The king's uncle and the event's organiser, Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, saw the occasion in a more political light - as a show of force to press Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk into submitting to his demand for a postponement of South Africa's first democratic election.
Foreign diplomats who made the trip from Pretoria saw the ceremony (a royal imbizo, a gathering of the Zulu clans) as an opportunity to gauge whether the recent thinly veiled threats of civil war by Chief Buthelezi and his cohorts were serious.
At first sight, serious enough. Zulu chief after Zulu chief - spear-wielding, shield-carrying, bare-bellied men in cowhide skirts and leopardskin headdresses - marched into King's Park stadium at the head of 300-400 strong impi battalions. Sonorous battle cries, foot-stomping delirium and hair-raisingly realistic spear charges greeted each new arrival, evoking images of the Battle of Rorke's Drift in 1879 - portrayed in the film Zulu - when 120 dread-filled British Redcoats faced 4,000 Zulu warriors.
Some of the rhetoric from the royal podium yesterday afternoon served only to reinforce the perception, in a phrase recently employed by Chief Buthelezi, that the Zulu people were preparing to enter anew 'into the dark waters'. Ben Ngubane, who heads the delegation of the KwaZulu 'homeland' in democracy talks, warned that the African National Congress and the South African government were waging a campaign to destroy the Zulu nation.
The speech, all in that vein, was transparently inflammatory. But the vast majority of people in the stadium paid not the slightest attention. Some slept, some chatted, most simply sat and watched the spectacle. The crowd, proud Zulus all, had come in response to a call from the king, and it was he - and he alone - they had come to hear.
When he spoke, they listened, coming to life when he recalled the brave deeds of his royal forebears, their battles against the British and the Boers. They also responded well to his calls for Zulu unity and resoundingly when he proclaimed his rejection of those who proposed the 'annihilation' of the Zulu nation.
Stirring stuff, but a little puzzling, as conversations with a dozen chiefs and indunas (chiefs' counsellors) in the stadium confirmed. Inkatha supporters to a man, they were quick to acknowledge, given the bloody battles they have fought in recent years with their neighbours, that huge numbers of Zulus were loyal to the ANC and Mr Mandela. 'I don't understand how it is that the Zulus are going to be destroyed,' said an induna from a single-men's hostel in KwaMashu township, outside Durban. 'And I don't understand why people are saying we will go to war because there is a date for an election. We don't believe in war because war causes deaths, and we can't support the families of people who die in a war.'
That was not the thinking of Albert Mncwango, an Inkatha central committee member and leader of Inkatha's shadowy armed wing, the Bambatha Battalion. A stocky man in a brown leather jacket, he said he found the speeches boring. 'I want to hear a call to military action. In Africa the way we sort out problems is not by negotiations but by fighting. The problem is solved when one side is defeated in battle. but I'm excited. I know that just around the corner a full-scale war awaits us, a war in which nobody will sleep.'
He did not expect an express order to that effect from Chief Buthelezi, the last speaker, but he did expect him to generate a mood, 'to send a signal'. As it happened, by the time the Inkatha leader's turn came to speak, the stadium, packed for the king, was half-empty. People were leaving in droves - prompting Chief Buthelezi to speak incoherently and quickly for fear, as a diplomat present suggested, that by the time he finished the place would be empty.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content