/ 4 July 2023

Buthelezi poisoning claims suggest lost influence over Zulu monarchy

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s replacement as leader of Inkatha Freedom Party after 44 marked the end of an era.
Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelez.

After nearly 70 years, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) president emeritus and Zulu traditional prime minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi appears to have lost his influence, and control,  over the monarchy.

Relations between Buthelezi and King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini continue to worsen, with the monarch on Monday publicly dismissing Buthelezi’s claim that he had been poisoned.

The latest clash deepens a rift that now appears to be beyond repair and which may end up costing the IFP dearly at the polls in next year’s national and provincial elections.

Buthelezi has acted as traditional prime minister to a succession of Zulu kings since 1958, including the current monarch’s father, Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu, who died in March 2021.

Buthelezi successfully leveraged the title to the benefit of the IFP and its predecessor, Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe, from the time of its launch in 1975 had established itself as a protector of the monarchy and a repository of Zulu culture and history.

Buthelezi cemented his control over the monarchy through the KwaZulu government, which he led until it was dissolved in 1994 and which was responsible for the payment and upkeep of the monarch and amakhosi under him.

Buthelezi maintained the role with Zwelithini until his death, but lost financial control over the monarchy in 2004, when the ANC took control of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government, which funds the king and the royal house to the tune of R80 million annually.

Buthelezi again took on the traditional prime minister’s role after Misuzulu was named as his father’s successor and was successfully installed as monarch in August last year, backing him to the hilt in his battles with rivals for the throne.

But tensions between Buthelezi and Misuzulu have steadily increased in recent months over a number of issues on which the king has differed with Buthelezi and which have flared up into open conflict.

The most prominent of these has been Buthelezi’s challenge to the monarch’s decision to remove Jerome Ngwenya as chairperson of the Ingonyama Trust Board (ITB) earlier this year, along with Misuzulu’s choice of advisers, who he appointed recently.

The Ingonyama Trust was set up on the eve of the 1994 elections by the KwaZulu government, with Pretoria’s backing, to give the king control over the land under its jurisdiction going into the new dispensation.

The ITB was set up several years later to administer the land, with the king nominating its chairperson to act on his behalf and issue commercial leases and mining rights.

Ngwenya had been ITB chairperson for nearly 20 years, but was removed by Misuzulu in March after the Mail & Guardian exposed the loss of R41 million under his watch in dubious investments through Ingonyama Holdings.

The monarch first nominated Mpumalanga mining operator Jacob Mnisi as ITB chair, but he declined because of a tribalist backlash, resulting in inkosi Thanduyise Mzimela, a strong supporter of Misuzulu, being appointed.

Buthelezi intervened on Ngwenya’s behalf, questioning the king’s decision and threatening to resign and to withdraw his support of Misuzulu in the impending court case at a meeting he called with amakhosi last month.

At the meeting with amakhosi in June, Buthelezi went on the offensive against the king, saying there were “rumours of bribes being offered and strategies developed to ensure that the rich inheritance of the Zulu nation can be taken from us, for the enrichment of a corrupt few individuals”.

“If they succeed, our king will have sold our land. He will be selling the very ground on which we have our homes to someone in another province, who accuses us of being tribalistic when we want to protect our heritage,” Buthelezi said.

Misuzulu has refused to backtrack on his decision to appoint Mzimela as ITB chairperson and the new board appointed to administer nearly three million hectares of KwaZulu-Natal on behalf of the monarchy has gone about its work.

In an apparent attempt to re-establish his currency and authority with the monarchy, Buthelezi on Saturday issued a statement that the king had sought medical attention in eSwatini because of suspected poisoning.

“It is with great concern that I have received news from HRH Prince Vumile, brother to his majesty King Mswati III, that his majesty King Misuzulu kaZwelithini is being treated in a hospital in eSwatini, having taken ill earlier today,” he said.

