Mail & Guardian

My chiefdom for a kingdom

06 Jul 2007 00:00 | Niren Tolsi

'Poor men wanna be rich men, rich men wanna be kings/ And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything” -- or at least until he has more money from taxpayers for S-class Mercs and the upkeep of a menagerie of wives.

The lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's song, Badlands, resonated in KwaZulu-Natal recently when it was disclosed that 11 amakhosi had made applications to the Nhlapo Commission on Traditional Leadership Disputes and Claims to be declared kings with a similar status as Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini.

The commission, headed by Professor Thandabuntu Nhlapo, was appointed in 2004 by President Thabo Mbeki and hears claims or disputes about chieftainships and kingships in the province.

With the commission set to disclose its findings only in two years' time, the province's marketing department might not have to start fretting yet over how its going to squeeze the sentence 'Welcome to KZN: The Kingdom of the Zulu, amaHlubi, amaNgwane, Mngomezulu, amaThonga, Nhlangwini, abaNguni, amaZizi and so on” onto a single banner -- but the claims have caused consternation among traditional leaders.

An Extended House of Traditional Leaders meeting held in Ulundi last weekend resolved to reject the 11 claims and, at the time of going to press, hundreds of amakhosi loyal to Zwelithini had gathered in Nongoma to discuss the matter.

At last weekend's meeting house chairperson Mangosuthu Buthelezi said it would be 'tragic if we folded our arms and did nothing about this matter ... as amakhosi of the Kingdom of KwaZulu-Natal” and intimated that 'it might be necessary” for all traditional leaders to attend the hearings later this month when the claimants' submissions will be heard.

Buthelezi's rallying cry has been interpreted in some quarters as another attempt to cast himself as a defender of 'the Zulu nation under threat” by mobilising support for the king and attempting to improve what has sometimes been a fractious relationship.

Jeff Guy, head of the University of KwaZulu-Natal's history department, said several of the claimant tribes had seen their influence increase under the British colonial strategy of divide and rule and that they might use this to justify a change in status and attendant income.

Zwelithini's Royal Household Department budget for 2007/2008 stands at about R36,4-million, with funds coming from taxpayers. The department is a notorious overspender, having exceeded its budget by R3,5-million last year and R2,5-million in the 2005/2006 financial year.

Addressing the provincial finance portfolio committee earlier this year, acting head of the royal household Dr Vusi Shongwe blamed the over-expenditure on the clash of 'modernity and tradition” and argued that royalty was always associated with 'opulence”.

Zwelithini's penchant for opulence is well documented. In 2006 six Mercedes Benz E200 Kompressors were bought for his six wives at a cost of R2,3-million because the Toyota Corollas in which they had been chauffeured were 'not befitting” their royal status. His own armour-plated S-Class Mercedes cost R1,8-million; each tyre costs R28 000 to replace.

While punctures are expensive, so are the king's movements: in one month last year his entourage -- which at times includes as many as 145 people -- spent between R500 000 and R600 000 on travel and accommodation.

As the Springsteen song goes: 'Poor men wanna be rich men, rich men wanna be kings/ And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything.” Eleven more kings? At what cost?

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