Shakespeare never invented a richer cast of characters: a weak and resentful king; the king's uncle, a scheming prince; the uncle's favoured courtiers, a diminutive Iago with a wispy white beard and a cunning young Italian of noble bearing; the princes royal, murmuring with discontent; and a court jester. As for the plot, there's a foreign usurper, a kingdom under threat, revenge, betrayal, murder, and the distant rumble of war.
King Goodwill Zwelithini, the Lion of the Zulu nation, and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, his uncle and prime minister, are engaged in battle with the young pretenders of the African National Congress and striving to turn back the clock to the early 19th century and revive the glories of the tribe under the mighty Shaka.
'I am claiming,' King Goodwill told President F W de Klerk on Monday, 'exclusive and independent sovereignty over our atavistic territory as per 1834 boundaries.'
Since 1834 the Zulu kingdom, which was crushed by the British in 1879, has existed only as a figment of the imagination. All that remains is an archipelago of 48 impoverished little pieces of territory called KwaZulu, marked out by the apartheid planners within the borders of Natal province.
Funded entirely by Pretoria, KwaZulu is ruled virtually as a dictatorship by Chief Buthelezi, the head of the Inkatha Freedom Party. The king, paid by Chief Buthelezi out of Pretoria's kitty, has until now played a strictly ceremonial role. It is only in the past few weeks that he has emerged as a political contender.
What is going on in King Goodwill's mind? A visit to the modest royal palace in Nongoma, a rare privilege which only Chief Buthelezi has the power to grant, would yield few answers. But as an experience in time-travel, it has its charms.
The first thing you are told upon arrival is that you may leave only at the king's pleasure. Beyond that, discerning what the king is really thinking will prove impossible. A lieutenant of Chief Buthelezi sits in on all official meetings to ensure the king does not deviate from his uncle's political line.
The only woman allowed to sit in the king's presence is the third of his five wives, his favourite, Princess Mantfombi, the daughter of the Swazi king. During lunch the king will remain blandly aloof. Only the court jester will provide a window into his - or his uncle's - innermost thoughts.
The jester crouches by the king's side and gibbers: 'Mandela is a rubbish'; 'the ANC, communists', that kind of thing. He will never, in the European medieval tradition, poke fun at the king but he may at his guests. 'Ha, ha] You international visitors] You say you come here impartial] Ha] I know better] You have an agenda] You're in the pocket of the ANC]' He said precisely this to a delegation that visited the king earlier this year. The king smiled distantly but never acknowledged his fool's presence.
Behind the king's smile, however, there is much bitterness. The truth about the king, if those of his people who have rebelled and support the ANC are to be believed, is that, as Hamlet to Claudius, he loathes and resents his uncle. History corroborates this.
Before King Goodwill's coronation in 1971, Chief Buthelezi was not the power in the royal household that he is today. But he was ambitious and, in traditional Zulu fashion, the king's friends decided that the best way to deal with him was assassination.
As chronicled by two of Chief Buthelezi's hagiographers, he received death threats on the eve of the coronation and was warned to keep away. Chief Buthelezi failed to heed the advice, but the man who was assigned to kill him got so drunk, in an effort to fortify himself for the foul deed, that he collapsed unconscious.
Encouraged by this omen, Chief Buthelezi manoeuvred and cajoled, secured the position of prime minister to the king and established himself as head of the KwaZulu legislative assembly. But the tension between uncle and nephew persisted. The king wanted to play a political role, but his uncle said this would risk disunity among the Zulu people. Eventually the king capitulated. On 19 January 1976, before a special session of the KwaZulu assembly, he pledged to keep out of politics.
King Goodwill had been roundly humiliated, but worse was to come. Three years later, accused of having broken his kingly vows, he was again hauled before the assembly. The king sat motionless on his throne for a whole afternoon while Chief Buthelezi heaped rebukes upon him. Suddenly, unable any longer to contain his distress, the king jumped up, and ran out of the chamber into the night. Princess Mantfombi quietly followed him out, stepped into the royal car and caught up with him a mile down the road, still running.
For the next decade the king stuck to his constitutional brief and, though civil war raged, kept quiet. The Zulu people, under the opposing banners of the ANC and Inkatha, were killing each other. But the royal house, for the most part, stood firm. The hereditary chiefs - dukes and earls in the Zulu feudal system - tended to fight on Inkatha's side.
Today, the voices of dissent are rising within. Prince Petrus Zulu, a relative of the king, led a group of disaffected royals recently on a campaign to free the monarch from the clutches of his uncle. He even wrote to Mr de Klerk, begging him to shift control of the king's finances from KwaZulu to Pretoria.
On the evening of Sunday 23 January, Prince Petrus was watching television with his children at his home in Ulundi, the KwaZulu capital, when someone outside called out his name. He went to see who it was and died in a hail of bullets.
As elections draw near and the ANC closes in, a hit-list has emerged in Ulundi with the names of 21 Inkatha officials and members who are alleged to be closet supporters of the ANC. One of them, a school registrar called Ngubane, was killed last week. A KwaZulu cabinet minister who is also on the list, Chief Simon Gumede, on Thursday abruptly announced his resignation and fled Ulundi.
The two people Chief Buthelezi seems to trust absolutely are neither Zulu nor black and therefore no threat to his dynastic status. A bearded white anthropologist called Walter Felgate writes Chief Buthelezi's speeches, and he and the chief appear to think as one. When Nelson Mandela announced a series of constitutional concessions last Wednesday to lure Inkatha and their bedfellows on the white right into the elections, Mr Felgate's response to journalists was 'Hot air]' An official statement from Chief Buthelezi merely expanded on the theme.
The other man the chief trusts is Mario Ambrosini, a young, sharp-suited Italian and self-styled constitutional expert. His counsel of late has been simple: wrap yourself in the flag of Zulu nationalism. This has required the assistance of the king, whom Chief Buthelezi has suddenly transformed into a leading political player.
For the time being, the king is doing his uncle's bidding, faithfully reading out secessionist speeches written in the high- Felgate style. But the word from royal sources is that the king, who must surely smell the air of defeat that hangs about his uncle, could turn at any moment. He is talking behind the scenes to the ANC. Erstwhile Buthelezi loyalists are said to be secretly shifting their allegiances to the royal house.
This shows some wisdom. The ANC, certain to rule the land, is keen to mollify the king, to let him continue his reign. It will give him a state salary, with no strings attached; it will let him keep his palace, his cattle and his lands. Chief Buthelezi's future, by contrast, looks barren. In the end his best option, it would seem, is banishment.
The ball is in the king's court. More powerful right now than any Zulu monarch since Cetshwayo, whom Queen Victoria's soldiers crushed, King Goodwill has the opportunity, if he so chooses, of exacting sweet revenge and watching with a distant smile as his uncle runs out of the government chamber into the night.
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