August 25, 2022

In March 1881, Cetshwayo ka Mpande, the deposed King of the Zulus, wrote a letter from his Cape exile to the then Governor of the Cape Colony, Sir Hercules Robinson, begging for the right to return to his conquered homeland:

“All that is mine in Zululand has been overturned and spoiled. My children and wives have been put in misery by the chiefs now ruling. The English were merciful, but not the Chiefs now ruling. I wish the English to look to this.”

Things may not be quite as bad for his descendant, Misuzulu Sinqobile kaZwelithini, who last week was crowned King of the Zulus. But the 48-year-old King is already in trouble. He is embroiled in the first and most bitter royal succession contest in a century, waged in a province of South Africa that is flood-ravaged, violence-prone, and has only just emerged from a failed insurrection. It is also suffering the economic consequences of a disastrously and corruptly managed Covid outbreak.

It is a tough neighbourhood, no question. And the situation is only growing more complicated. There are currently several claimants to the Zulu throne, which reigns over the ten million or more Zulu-speaking people of South Africa. When the late King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu died on 12 March 2021, his wife, Queen Mantfombi Dlamini Zulu, became Regent and by the King’s will was mandated to name his successor from among his 28 children. The Queen, herself of Swazi royal line, died soon after her husband, hence Prince Misuzulu’s appointment.

Not everyone was pleased with the decision. Two of the late King’s daughters by his first wife claimed the will was fraudulent and tested it in court. They lost. Another son of the King, his first-born but not from the Great House, Prince Simakade Zulu kaZwelithini, has claimed the throne and cheekily enacted one of the ancillary ceremonies of inauguration. Then there is Prince Buzabazi Zulu from the KwaDlamahlala Royal House: he says neither are rightful heirs.

Unable to ignore the threat of instability, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa acted with uncharacteristic decisiveness and on 16 March this year recognised Prince Misuzulu as the rightful claimant. It is unlikely to have smoothed the ruffled Blue Crane plumes, centrepiece of the royal regalia.

This untypical royal succession row has again turned attention to one of South Africa’s most enduring and enigmatic institutions. The country is awash with traditional leaders; indeed, they are represented in a state advisory assembly and recognised in the country’s fine constitution. But none have the stature, allure and influence of the Zulu monarchy, despite it having no effective executive, judicial or legislative authority.

Part of this quasi authority stems from a past that is rich in drama, even by South Africa’s standards; part comes from the fact that Zulu nationalism is a living and volatile political reality, but mostly, the aura stems from the fact that the Zulu monarch, as Chair of the Ingonyama Trust, holds on behalf of the Zulu people 11,000 square miles of land, equal to 30% of the province. This land in the early 19th century was ruled by King Shaka Zulu, the founder of one of Africa’s greatest military empires. It was recognised by successive white administrations and later incorporated as a “Bantustan” under the apartheid-era plan for homogenous tribal authorities with decentralised powers.

The Trust was hastily set up to administer the tribal lands on the eve of the first democratic transition in 1994. The tetchy Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then Chief Minister of the KwaZulu homeland and head of the traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party, insisted on its creation as a condition for his taking part in the elections. He had no intention of surrendering this vast ancestral land to a polyglot new ruling party such as the African National Congress.

The rolling country and mountain terrain held by the Trust provides some of the country’s most vauntingly magnificent scenery, but is currently occupied by small plot-holders, shack-dwellers, squatters and impoverished hamlets. Erosion, population density alongside major arterial routes, water purity and soil fertility are common problems there. Little is produced beyond subsistence needs and street-side stall trading.

The ruling ANC party has long seen the Ingonyama Trust as anachronistic in a modern constitutional state. Its plan is to create farming and tourism initiatives through black co-operatives or private ventures. But this scheme is violently opposed by the Royal family, Inkatha and the hierarchy of Chiefs, sub-Chiefs (Indunas) and Headmen who rely on the power and patronage the Trust accords them. Their right to allocate land usage allows them to supplicant inhabitants of the Trust lands.

Recently, the Trust caused an uproar by seeking for the first time to levy rents on this previously free usage land. The rents have since been suspended by court order, and the status of this huge swathe of potentially valuable agricultural and game land is now in limbo, with the central government afraid of provoking more Zulu outrage. (Meanwhile, the ANC government appropriates highly productive commercial farmland for transfer to elite cronies, with catastrophic consequences for productivity, rural employment, and food security.)

