Something rotten in state of KwaZulu: Plot thickens as Zulu king enters the political stage

THE ZULU royal house, at the turbulent heart of South Africa's contemporary political drama, provides the stuff of which the great Elizabethan tragedies were made.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own