In Pondoland, confusion will reign till kingdom come

The Constitutional Court ruling to set aside the process appointing the current king of Pondoland has left a great deal of confusion in its wake. The two families eligible for the position both think they were favoured. But on the nation's rolling hills, people struggle to work out who is king, who has been king, or even what it means for them.

In the early 1800s the amaMpondo survived the Mfecane wars and then waves of colonisers. It was only in 1894 that they finally fell to the sce-ptre of colonial rule. But this did not usher in any sort of peaceful time; in 1960 the amaMpondo rose again.

And throughout, bubbling just under the surface over the past 75 years, a dispute has festered over who the true king really is.

It involves two branches of the same Sigcau family. Botha Sigcau, the second of three brothers ascended to the throne after the eldest died without an heir in 1937. The third was left out. In 1978, Botha was succeeded by his son, Mpondombini Sigcau, who ruled until a government commission deposed him in 2011 and said the grandson of the third brother, Zanozuko Sigcau, was the rightful king.

This decision was overturned by the Constitutional Court last Thursday. But the ruling did not say who the rightful king was, just that the wrong process had been followed in appointing one.

For Victoria Sigcau, Zanozuko's mother, this has put Pondoland in limbo. She is holding a meeting of elders near her home. They sit under one of the few big trees left in this part of Pondoland. Its white trunk groans in the breeze.

Mark of respect
"After he [Zanozuko] was pronounced king, he told the commission he would do it the traditional way – he would go to his uncle and talk this through," she says.

"The traditional leaders are keeping the Pondo happy. The Pondo like to fight, so if there is no quick resolution to this they are going to fight."

A man enters through the gate and shouts "Zuko!" – the traditional mark of respect on entering a king's home. After she greets him, Sigcau says the fight is not their first.

"When he [Zanozuko] was first inaugurated, people came here to kill us. So now he has police."

She returns to the gathering, holding three cellphones that are constantly ringing. "These are worrying times," she says.

The Constitutional Court's ruling means the status quo remains the same, so he is still the king.

All that still has to be done is for some of the paperwork surrounding his appointment to be revisited, Zanozuko tells me. We are speaking on the phone; he has had to leave the province for a few days.

"After the court's decision, the royal family met and recommended that under tradition it is still me [that rules]," he says.

Chaotic mix
Nothing will change, he insists. He will not talk on the phone about any other developments or the possibility of mining in Pondoland – that will have to wait for another day, when he is back, he says.

His old home and his mother's current residence are 15km from the tar road that runs through eastern Pondoland. The nearest town is Flagstaff. Its one street is a chaotic mix of cars and pedestrians carrying piles of goods.

The other centre of power – the Botha branch of the Sigcau family – is 40km away, in Lusikisiki. This has been the centre of power in Pondoland for most of the 75 years since Mandlonke Sigcau died without a successor.

The one main road between the two is the only artery for traffic across the region, and runs parallel to the ocean. Its thin verges are full of ­people walking from one hilly ­settlement to the next. The ­yellow line provides a psychological barrier to protect them, but it does little to save dogs, and dozens of carcasses litter the road.

This home is in gentler hills, down a bumpy gravel road from Lusikisiki. Directions here are given with a nod or finger pointed across the next hill. The road is long and the people walking along it are covered in grey dust.

The royal home is in a cluster of faded pink houses. Orange-clad community works programme people fix its neat gardens and aloe trees. The howling wind threatens to undo the work of one woman with a broom, as it blows away most of what she tries to collect into a neat pile.

Mourning period
Queen MaSobuzha Sigcau is not available. In keeping with amaMpondo custom, she is going through three months of mourning for Mpondombini, who  died two months ago, before the Constitutional Court decision.

The family's spokesperson, Jonathan Block, says the family will go through the mourning period then come together and decide who can ascend to the throne. The queen is acting regent until then.

He is adamant that the court ruled in their favour. "It is clear from the judgment that it was in our favour, with costs," he says. "The ruling is black and white."

This leaves the way forward clear – when a successor is chosen she, or he, will be the new ruler of Pondoland, he says.

The opposing views of the families are mirrored in the few people who know who their king is – the others I spoke to either do not know or do not care. One old man, holding his notebook and waiting on a grass bank for a taxi, says Zanozuko is king. "He is the only one who can be king. He is a born king."

He heard about the court ruling on the radio and says it does not change anything, because, with Mpondombini dead, there is only one person who can take the throne.

"He is the right man to rule us," he says, before a taxi stops in a whirl of dust and takes him towards the Indian Ocean.

Hudson Mpotlo, his big hands dusty from making clay bricks in his yard, has heard from neighbours and friends that the process to appoint a new king had been wrong. But the decision is a wrong one.

Final decision
"Zanozuko is the right choice. His father was the rightful king according to our tradition, so he should lead us," he says, leaning on a stack of the grey bricks.