Whatever the outcome, there are big bucks at stake, dwarfing the R70 million-odd (£3.5 million) in annual transfers to the royal family from the central and provincial governments as stipends. With the ANC’s unbroken record of dodgy state entrepreneurship and the abysmal productivity of previous rural co-operative initiatives, there are few who do not think this will end badly, especially for the poor.

There are also political concerns for the new King. Ever since Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, was ousted as leader of the ANC and president of the country by Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017, there has been a growing insurgency in the province waged by Zuma loyalists, gangsters and, it appears, current and former members of the State Security Agency (SSA), which had become Zuma’s in-house intelligence agency during his reign.

Tensions came to a head in July last year, during a five-day period of looting and anarchy. More than 330 people died, some shot by home and business owners, but the majority were crushed to death in the stampede for loot or murdered in tussles over contraband. The police, army and local ruling party officials went AWOL, leaving local communities to fend for themselves in hastily pulled together militias, eerily reminiscent of the ones found in emergencies on the early 19th-century frontiers.

Full stability has not yet been restored. The province awaits a High Court of Appeal judgment as to whether the medical discharge of former president Zuma from prison should be revoked. If he returns to prison, many expect a repeat of the violence orchestrated last year.

This may well be the new King’s first challenge. Attempts are underway to drag him into the fray on one side or the other. Already, last year, two royal regiments, informal and clan-based militia, reported to Zuma’s headquarters at Nkandla to defend him against attempts by the government to take him into custody. They were quickly ordered to stand down, but it was indicative of future problems.

KwaZulu Natal province, within which the King’s domain lies, is the most unstable part of the country. It ranks the highest proportionately on the country’s state corruption and incompetence scales and is prone to violent outbursts. Most recently, it was shaken by a series of mass shootings in township taverns. Police intelligence suggest they may have been the result of gangster extortion attempts or fight-backs by local citizenry against the gangsters. Police say the shooters are the usual suspects: from family-owned assassination businesses in the remote and mountainous northern area of Ingwavuma, where killers can be hired for a few hundred pounds — weapons and munitions included.

But there is still hope for the new King. Although he has no institutional power, his office holds relevance for many of his widely dispersed Zulu subjects as an articulator of traditional values, a reminder of past imperial glory and an anchor in a world seen to be increasingly adrift morally, socially and politically. In this he is no different to many European monarchs.

It is an uneasy crown the King must wear, but he can at least take comfort that his earliest ancestors had it a lot tougher. Of the new King’s eight ancestors, two died violently, including King Shaka Zulu, the founder of the nation, who was killed by one of his own stabbing spears in a coup organized by his half-brother Dingane. Dingane was later decisively defeated by Boer forces at the Battle of Blood River in 1838 and killed by Boer tribal allies while on the run. Another two ancestors were exiled and a fifth, Mpande kaSenzangakhona, the half-brother considered too stupid and obese by Dingane to be worth killing, skillfully played Boer and Briton off against each other for 32 years to protect his kingdom. His son, Cetshwayo kaMpande Zulu, presided over the definitive defeat of Zulu arms in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.

The last serious Zulu uprising was in 1906 and was crushed in three months by colonial forces through a combination of excellent intelligence and a brutality that brought nearly 120 years of relative peace, at least until last year’s Troubles.

It is this stability which is now at risk. The new King, elevated in a confused succession, remains an unknown quantity. His immediate predecessors chose political neutrality as the best protection for the institution: they rebelled neither against colonial nor apartheid powers, nor chose sides in the apartheid era between the revolutionary forces represented by the African National Congress and the evolutionary ones driven by the Inkatha Freedom Party. When the King’s late father was asked to choose between Cyril Ramaphosa’s faction of the ruling ANC Party or Jacob Zuma’s insurrectionist one, he declined.

Herein lies King Misuzulu kaZwelithini’s only chance of safeguarding his stewardship and perpetuating the institution in these turbulent times. The monarchy has no executive power, its warriors are ceremonial, its writ is limited to those who reside in the trust lands and the Royal House is utterly dependent on state subsidy, or at least until it is able to raise its own revenues from the trust lands, itself unlikely.

There is meanwhile no political pressure for the dissolution of the royal institution. The reverse: the majority of South Africans, if they bother to think about the Zulu Royals at all, regard it is as a rather picturesque legacy of a heroic history. The new King has therefore every chance of surviving if he keeps in his lane — and succeeding, perhaps spectacularly, if he pioneers the development of the trust lands in the interests of the landless poor. But he must first find a way to make people listen to him.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.