The feud has medieval overtones, evoking images of British monarchs at war with barons, of King John and Richard the Lionheart. Real perils lurk, however, in the here and now. Mr Buthelezi's response will determine whether his supporters resume hostilities against Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, initiating a new era of Zulu instability after five months of peace since April's elections.
Speaking on the steps of parliament after John Major's speech yesterday, Mr Buthelezi played down the notion that King Goodwill was attempting to marginalise him from the conservative Zulu constituency that is Inkatha's political base. He said next Saturday's Shaka Day celebrations should proceed and described as 'drivel' the idea that there was a rift between him and the king.
But in a statement released yesterday after a meeting on Monday of 'the Royal Committee' - an inner circle of Zulu royals - the message to Mr Buthelezi was unequivocal.
Announcing a decision 'to sever all ties' between King Goodwill and Mr Buthelezi, effectively stripping the Inkatha leader of his title of 'traditional prime minister', the statement bluntly said: 'The King must not meet Buthelezi again.'
The word from Zulu royal circles is that the king was deeply unhappy at the l'etat c'est moi manner in which Mr Buthelezi exploited the royal connection during the bloody run-up to the elections. The king, identified by his uncle as an Inkatha supporter, felt unable to resist because Mr Buthelezi controlled both his cash and - in the shape of the KwaZulu Police - his security. 'He actually feared for his life, a Zulu prince said.
Mr Mandela, on his inauguration as president, informed the king that control of his funds would pass to Pretoria and that the army would provide the royal guard.
The king, delighted, began to act upon his new-found freedom by plotting with sympathetic members of the Zulu royal family to rid himself of his troublesome uncle. The objective was to place the king above party politics, in the manner of The Queen.
Royal insiders think the king had been wavering in recent weeks. What precipitated the royal rush of blood to the head yesterday was the behaviour of Mr Buthelezi's supporters during a meeting on Monday at King Goodwill's palace between the king, Mr Buthelezi and Mr Mandela.
It was decided at the talks to overturn an earlier decision, painful to Mr Buthelezi, to invite Mr Mandela as guest of honour to the Shaka Day rally. The king was unhappy, especially when he discovered that hundreds of Inkatha supporters had been bussed in from Mr Buthelezi's Ulundi stronghold to disrupt the meeting.
It emerged yesterday that an anonymous pamphlet had been circulated on Monday in Ulundi urging people to stand up for Mr Buthelezi. The pamphlet said he was being 'degraded' and that 'the leader of the Communists' (Mr Mandela) was trying to 'disturb the unity of the Zulus'.
The response of the Inkatha supporters at Nongoma on Monday was to jeer at Mr Mandela, throw stones at his helicopter and damage the grounds of the royal palace. The Royal Committee statement yesterday quoted the king as saying he had felt personally 'insulted'. The ball now is in Mr Buthelezi's court.
An indication that dangerous times may lie ahead was provided by the sting in the tail in the statement Mr Buthelezi made yesterday: 'The celebrations should go on because any cancellation is bound to inflame anger against the king . . . It is best for the celebration to go on . . . that will also protect the king.'Reuse content