Elderly people remember the kings of old, but have no idea who is in charge now.

"I remember when Botha was king," says Johnson Budleni. "Then there were fights, and now we do not know who is in charge."

Gilbert Jara, wearing the blue overalls of a job he retired from in the 1990s, asks his wife who is king now. She doesn't know; the debate goes back and forth for a few minutes before being settled: "Mpondombini in Lusikisiki is our king," is their final decision.

Neither has heard of Zanozuko. But they do know that their choice for king died recently and will be replaced. "The royal family will come and find a new leader."

The dispute between the kings produces a round of laughter in Lungu Noxtwala's house. Black and white photos of her as a young woman accompany memories of the king when she was born – Botha Sigcau.

"The quarrel between the two houses came from their forefathers, so it will continue," she says.

Pap, soup and some cabbage
But the government chose Zanozuko as king, so he should remain. "The rightful person to be king is Zanozuko," she agrees.

For 22-year-old Nwabisa Damoyi, it is a problem that so few people know about their heritage. "At school we were not taught about being a Pondo. We learnt about other people, so now people do not know who they are," she says.

"Now all people want to do is leave here to find work. Nobody cares who is king, especially when you have this fight," she says.

But for the youngest people, the immediate problems are more pressing. A group of children in their early teens – who cheerfully offer to translate so they can practise their English – say they want change more than anything.

"If I were king, I would take out this road and put a tar one in. Then I would make sure my toilet is finished.," says one boy.

"It would be freedom if we had no king," his friend proclaims.

"I hear that children at other schools get meat with their food. We only get pap, soup and some cabbage every day. I would change that," says a quieter member of the group.




Life imitates art in this game of thrones


The succession struggle started in the 1930s. Paramount chief Mandlonke Sigcau died with no successors from his first wife's house. His brother, Botha, was given the position by then governor general Patrick Duncan.

When Botha died his son, Mpondombini, took the throne and ruled for several decades.

But then came the Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims. This was established in 2003 to work out the gaps between customary and statutory law. Commonly named the Nhlapo Commission, after its first commissioner Thandabantu Nhlapo, it said that by overruling the customs of the amaMpondo Duncan had anointed the incorrect leader.

The commission suggested that Nelson Sigcau, the third brother, was the rightful heir to the throne in the 1930s because he had married his dead brother's wife. This is the custom of ukungena (to enter and take over). They had a son, who then fathered Zanozuko Sigcau – the man the commission said should become king.

President Jacob Zuma confirmed this and Zanozuko was inaugurated in April 2011 at the Nzindlovu Great Place.

The deposed king, Mpondombini, took the issue to court. Though he died before the ruling, the Constitutional Court put the decision to appoint Zanozuko aside, and said Zuma had used the wrong piece of legislation to appoint him. – Sipho Kings




There are jewels in the crown


Pondoland is as remote as any place can be in South Africa. Hundreds of hills and deep valleys mean roads wind their way around the land, making any journey difficult. It also doesn't draw tourists in the numbers enjoyed by the more glamorous KwaZulu-Natal coast to the north.

One of the two big discussions in this part of the world over the past decade has been plans to run the N2 highway through the region – it currently goes through Mthatha to the north. This would run it closer to the coast and open Pondoland for tourists and trade. The other has been about mining sand dunes along its northern coast.

Both issues have created strong communities for and against. Environmentalists say either development would destroy the Wild Coast and endanger its long-term sustainability.

Others see the economic potential for an area where employment levels are low.

The battle for the amaMpondo leadership is also split along these lines, with Zanozuko favouring the mining and the motorway. Mpondombini rejected both.

Given the legal battles and objections, neither development has gone ahead. –

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

Golding opportunity for kleptocrats

Government must take steps to clean up the country’s dirty real estate market, which has long offered a safe haven for criminals

SAA’s rescue men fly in defiance

The airline’s business rescue practitioners ignored a warning not to announce route closures and possible job cuts ahead of a restructuring plan

Press Releases

Response to the report of the independent assessors

VUT welcomes the publishing of the report of the independent assessors to investigate concerns of poor governance, leadership, management, corruption and fraud at the university.

NWU student receives international award

Carol-Mari Schulz received the Bachelor of Health Sciences in Occupational Hygiene Top Achiever Award.

Academic programme resumes at all campuses

Lectures, practicals, seminars and tutorials will all resume today as per specific academic timetables.

Strategic social investments are a catalyst for social progress

Barloworld Mbewu enables beneficiaries to move away from dependence on grant funding

We all have a part to play to make South Africa work

Powering societal progress demands partnerships between all stakeholders

So you want to be a social entrepreneur?

Do the research first; it will save money and time later

Social entrepreneurship means business

Enterprises with a cause at their core might be exactly what our economy desperately needs

Looking inwards

Businesses are finding tangible ways to give back – but only because consumers demand it