When Cyril Ramaphosa was photographed kneeling in front of King Goodwill Zwelithini in January last year, many were angry and ridiculed him for his apparent subservience.
Aides to the then newly elected president of the ANC were quick to try to reverse the perception created by the images.
They claimed that Ramaphosa was showing Zwelithini a photo album of his cattle – a passion that they both share – and he was only in that position to make sure he could properly guide the monarch through the images.
Nobody bought that story.
The scene was a clear reflection of how the person who was soon to be our president saw himself in relation to the king.
Ramaphosa is not alone. His craven positioning is one that is shared by most South African politicians, businesspeople and influential folks.
All the country’s presidents, from Nelson Mandela to Ramaphosa, become chicken-hearted when Zwelithini is around.
And when he rattles his sabre, they believe he has the capacity to unleash legions on them.
Like a spoilt child who keeps demanding more attention and shinier toys from his parents, Zwelithini has become very adept at the time-tested tactic of kicking and screaming.
He uses it to great effect and everyone falls for it.
The difference, though, is that, unlike a bratty toddler, Zwelithini’s demands are huge.
They include a massive salary, upkeep for six palaces, as well as endless amounts of money for travel and miscellaneous activities that he dreams up when he has consumed a certain recently decriminalised agricultural product.
The king’s latest tantrum is about the Ingonyama Trust, the child of a late-night liaison between the apartheid regime and the government of the erstwhile KwaZulu Bantustan.
The establishment of the trust in 1994, on the eve of the transition to democracy, transferred virtually all the land in KwaZulu to the custodianship of the king.
In essence, it entrenched the existence of the Bantustan and denied those living on Ingonyama land the same rights that would be enjoyed by other citizens who would soon be living in a constitutional South Africa.
In its 25 years of existence, the trust has given the greedy Zwelithini and the wolfish crowd around him the ability to exploit the peasant population in KwaZulu-Natal.
They have been able to abuse them at will, demanding exorbitant rent (for their own properties) and colluding with mining companies to forcibly remove people from land that is “required” for extraction.
Despite the Ingonyama Trust being a poster child for injustice and knowing full well how it was conceived, successive governments have been so fearful of Zwelithini and the Bantustan party that used to prop him up that they have not lifted a finger in defence of his victims.
When proposals have been made for the trust to be disbanded and the legislation that established it to be repealed, Zwelithini has responded with venom and deadly threats.
At some point, he even outright threatened war and the secession of KwaZulu-Natal from South Africa if the national government dared touch his illicit pot of gold.
He even asked all Zulus to contribute R5 each towards a fund to defend his right to exploit them. Zulus residing in foreign climes such as the US and Germany would “come back and fight for their land”, he claimed.
This, in a way, would be a good thing as actress Nomzamo Mbatha would be compelled to cut her Los Angeles sojourn short and come home to fight.
Last year, Zwelithini even attacked the Constitution, saying it was an insulting document: “It pains me to note I am a ruler‚ yet there’s someone who’s above me [the country’s president].”
In the wake of the release of the report by the presidential panel on land reform – which recommended a review of the trust – Zwelithini has been ranting like a mad man again.
At a recent imbizo, he said: “I want you to know that this land belongs to the current reigning king of AmaZulu and previous kings and queens, and will not be taken from us. It will not die or be taken during my reign and your time.”
When he says “us”, he means “me”. In defending his hold on the land, Zwelithini wants to maintain his ability to score millions from renting and leasing property to clients from the private sector. He wants to be able to profit by keeping the province’s rural population in servitude and denying them access to a right to property ownership.
This should not be tolerated in a constitutional state, but it is because those who hold constitutional power safeguard the interests of someone who believes he should be above the Constitution and that the law should not apply to him.
If action is not taken soon to dissolve the Ingonyama Trust and give the people who live on that land the right of ownership, we will be extending their oppression and allowing a greedy monarch who belongs in another century to behave like we are still in another century.
Zwelithini would love us all to believe he can raise legions of soldiers and order them into battle. It is time to end the kneeling and call his bluff.