Analysis. The dispute over the throne of the late Zwelithini will end in a South African court. The social shock affects the precarious balance between the constitution and customary law.

The thorny crown of the Zulu king

The death of an influential and powerful person always leaves something in its wake, and in most cases, what happens in the aftermath and in the struggle for inheritance is something the deceased is better off never knowing about. This is even more so in the case of very large families, such as the one left behind by the former king of the Zulu, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, who died on March 12 last year at the age of 72, probably from COVID-19.

The South African Constitution makes the role of the traditional king largely ceremonial; however, the king is head of the Ubukhosi, a very ancient institution of traditional leadership recognized by the state and composed of local chiefs.

While it is true that the traditional chiefs are in no way consulted as part of South Africa’s legislative process, not even on those policies that directly impact their daily activities or their communities, it is equally true that the 11 million Zulus (one-fifth of South Africa’s population) recognize a moral and traditional authority in their king that makes him a very powerful figure in terms of influence. And also a rich one, in economic terms: thousands of hectares of land, numerous palaces and real estate properties, a public budget for the royal house of over €4 million per year and a personal wealth of unknown size, but estimated at about 200 million rand (€11.4 million).

Over the years, South African newspapers have written on the sumptuous lifestyle of the Zulu royal family quite often, which has aroused great controversy, especially in recent years, given the citizens’ high sensitivity—less present on the part of politicians—towards the scourge of corruption.

King Zwelithini was not just any king: he reigned for over 50 years, through the harshest period of Apartheid, the democratization of South Africa and the birth of the “rainbow nation.” He even quarreled with Nelson Mandela, to whom he is related (Zeni Mandela, Nelson’s daughter, is married to a brother-in-law of the king). Zwelithini has also been a guardian of Zulu traditions and customs, succeeding in the feat of integrating traditional ceremonies and dances with the promotion of important social messages, such as moral education and awareness about the risks of AIDS.

Less than a year after his death, one of King Zwelithini’s six widows is now the protagonist of a legal case for inheritance. In his will, the king had appointed his third wife, Shiyiwe Mantfombi Dlamini as regent, but she died a month after her late husband. The designated heir to the Zulu throne is their 47-year-old son, Misuzulu Zulu (who has 28 brothers and sisters), but the official coronation has never taken place, despite the fact that Misuzulu is already the de facto ruler.

Sibongile Dlamini, Zwelithini’s first wife, the only one married in a civil and non-traditional rite which involves the right to common property, has challenged Misuzulu’s right to the throne in court, claiming half of the inheritance for herself; and two of her daughters, Princesses Ntombizosuthu and Ntandoyenkosi, are contesting the validity of the entire will, claiming that the king’s signature was forged.

The issue is thorny and also highly complex at the legal level, because it concerns the balance between law and customary law. This is no small obstacle: polygamy in South Africa is legal but is regulated by very strict laws, at least from the point of view of bureaucratic obligations, and is a highly politically charged issue.

For the moment, polyandry is not allowed, but a bill on the matter is under discussion in the South African Parliament and there are serious hopes that it could be approved this year.

The affair is also thorny on a social level: many Zulus say that traditional issues have nothing to do with the law, legal system and courts of South Africa, and many are protesting in front of the court of Pietermaritzburg, capital of the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the hearings on the case are being held.

For 300 years, the monarchy has held together a great part of the Bantu ethnic group in South Africa, and a rift in the royal family risks hitting the painful nerves that not even Mandela had tried to touch: there are land issues—a burning problem in South Africa—financial issues and issues of power and influence that must be balanced and guaranteed, in a state that in recent months has experienced violent unrest, at the root cause of which we find social inequalities.

And then, there is the royal family, which is divided and quarrelsome, a fact that complicates the procedures for the coronation, and more generally slows down and impedes the organization of the many cultural events that characterize the Zulu community. This week, Judge Isaac Madondo has established a first principle that will guide the proceedings in the case: legal marriages and traditional marriages have the same value under South African law. The challenge to the will by the two princesses is a separate matter and still needs to be debated.

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