Zwelonke Sigcawu: An engaging king and original thinker


His Majesty King Zwelonke Sigcawu was the 20th king of the Xhosa monarchy.

He was the son of late Xhosa King Xolilizwe Sigcawu, who passed on in 2004.

He began his reign in 2005 during a traditional ritual ceremony in which he was anointed successor to his father.

He was conferred with a lion skin, which was draped around his shoulders as a sign of his authority, and was bestowed with a spear and a knobkerrie as a symbol of his leadership.

Zwelonke was the eldest son of Queen Nozamile Sigcawu, who is the only surviving matriach of the five queens who made up King Xolilizwe’s household.

Zwelonke was born at Nqadu Royal Palace near Gatyane, in the Eastern Cape, where the Xhosa palace and headquarters are located. He grew up like all the other ordinary children there.

At a young age, his father moved him to Cofimvaba to groom him for his future leadership role. Another reason for relocating the young boy was to keep him safe, since Xolilizwe was often involved in skirmishes with the Transkei government.

Zwelonke attended Arthur Mfebe High School and then Freemantle Boys High.

To perform the rites of passage from boyhood to manhood when he came of age, he was sent to a place in Butterworth, owned by his father. There, he joined other local boys his age to undergo the initiation process.

Zwelonke did not pursue tertiary studies because, after having undergone initiation, he had spent time with his uncle in Cofimvaba and had been anointed to assume a preparatory role in anticipation of succeeding his father as king.

This entailed Zwelonke having to return to Gatyane, where took he took over as chief or traditional leader of the Ebhotwe traditional council. His responsibilities included chairing the council and reporting on what was discussed to his father.

It is here that Zwelonke demonstrated his leadership and management qualities, presiding as he did over the community.

He was passionate about developing and unifying his people. To this end, he was involved in initiatives such as farming for food security and he set up various foundations.

After the death of his father, one of his primary focus areas was youth development. He encouraged young people to be educated and take part in sporting activities.

Not only did he focus on the communities within his jurisdiction, Zwelonke also made a point of going to all the communities in which his people resided and playing a leadership role.

He would go to the Western Cape and Free State to address communities about the importance of upholding their Xhosa culture and heritage, and emphasised the need for them to arm themselves with an education in order to play their part in a new, democratic South Africa.

King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu
King Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu. (Lulamile Feni, Gallo Images, Daily Dispatch, file)

As the reigning monarch of the Xhosa kingdom, Zwelonke was the head of the Tshawe dynasty and the custodian of Xhosa rituals, customs and ceremonies.

He also assumed the mantles of political head and spiritual leader of the Xhosa community.

As the king, he officiated over the highest court in the Xhosa kingdom.

Zwelonke was highly regarded as the supreme head responsible for sustaining the Xhosa nation and for appointing all the senior leaders within his jurisdiction.

He was regarded as the king of all Xhosas wherever they reside, be it in other African countries or abroad. His subjects paid him unquestioned allegiance.

Zwelonke was dearly loved by his people. He was only 51 years old when he passed on.

During trips to Eswatini and Palestine, he conducted himself as a well-prepared, exemplary leader when interacting with officials.

Zwelonke lived among his people in the rural Eastern Cape. He never owned a property in any town or city. He was down-to-earth and humble. He was full of life and positive energy, always encouraging his nation.

He was a prolific isiXhosa speaker and inspired his audience with his original and independent way of thinking.

He enjoyed participating in community activities and cultural gatherings, and practised a policy of visible leadership.

This engagement earned him the love, loyalty and respect of his people and other communities in South Africa.

His expansionist view resulted in him working closely with other kings in South Africa and the rest of the continent.

He was a committed and active member of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA (Contralesa) and participated in all its structures, from grassroots to national level.

Zwelonke also took a keen interest in other regional and continental structures. A dynamic personality, he will be remembered for speaking his mind.

He continued with initiatives that his father had started, such as the annual King Hintsa Bravery Award and King Hintsa Memorial Lecture, as a way of both honouring leaders who had followed in the footsteps of the great warrior king, Hintsa, and of keeping alive his nation’s ancestral history.

Zwelonke was a founding member of the Institute of African Royalty, an organisation dedicated to advancing the role and place of African royalty on the African continent.

He was also a member of African Rainbow Minerals’ BBBEE Trust and worked closely with the company’s founder and chair, billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe, on a number of rural development upliftment projects.

He was vocal about the need for rural development and called on government to tar the roads in rural areas in order for them to attract investment, just as they do in urban areas.

He believed that tarring roads would changed rural communities for the better, keeping them on par with their urban counterparts.

He spoke out, too, about the deaths of initiates during their rite-of-passage ceremonies, even though such fatalities were not prevalent in his realm; he made a point of working on eradicating these tragedies by extending his help to other kings.

He was deeply pained by the jailing of AbaThembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo and made a clarion call to the ANC government to release him, calling his imprisonment a travesty of justice and a curse to the entire South African nation.

Zwelonke will be greatly missed. 

His Royal Heritage Zolani Mkiva (imbongi yesizwe), general-secretary of Contralesa

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