and more recently by the ANC.
He was an essential element in Zuma’s efforts after 1994 to establish Zulu-speakers as his primary constituency and to use them as a political tool.
In the process Zwelithini lost a lot of his prestige, but many Zulu-speakers still see him as umlom’ ongathethi manga, the mouth that speaks no lies. He still plays an important role in the political life of KwaZulu-Natal and controls a third of the land in the province.
Zwelithini is an unashamed old-style patriarch with six wives and, when I counted last, 28 children. Three years ago he publicly labelled homosexuality as wrong and “rotten” – and afterwards claimed that he was quoted out of context. Sexual orientation is a freedom guaranteed by our Constitution.
Four weeks ago Zwelithini told a cheering gathering in Pongola: “We ask that those who come from outside our country to pack up their belongings and go back to where they came from.” The transcript of his speech was translated carefully by several Zulu linguists.
Renewed xenophobic attacks
Three days later the Herald newspaper in Zimbabwe predicted that the king’s statements would lead to renewed xenophobic attacks on Zimbabwean citizens. Zanu-PF politician Jonathan Moyo tweeted: “Just heard audio of King Zwelithini’s xenophobic statement as recorded by Gagagsi FM. It’s a crime against humanity Rwanda style!”
Not long afterwards the first attacks on foreign nationals started in Durban and then Johannesburg hostel dwellers joined in.
Government leaders and ANC politicians, even the EFF’s Julius Malema, accepted Zwelithini’s claim that he was again quoted out of context. This is obviously nonsense, as the transcripts of his speech proved. He indeed also talked about South Africans being lazy and advised them to work and till the land, but his attitude towards non-citizens was crystal clear.
“I won’t keep quiet when people who have no say are playing with this country. It is now time for us to have a say,” he said. He added: “We must deal with our own lice. In our heads let’s take out the ants and leave them in the sun.” (It is unclear what he meant by that.) He said foreigners were all over South Africa and they were making the streets dirty. A clear message, no context needed.
I have listened to several radio and television interviews and read remarks by several people involved in the xenophobic attacks who say that they believe they were acting on the orders of the Zulu king.
The king waited until yesterday, after the xenophobic attacks had subsided, to hold a so-called peace imbizo on the topic of xenophobia.
His speech at the imbizo reminded me very much of those of the former apartheid government ministers before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission: admitting that something wrong had happened, but denying all knowledge or culpability and instead blaming the media and other forces. He never gave orders for attacks, the king said, parroting the apartheid leaders. They merely called for anti-apartheid activists to be “taken out”, they said; the king merely referred to lice and asked foreigners to pack up and go home.
Zwelithini not above the law
Chillingly, Zwelithini said at the imbizo that if he had told his impi to attack people, the country would have been reduced to ashes. It sounds like something Magnus Malan could have said.
The king’s subjects attending the imbizo clearly got the subtext. They booed all non-Zulu that were introduced and continued to sing songs asking foreigners to leave.
It is high time the king of the Zulu is put in his place. He is not above the law or the constitution. He behaves as if he is the South African equivalent of Swaziland’s Mswati III.
A good way to start would be to close the tap of taxpayers’ money going to the royal palaces in Nongoma and to force the king and his extended family to live more humbly.
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Article by Max du Preez, This article first appeared on News24