Zulu tribe comes under doctor's orders: In Zululand, John Carlin meets a woman who has taken over a traditional male role - as the chief of her clan

SIBONGILE ZUNGU has suffered the pain of widowhood, the exhaustion of caring for two active daughters, and the challenge of being a doctor in a country where people live in extreme poverty amid extreme violence.

But Dr Zungu, now 30, looks back with nostalgia to the days when these were her only worries. Last March she became the first woman in recorded history to be appointed a Zulu tribal chief. She now lives on a hill-top in the 'bundus', as she puts it, ruling the 70,000-strong Zungu clan.

'When my mother comes to visit me from Durban she just stands there staring, absolutely amazed,' she says. 'She knows nothing about all these tribal things. And then she comes here and we go to the supermarket in town and - I must say it's rather embarrassing - half the people we see come up to me and bow.'

As if to prove the point, half-way though our interview a man in his twenties entered the room. A picture of servility, hunched, hands clasped, he took two steps forward, went down on one knee and, head bowed, staring at the floor, informed her that an officer of a South African Defence Force platoon was waiting to see her. He must wait, she ordered, until the interview was over.

Quiet authority, clearly, comes naturally to her. But in other departments she has had her awkward moments. 'You must understand that because of the kind of family I had - my father was a schoolteacher - I was brought up knowing nothing at all about tribal customs.'

As a result she has put her foot in it on more than one occasion. 'We were at a party with a whole lot of other chiefs where they slaughtered an ox. Now, according to the culture, I later discovered, women don't eat the parts of the head.

'So I was sitting there with the chiefs, and they brought along a tray for us with choice bits to eat - tongue and brains, mainly. I wanted tongue, and so there I was busy eating a piece, when one of the chiefs, totally shocked, said to me that women aren't supposed to eat that.

'It was all terribly uncomfortable, but luckily another chief broke in and said, 'Yes, that's right. But chiefs do, so go ahead.' ' (An expert on Zulu customs later explained that women were not allowed to eat tongue because they talked too much and should not be encouraged.)

Dr Zungu experienced similar discomfort at a grand Zulu ceremony at which a number of 'the royals' were present. 'Not the Zulu king himself, but close relatives, princes. Now, to begin with, everybody turned up in traditional attire: leopard skins and that sort of thing. I was dressed in a modern, fashionable dress. Also I got the protocol all wrong. Chiefs are supposed to lead their people down the road, singing and dancing, then greet all the other chiefs before taking their seats. I just drove up in my car, got out and strolled up to the place reserved for me.'

She acceded to the chieftaincy after her husband, whose line of chieftainly descent went back 160 years, died in a car accident. Quite why, or how, she was appointed would always remain a mystery to her, she said, because other blood relatives of her husband, some of them male, seemed to have at least as strong a claim.

'Quite out of the blue one day I received a letter from the KwaZulu government informing me that I was the chief. I have no idea to this day why they chose me.'

Possibly the main criterion was that her husband had worked as a deputy minister in the KwaZulu government and was thus automatically a member of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party, which exercises one-party rule in the homeland.

'I myself belong to no party. A chief should treat everyone equally, independent of their politics. I have my beliefs, of course, but I keep them strictly to myself,' she said.

Her conversation leaves little doubt, however, that her sympathies lie more with the Inkatha conservatives than with the African National Congress, fierce rivals in a Zululand civil war from whose consequences the Zungu clan has not been immune.

Unfashionably, for someone of her 'Western' background, she thinks blacks are not sufficiently well educated at present either to run the country or to hold elections. 'Democracy is all very well, but we should delay it. The thing about elections is that they will definitely bring more violence. People are not prepared to be good losers, like the whites have been in their elections.'

Her fears are founded on the fact that nowhere in South Africa has the ANC-Inkatha conflict been more acute than in the Zululand area this past year. Since she became chief, more than 40 of her clan members have died. She is not taking any chances. Amid constant rumours that her life is under threat, she does not travel anywhere without an armed bodyguard. 'It's not nice - but what's to be done?'

She has thought about resigning the chieftainship, but says she can't. She knows there is no one in the clan better equipped than she is to take on the responsibilities. These include analysing the community's problems - mainly the limited water supply, 40 per cent unemployment, poor education and, of course, violence, criminal as well as political - and advising the people how best to cope.

But there is more to it than that. She has a bureaucracy to run. The KwaZulu government provides her with funds that she has to administer and distribute. She is also the Zungu clan's chief justice. She runs the tribal court, an institution which does not deal with serious crime but addresses endless land disputes, stock-thefts and the like.

'Look at this case I'm sitting on now. A man has two wives, the first of whom bore two children by another man before they married. The first wife died recently and he's decided to dismantle his home - literally pull it down - and move in with his second wife. Now, the second wife is on bad terms with the two children, who are both teenagers now, and she will not have them in her house. So, the question is, where are they to live? It's terrible. I alone have to decide what's to become of these people's lives.

'Sometimes I just look at my husband,' she said, turning to a wedding picture on the wall. 'If he was here now, I'd tell him to stay in this house while I disappeared. But I can't. My main problem is that I've been landed with this, and if I leave it I'll be dishonouring my husband, and I'll feel guilty for the rest of my life.'

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
tennisLive: Follow all the updates from Melbourne as Murray faces Czech Tomas Berdych in the semi-final
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
musicYou'll have to ask Taylor Swift first
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Joel Grey, now 82, won several awards for his role in Cabaret
people
Sport
Harry Kane celebrates scoring the opening goal for Spurs
footballLive: All the latest transfer news as deadline day looms
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

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Our exclusive client in St Albans Hertfords...

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Primary Teachers

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teachers needed in Hertfordshir...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ACCA/CIMA - St Albans, Hertfordshire

£55000 - £58000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - London, Old Street

£25000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Credit Controller - Londo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness