King Zwelithini: Once a political tool...

2015-04-19 15:00

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Some years ago, a prominent celebrity was stopped at a road block in Durban and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

In pleading for mercy, the man told the police that he had been drinking with King Goodwill Zwelithini. He explained that Zulu protocol and etiquette dictated that he could not refuse the king’s alcohol and could not leave until monarch wanted to retire for the night. This story was quickly blown to pieces by police, who determined the man was talking rubbish.

What the man’s poor attempt showed, though, was just how easy it is to use the king’s name in vain.

It showed what a lightweight the man is who currently sits on the throne of Shaka, Cetshwayo and Dingane.

In Zulu the king is called umlom’ ongathethi manga – the mouth that tells no lies. Such is the reverence for the monarch and respect for the words he speaks. At least it was that way until King Zwelithini took the crown. In the 33 years since, the esteem of the throne has plummeted and he is saluted out of politeness rather than respect. His words are largely ignored and are only taken on board to justify deeds.

In the past two weeks, King Zwelithini has once again proved why he is held in such low regard. His populist statements about foreigners being parasitic ticks who should pack their bags and leave were not the mark of leadership. He was playing to the gallery the way a junior politician would. His refusal to use his office to quell the xenophobic fires and his patronising of a minister who called for leadership responsibility demonstrated his low wisdom.

To understand his weak, misguided leadership, you must go back to the puppet role he has played since assuming the throne in 1971. Then at the age of 21, the king regarded himself as a junior to his uncle Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who had carved for himself the position of prime minister to the monarchy. The hugely ambitious Buthelezi saw in the inexperienced king the means to build his political prestige.

In Zwelithini’s early years, Buthelezi moulded him into a pliable plaything. After the formation of Inkatha in 1975, Buthelezi used the king as a tool to legitimise this “cultural movement” as the vehicle for political mobilisation of Zulus. The young man happily went along with him and, in return, Buthelezi used the resources of the KwaZulu Bantustan he ran to keep the king well fed.

The relationship became somewhat abusive in the 1980s as Buthelezi sought to position himself as a national leader on the level of Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.

With the connivance of the king, structures of traditional leadership became synonymous with Inkatha. Ceremonies like Shaka’s Day and the commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana essentially became Inkatha rallies. At the height of the anti-apartheid uprisings, the king attacked the ANC and the United Democratic Front in his New Year message on Radio Zulu. With the apartheid government’s sponsored war between the UDF and Inkatha tearing the then Natal apart, Zwelithini played a partisan role for his uncle.

It is telling that it was during this time that Buthelezi’s star began to wane. His mobilisation messages fell on deaf ears. Urban people turned against Inkatha en masse and many rural folk followed suit.

The more Buthelezi saw power slipping from his hands, the more he abused the king. There were rumours that when Zwelithini was starting to develop a mind of his own and rebel against his uncle, the water and electricity supply to his palaces was mysteriously switched off.

Zwelithini continued to be used as a political tool during the Kempton Park negotiations. One of the Inkatha delegation’s main motivations for arguing for a federal South Africa was that what is now KwaZulu-Natal was a kingdom and should be treated as its own political entity with wide-ranging powers for the king. These powers would, in fact, be wielded by prime minister Buthelezi himself.

It was only after 1994, with Buthelezi’s influence vastly diminished, that the ANC could use its new power and access to the fiscus to prise the king away from Buthelezi. With the traditionalist and very wily Jacob Zuma at the fore, the ANC showed Zwelithini there was life after Buthelezi. Zwelithini and Zuma became close, to the extent that the king joined the mob and loudly defended the ANC deputy president when he was facing corruption charges.

And when the ANC finally took control of the KwaZulu Natal government, it made his life much more comfortable than it had ever been under the Bantustan government. The king was then seen more with ANC leaders than with Buthelezi, thus giving the party much greater credibility in the eyes of traditional leaders and deeply rural people.

It was during this time that Zwelithini recognised his political value. He found voice and began to make kingly pronouncements, some worthy of his title but others plainly ridiculous. He overspent his budgets knowing he was untouchable. He had a teenage girl abducted from Swaziland on his behalf to be groomed as his sixth queen and was able to ignore the outcry because he had political cover.

By the time Zwelithini came under attack for the xenophobic remarks, he knew he had good political cover. His friend – the traditionalist president – was not going to say or do anything about it. The provincial leadership was never going to speak out against umlom’ ongathethi manga.

So just like in the 1980s and the 1990s when Inkatha mobs used his name as an excuse to butcher innocents, the xenophobes can use his name to hack foreigners.

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