Buthelezi said that Martin Xaba, the king’s induna, had been poisoned and that there were concerns that Misuzulu may also have suffered the same fate. Buthelezi said that although the king had appointed Prince Africa Zulu as spokesperson, he had an “obligation” as traditional prime minister to make the announcement.

Zulu was appointed by Misuzulu, who also asked former eThekwini deputy mayor Philani Mavundla and academic Jabulani Maphalala as his advisers, in May.

Several hours after Buthelezi made the poisoning claims, Zulu issued a statement saying that Misuzulu had undergone a “thorough medical examination” while in eSwatini but that he “remains in perfect health and is not currently admitted at any hospital”.

Zulu said there “appears that there is an orchestrated agenda and a desperate narrative to communicate defamatory and baseless claims of his majesty’s ill health”, which had begun during a recent visit to eSwatini.

“The motives are unclear at this stage, however, the king remains cognisant that the political environment is ripe due to the approaching cycle of political elections,” he said.

“It seems the intention is to create the public perception that his majesty the king is unwell and unfit. Ultimately this creates unnecessary panic and perceptions of instability in the royal crown.”

Zulu said Misuzulu had asked the media to verify the authenticity of any information with his office and to “refrain from creating unnecessary panic”.

On Monday, Misuzulu’s office circulated a video of him dismissing claims by Buthelezi, that he had been admitted to hospital in eSwatini at the weekend because of suspected poisoning.

In the video, the king said that he had undergone scheduled medical checkups at the weekend and that neither he, nor his induna Douglas Xaba, who died last week, had been poisoned.

Misuzulu said he had also sought seclusion in eSwatini ahead of the funeral of Xaba, “my right hand man” and “my brother”, to deal with the “discomfort” and “upset” he was experiencing as a result of the loss of “a very close friend of mine”.

“I am not poisoned,” the king said. “ I am well. I feel 100%. There is nothing wrong with me. There is no poisoning whatsoever. Please don’t listen to everything that people say.” 

Although Zulu kings have historically kept out of party politics — and Misuzulu has continued with this tradition — the conflict between Buthelezi and the king has already gained a political dimension.

Zululand district municipality mayor Thulasizwe Buthelezi accused Zulu of being part of a “politically calculated ploy sponsored by the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal” which was aimed at “undermining the authority” of his uncle.

The ANC, in turn, accused the younger Buthelezi of attempting to “control” the monarchy and make use of it for political purposes, a tit-for-tat battle that is likely to intensify between now and the 2024 elections.

It has also appointed Zweli Mkhize to act as a “mediator” in the conflict between Buthelezi and the king.

On Tuesday, Buthelezi denied that there was a rift between him and Misuzulu — or that he had acted maliciously in making the poisoning claim.

“Like any other family, there will be disagreements on matters from time to time. That

is normal. But there is certainly no growing rift between myself and his majesty,” Buthelezi said.

He said the ANC was being “malicious” in “conflating issues” such as the ITB with the relationship between him and Misuzulu.

“I have been at pains throughout my career to separate politics from traditional matters.

It is therefore painful to see politics at play now,” he said. “What is even more hurtful, is that I am now being projected by my detractors as an enemy of the Zulu nation and our king.

“At the dawn of our new dispensation, I went as far as sacrificing the future of my political party, the IFP, for the sake of the recognition of the Zulu kingdom and our monarch. Where were these political opportunists then, and where were they when I stood alone at times, ensuring a smooth transition from our late king to our current king?” he said.

For all Buthelezi’s protestations, it is his decision to throw down the gauntlet to Misuzulu over Ngwenya, which may ultimately cost the IFP at the polls next year in the national and provincial elections.

The party has made back a significant amount of the ground it lost to the ANC after 2004 in KwaZulu-Natal — and to the breakaway National Freedom Party from 2011 —  in the 2019 and 2021 elections, mainly in the rural municipalities where the support for the monarch is deeply ingrained.

Alienating the king — and amakhosi and people who support him — at this time is likely to cost the party votes next year, especially in an environment in which the ANC in the province has identified building relationships with traditional and religious communities as a key to maintaining power.