How King Goodwill Zwelithini′s reign transformed South Africa | Africa | DW | 17.03.2021

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How King Goodwill Zwelithini's reign transformed South Africa

The controversial but revered king of South Africa's Zulu people is to be buried this evening. During his long reign, he accumulated power far beyond his ceremonial role. But not without stepping on a few toes.

King Goodwill Zwelithini

The late Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini played a major role in South African politics

KwaZulu-Natal's King Goodwill Zwelithini, who died at the age of 72 on March 12, had no official power. In fact, his role was largely ceremonial. But in practice, he had great influence among the eleven million ethnic Zulus — South Africa's largest ethnic group — and by extension, on domestic politics.

Zwelithini, who claimed to be a descendant of the famous King Shaka, was crowned the eighth Zulu monarch at the age of 23 during the apartheid era.

While there had been many kings before him, "the modern positioning of the traditional leaderships and the kings comes from negotiated settlement," Chris Vandome of the UK-based think tank Chatham House told DW. As such, the current system is at least partially a product of apartheid.

The role and influence of the Zulu community in modern day South Africa was effectively shaped by the relationship between the king and Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the country's Minister of Home Affairs from 1994 until 2004. It was also influenced by one of the Bantustans — a piece of territory — set aside by the apartheid regime for black South Africans.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was a staunch ally of the king, even if they didn't always agree

Forging a strong alliance

Politically ambitious, Buthelezi founded the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) in 1975 to secure his own power base. The IFP played a key role in South African policies until its transition to democracy in 1994.

"Long before the end of apartheid, the IFP was seen as a much larger threat to the [governing white minority] National Party than the [African National Congress] ANC," Jakkie Cilliers from the South African think-tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS) told DW.

King Zwelithini and Buthelezi did not always see eye to eye. But the two leaders never failed to close ranks to preserve what they perceived to be the traditional rights of the Zulu people. And consolidate their own power in the process.

"I think it was their strong relationship, among other factors, that made this one of the strongest traditional authorities in the country," says Vandome.

Aware of the ANC's rejection of traditional leadership, Buthelezi and Zwelithini threatened to boycott South Africa's first free and democratic elections in 1994, raising the spectre of renewed bloodshed. Antagonism between members of Nelson Mandela's ANC and the IFP cost tens of thousands of lives in the 1980's and 90's.

Zulu women performing a traditional dance

King Zwelithini strongly promoted Zulu cultural and social identity

Dire consequences of the Ingonyama Trust Act

They eventually managed to obtain important concessions from future President Nelson Mandela and then-head of state F.W. De Klerk, including greater provincial powers.

For the king, it was most important to avoid a reversal of the Ingonyama Trust Act, which passed on the eve of the 1994 elections. 

"The popular view is that that was a deal to get the IFP to join the elections," analyst Cilliers explains, pointing out that recent reports, and Buthelezi himself, dispute the assertion. "Nobody really knows. But it has increased land insecurity and poverty."

The other nine homelands had to place their land under the authority of the national government. But the Ingonyama Act allowed 30% of KwaZulu-Natal's land to remain under the administration of a trust board, headed by Zwelithini, in a province where the majority of the population relied on agriculture to survive.

Because the king is the custodian, the tenants have no title deeds and therefore cannot access bank loans, for example. Over time, the king also reduced tenants' rights, all of which is contrary to the country's constitution.

A popular figure

"A parallel system of constitutional rights in South Africa was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court some years ago," Cilliers says. But this fact has been blithely ignored by both the ANC and the king.

The central government has always been keenly aware of the voting power of the Zulu people. And despite the criticism aimed at Zwelithini, the king remained highly popular at home.

"He had a very important cultural position within the community," Vandome explains. Even criticism of his yearly $4 million (€3.4 million) allowance he received from the central government to help fund a lifestyle that included six wives and 28 children failed to dent his popularity. 

Zwelithini also benefited from dramatic changes within the ANC, especially under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, a Zulu himself.

"Under Zuma's administration, Xhosa membership declined, and Zulu membership really increased. It became a very dominant power base within the governing ANC," Cilliers explains.

Former President Jacob Zuma dancing in traditional Zulu attire

Former Zulu President Jacob Zuma cretated a Zulu power base for himself in the ANC

A negative legacy?

Zuma formed close alliances not only with the late king but with several traditionalist leaders.

Today, the ANC is "increasingly black nationalist and much more rural and traditionalist orientated than was the case of five or 30 years ago," says Cilliers. "And it's given up all pretense of non-racialism."

Current President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is a member of the Venda people, is unlikely to reform the current system.

"In order to get a comfortable position at the head of the party he needs the backing of KwaZulu-Natal party members," says Vandome.

For analyst Cilliers, all of this had a "huge impact" on South Africa. But overall, the legacy of the late king is a negative one, he says: "I think his role has genuinely impoverished his people."

Watch video 02:27

Shaka Zulu: Founding father of the Zulu nation