Opinion divided on King Goodwill Zwelithini’s legacy

By Claudi Mailovich

While some label him a ‘useful idiot in the hands of the apartheid government’, others say he was a custodian of Zulu culture.

The death of Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu marks the closure of a 50-year long chapter for a powerful nation in SA.

Zwelithini led the Zulus during apartheid and political violence as SA’s transition to democracy approached with continuous clashes between culture and the constitution.

The death of the head of a household in Zulu culture has the effect of bringing that household to a standstill, University of KwaZulu-Natal Zulu (UKZN) cultural expert Gugu Mazibuko said, and the death of the king, 72, brings the Zulu nation to that point.

Ordinarily by now mourners would have started making their way in numbers to the palace in Nongoma, Northern KwaZulu-Natal, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, little will be normal. Mourners have been told not come to the palace, as it would be “unconscionable” to allow the king’s passing to lead to more deaths, former IFP leader and his traditional prime minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, said in a statement at the weekend.

“As the nation will recall, when the late king’s father, King Cyprian Bhekuzulu ka Solomon, passed away in September 1968, the king lay in state for several days while thousands of mourners came to pay their final respects. It was thus naturally expected that His Majesty King Zwelithini would likewise be laid in state. Unfortunately, however, we are faced with the reality that SA and the world remain within the grip of a deadly pandemic,” Buthelezi said.

Though the king has been involved in numerous controversies, most notably in how Zulu identity and history were politicised and used to fan the flames of nationalist hatred during political violence between the IFP and the ANC in the 1980s and early 1990s, it becomes clear from interviews Business Day conducted that speaking about his legacy is treated with caution.

Mlungisi Phakathi, senior lecturer in the department of political science at Unisa, opts to use the Zulu phrase “abantu abayi ngandawonye bengemanzi”, meaning that unlike water, people do not go in the same direction. People will not all agree on Zwelithini’s legacy, Phakathi said.

In the modern age he became very influential in ensuring that albeit we live in a modern society the Zuluness in his people remained unshaken.

Mphumeleli Ngidi, UKZN history lecturer 

Few are as blunt as City Press editor Mondli Makhanya, who writes that the glowing messages sent out by all and sundry after his death, such as the one that he played a big role in bringing about peace in KwaZulu-Natal during the transition period, are lies.

“Zwelithini should be remembered for what his most prominent role was in our history: a useful idiot in the hands of the apartheid government whose willingness to lend his powerful position to the service of that regime cost tens of thousands of lives,” Makhanya wrote on Sunday.

Others do not offer the same harsh judgment. Mphumeleli Ngidi, a lecturer in history at UKZN, said he served his part as the custodian of culture, customs and traditions of the Zulu nation.

“In the modern age he became very influential in ensuring that albeit we live in a modern society the Zuluness in his people remained unshaken,” he said, adding that Zwelithini emphasised the preservation of culture and customs as they were practised since the reign of his forefathers.

Zwelithini frequently commented on current affairs to ensure that the Zulu kingdom was not only an institution of Zulu affairs but that the nation was embedded in what was transpiring in the day-to-day affairs of the country, he said.

“Throughout his tenure of five decades the king loved his nation, expressed discontent against events that would drag the nation [through] the mud and extended his hand to the poor.

“The king united his nation and served as a reservoir of customs, which are the practices that had been performed by his forefathers such as King Shaka kaSenzangakhona who is often hailed for the formation of a strong Zulu state, which still exists to this day,” Ngidi said.

Male circumcision

He wore traditional garb, and brought back traditional events such as the annual reed dance (Umkhosi Womhlanga), which is held every September when thousands of young women flock to the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal and his Nongoma homestead.

The king was a staunch advocate of sexual abstinence, and as part of fighting the HIV/Aids epidemic he played a crucial role in advocating male circumcision.

Ngidi also raises Umkhosi Wokweshwama (now called Umkhosi Woselwa), the annual First Fruits Festival, which was abandoned after the Zulus lost self-governance in the late 19th century as ordered by the British authorities. He said the event courted controversy in recent times as part of the ceremony involves the killing of a bull by amabutho (Zulu regiments) with their hands.

“Animal right groups challenged the practice as unconstitutional but the complaint became one of the many constitution-versus-culture debates that was lost by the opposing group. It is in such events that the king conveyed his message to the Zulu nation emphasising Zuluness, respect and the preservation of culture,” Ngidi said.

It was by far not the only example of culture clashing with constitutionalism, another being the Ingonyama Trust in which almost a third of the land in KwaZulu-Natal belongs to the king. Those living on the land can be tenants, but not landowners.

Face war

The government’s response to findings that the Ingonyama Trust Act was unconstitutional signals the political influence Zwelithini had. Instead of taking the call to abolish the trust on the chin, he called an imbizo and said the government should leave the land alone or face a war with the Zulu nation.

Phakathi said the fact that nothing came of its recommendations shows how influential Zwelithini was. SA’s politicians all but kissed his shoes, ensuring that the trust was safe.

But the furore around the Ingonyama Trust also highlights an aspect of Zwelithini’s reign. His choices of allies seemed unlikely, as was seen when he stood side by side with Afrikaner lobby group Afriforum to oppose land expropriation without compensation. His ability to work with different groups was illustrated by the wide range of people mourning his death, from the ANC to the Afrikanerbond.

Christopher Isike, political analyst from the University of Pretoria, said Zwelithini was probably the country’s most influential traditional leader. “Whether that influence amounted to good for the Zulu kingdom and the country remains to be seen,” he said.

His death has now created a vacuum, albeit not structurally, Isike said, as the royal house will rally around and name a successor. “But there would be a vacuum in terms of the authority, his personal grip and take on politics and power within the Zulu kingdom and SA at large. It would take a while for anyone to amass the kind of influence he amassed and the way he used it,” Isike said.

It is unknown who his successor will be. It is something that is not set down in writing, or that has been consistently applied in history, Mazibuko said. It will remain a secret until the royal household makes an announcement.

Zwelithini is survived by six wives and 28 children.

This article first appeared on Business Day Live on 14 March 2021.

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