Editorial: When a king turns on his subjects

Children often play at whose father is strongest of them all. These verbal proclamations of might are usually escalated to a point of exasperated hyperbole, with no winner yet to be recorded in known history.

And so, much like a child pontificating on a school playground, King Goodwill Zwelithini would like us to measure his Zulu regiment against the South African National Defence Force soldiers who, he argues, cannot even keep “foreigners” out. So, when the government comes to take “our” land, the Zulu regiment will be ready to defeat them, he announces. His utterances are a gnashing of teeth and a beating of spears on shields. It is a threat. Oh, and just in case, please can the Zulu nation unite to deposit at least R5 into an account so the government can be hauled to court?

This is a fight that has been long in the making, but has always been deferred in the interest of political expediency.

Zwelithini’s utterances would be laughable if they also weren’t so dangerous. The king is intent on selling the simplistic but untrue narrative that “the government is coming to take our land”. “Our land,” he says.

But the Kgalema Motlanthe high-level panel, listening to the inhabitants of the Ingonyama Trust Board-administered land, found a different reality.

“We live in great hardship in South Africa. We are dispossessed of our land by development, the mines, and we get no compensation or benefits out of the so-called development on our ancestral land. We are not consulted. We have turned into nonentities with nothing, and yet we are the rightful owners of the land,” one KwaZulu-Natal resident told the Motlanthe panel.

Yet it’s “our land”, the king says.

The Ingonyama Trust Board’s custodianship over 2.8‑million hectares of land, about a third of KwaZulu-Natal, was a result of a deal between the National Party apartheid government and the Inkatha Freedom Party, shortly before the transition to democracy in 1994. Its sole trustee is Zwelithini.

Still, even this “sweetheart” deal had its limitations, with the board historically riding roughshod over the law and thumbing its nose at all constitutionally mandated oversight bodies. More directly, the board has treated the people who occupy this land like cattle.

Late last year, the Ingonyama Trust advertised that it was moving from the apartheid-era model of permission-to-occupy permits to 40-year leases, with 10% annual escalations. The plots would have to be fenced within six month and all buildings on the property at the end of the lease period would be ceded to the trust. This was done to increase revenue for the trust, to supplement its income from existing rentals or leases amounting to R96‑million (in the 2015-2016 financial year), added to its nearly R20‑million government subsidy. Yet the trust says it is cash-strapped.

Parliament has instructed the board to stop issuing leases. Historically, it largely disregarded directives, as it has with accounting for money and doling out mining and business leases. But Parliament has adopted a tougher stance, flowing from the ANC’s December resolution to dissolve the trust, despite the serious political consequences the ruling party is likely to face.

The land belongs to the people, the ANC affirmed. Zwelithini has reacted with bluster and threats, seemingly ignoring the report’s contents that speak the words of people who say they are homeless on their own land.

These sentiments led the Motlanthe fact-finding mission to conclude: “Not since 1986, when the policy of forced removals was abandoned by the apartheid government after concerted resistance by rural people, have rural people been as structurally vulnerable to dispossession as they are currently.”

These are the same people from whom Zwelithini derives his legitimacy. Through the actions of the Ingonyama Trust Board, which faces a barrage of court action related to evictions and land ownership, it becomes clear that what’s at stake is not “our” land but rather the king’s claimed land.

By attacking people’s basic plea for dignity, the war the king threatens is really on the people he claims to lead and protect.  

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