Zulu king takes the cake

Feminism in the “Kingdom of the Zulu” can be as misunderstood as a woman in a miniskirt.

This became apparent at the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature’s gala dinner to celebrate Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s 60th birthday, held at Durban’s Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre (ICC) this week.

The warning signs came with the invitation for the celebration, which speciously managed to connect gender equality with the birthday bash: “With August being Women’s Month, this gala dinner in honour of His Majesty was organised and co-coordinated by four female MECs,” it crowed.

This conjured images of ministers Weziwe Thusi (arts and culture), Ina Cronje (education), Lydia Johnson (public works) and Peggy Nkonyeni (health) slaving over the details in the kitchen while Premier Sbu Ndebele and his manaconda-wielding colleagues in cabinet kicked back over the braai, or something like that.

That was also where the female participation in the event ended. Aside from the musical acts, which included Busi Mhlongo, there were no females included on the programme.

Odd, considering that aside from members of provincial parliament, various mayors and business people, the majority of the audience was drawn from women from around the province who were participating in a special two-day women’s parliament in Durban.

According to Willies Mchunu, the speaker in the provincial parliament, the women’s parliament ran late and the delegates arrived nearly two hours after the event was scheduled to kick off.

“They are getting dressed, getting changed and pampering themselves for the evening—as women do,” said Mchunu.

When the women did arrive they seemed as interested in proceedings as a eunuch at a reed dance ceremony.

Zwelithini himself appeared oblivious to any connotations of gender equality attached to proceedings. The photo opportunity when the royal birthday cake was cut being instructive: “Next,” commanded Zwelithini brusquely as wife number one scuttled away from the bank of cameras in front of his birthday cake.

Camera flashes followed wife number two as she joined Zwelithini in cutting the cake. “Next,” commanded the king without a sideways glance and wife number two was replaced by wife number three.

And so it went on: a single word and a replaced wife until all five docile royal companions had taken hold of the royal blade and crunched through the icing.

While Swaziland’s King Mswati might have a longer line of wives at his beck and call, not many people can rival the Zulu monarch when it comes to birthday celebrations. Even Nelson Mandela’s marathon 90th birthday celebrations pale by comparison to Zwelithini’s, which began the week of his birthday on July 26.

These included events at Kwa-Dlamahlahla Palace near Nongoma, a traditional ceremony outside KwaKhethomthandayo Palace, another at KwaKhangelamankengane Palace, a gala dinner in Pietermaritzburg and a Western-style celebration replete with brass band and Zulu impi at Pongola stadium.

At the ICC function this week the king called for a peaceful build-up to next year’s elections and chided arts and culture minister Thusi for slacking on the arrangements for the annual reed dance to take place later this year and for which, according to a department spokesperson, R2,4-million from provincial government will be spent.

Zwelithini also called for greater attention to be paid to the economic plight of the Zulu nation. “I am humbled by the way you respect me, but my people are hungry. I’m leading a dying nation. People starve because the money is not being used properly,” said Zwelithini.

That’s awfully egalitarian of a monarch whose head of household Vusi Shongwe told the Mercury newspaper in June that “the King doesn’t give a damn about budget ... all he wants is service”.

He said this when trying to explain why Zwelithini sometimes commandeered a helicopter or private jet at a cost of R45 000 a flight to get to an official function, which he was too tired to be driven to.

Shongwe also confirmed that the royal household’s perennial budget over-expenditure was set to continue this year and be “very high” because of the birthday celebrations.

The king’s birthday loot included cattle and goats valued at about R90 000 from the department of agriculture, three head of Nguni cattle from provincial government, another bovine from the provincial legislature and the title deeds to 120 000 hectares of land valued at R229-million in the Pongola region.

The land was apparently returned to the king after it had been taken from his forefathers 80 years ago. Now if only someone could return that sense of perspective to the monarchy.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi


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