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The Zulu Monarchy: The pride of Africa and Africans in the diaspora

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – His Majesty King Misuzulu kaZwelithini has a unique opportunity to forge a fresh beginning and new ways of leading his father’s people.

By Vusi Shongwe

“A very remarkable people the Zulus: they defeat our generals, they convert our bishops, they have settled the fate of a great European dynasty.” – Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister Embarking on his towering biography of Queen Elizabeth, the labour historian Ben Pimlott met with surprise from people who wondered whether it could be ‘a serious or worthwhile enterprise’.

The possible reasons for the responses were/are, as the historian David Cannadine notes, that ‘The left- certainly the far left – finds the very idea of monarchy baffling, indefensible, and thus of no significant interest. On the other hand, the right – and certainly the far right – believes the monarchy to be self- evidently the best of all possible worlds, an unchanging symbol of national unity and continuity. Both these eminent historians have demonstrated that taking the monarchy seriously, regardless of whether one agrees with it or not, provides a vantage point for asking a wide variety of questions about social and political history, and a particularly insightful perspective for exploring the deep-seated myths about ‘stability’ and the more complex relationship between change and continuity.

There are forty-four countries around the world with monarchies and twelve of them are in Europe. There are eight countries in Europe that can lay claim to being ‘constitutional monarchies’: Belgium, Denmark, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. The omitted four are the small and distinctive states of Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and the Vatican. Interestingly, the remaining absolute monarchies include Brunei, Eswatini, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City, and the individual emirates composing the United Arab Emirates, which itself is a federation of such monarchies – a federal monarchy.

The Remarkable and Mighty Zulu Monarchy

Aside from the perpetual series of crises affecting the Zulu royal family, the monarchy’s legitimacy to the nation remains strong as ever. Its centrality is indisputably entrenched. It is also symbolically so.

The monarchy carries a range of social and cultural meanings – some that it has sought to represent itself, many projected on to it by the society of which it is a part. As a symbol, the Zulu monarchy is both powerful and pervasive. It is universally recognised because of its famous triumph over British hegemony and imperialism in 1879.

Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA) – South Africa – Nongoma – 20 August 2022 – It’s a historic day for the Zulu nation today as King Misuzulu, the successor to the late King Goodwill Zwelithini performs the ritual of entering the sacred royal kraal at KwaKhangalemankengane palace in Nongoma. This means that he has completed all the rituals for him to fully occupy the throne.

The significance of monarchy – and the way that significance has changed over time – is of course a topic that reaches well beyond Zulu studies, attracting cultural anthropologists and historians of ideas as well as political scientists. One lesson regarding the institution is that a distinction needs to be between royal power and monarchy’s socio-cultural role, and that it can be unwise to dismiss that role as something of merely antiquarian interest. It is misleading to speak of monarchy today as “traditional institution”. This question touches on the issue of whether “colonial knowledge” is in fact the real “baseline knowledge” for the Zulu royalty, or do some concepts from the pre-colonial era remain potent? My take however is that even if the Zulu monarchy can drastically modernise, the Zulu royal house should remain the source of our spirituality.

The king is a symbol of unity of the people. We have lived with monarchy for many years. It has helped to structure our national identity and moral sensibility.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” was how Shakespeare introduced his study of kingship, in the Henriad of plays unpicking the Wars of the Roses. The struggle between Richard II and Henry IV is a battle between legitimacy and authority: the divine right of kings to rule (Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm of an anointed king) and a personal will to power. Indeed, the story of monarchy is equally essential to understanding nationhood. Another important distinction is that between the individuals who serve as monarchs and the institution itself. The maxim, ‘the Ruler and subject can never be divided’, it could be argued, possesses a literal truth.

Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency(ANA) – South Africa – Durban – 29 October 2022 – King Misuzulu KaZwelithini and dignitaries at the king’s coronation ceremony at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban.

The Role of the His Majesty King Misuzulu KaZwelithini

William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar: Act IV. Sc.3) is instructive when he says: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.

“On such a full sea we are now afloat and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”

The words in the prologue above, coined by a man who was born many years ago, are as fresh, vibrant, and appropriate today as they were when they were first written. His Majesty King Misuzulu kaZwelithini as the successor of his great father, His Majesty King Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, has a unique opportunity to forge a fresh beginning and new ways of leading his father’s people. He needs to seize the moment before the tide recedes. Now is the time to launch himself into new ventures in the spirit of the Latin motto ‘carpe diem’ – literally: “catch the day,’ or properly translated as ‘seize the moment’. His ascension to the throne signals a moment to reflect and to reconsider the path hitherto traversed by the Monarchy. It is the time to usher in new, systematic, and pragmatic ways of doing things. It is a time for clarity of vision about where the Monarchy is heading, with whom, and for what purpose. This therefore calls for a change in thinking.

It is a moment that calls for a forward-looking approach that will spawn conditions conducive to the emergence of new leadership. This new leadership should include a monarchy, which while steeped in tradition, can comfortably answer to the needs of modern democratic demands that are rooted in our Constitution. In so doing, the province would have succeeded in establishing a vibrant, initiative-taking, responsive, and self-sustainable Monarchy.

Most importantly, the province would also have succeeded in moving the Monarchy from static involvement – usually confined to various opening ceremonies – to a situation where the Monarchy plays an active part in the province’s activities. There is therefore a need to reshape perceptions about the Monarchy and to free it from the limitations of tradition-bound roles. The king needs to be rescued from perceptions that hamper him to playing an active role in the life of our province. It is time for the Monarchy to reposition itself.

To remain relevant, there is a need for the Zulu monarchy to become a “service monarch”: a monarchy for a value-added age; where achievement and effort confer public legitimacy.

As regards the royal family, three roles come to mind. First, the promotion of national unity, pride, and cohesion by virtue of the institution’s continuous history; and an ability to rise above the short-term fluctuations of party politics. Secondly, the publicity which surrounds the monarchy allows it to highlight excellence in private and public sectors, as well as to express condolence on behalf of the nation.

Finally, in a right- based, acquisitive age, the nature of the monarchy’s inherited privilege ironically allows it to emphasise the importance of public service and the voluntary.

King Misuzulu needs to configure a shift towards a so-called welfare / service monarchy – this aspect includes those functions where the Monarch, and members of the royal family, exercise forms of social patronage in relation to charities and other parts of civil society. This aspect shows the need for the monarchy to free itself from heavily ceremonialised presence to a much more visible form, interacting with general population far beyond the confined royal palaces’ circles. The welfare and service function are seen as a particularly important part of the modern Monarchy’s role.

King Misuzulu needs to show his seriousness towards monarchical duty by becoming one of the world’s great charitable entrepreneurs. What immediately comes to mind is our Golden Economy steeped in culture and heritage. In short, one is calling for a practical monarchy in action. As the speed and reach of globalisation inevitably accelerates, the modernity of the Zulu monarchy will depend upon it embracing its internationalism.

When it comes to public relations, especially in reforming the Zulu monarchy, there is a careful path to be traced between modernity and maintaining the essential mystique of royalty. It will indeed be the smallest things that will have the power and in modernising the monarchy, in making it speak to a transformed Zulu monarchy, where King Misuzulu and the people become one. The Throne of the Zulu Nation become one, and a profound meaning is thus given to the Throne. It becomes the symbol of the unity of the nation.

It is an irrefutable fact that King Misuzulu has ascended the throne with little institutional support. It is therefore imperative that he should be given assistance of large numbers of personnel and a stable budget. With the new Monarch appointing replacements, the character of his office may change.

Caution must be made however that the officials who staffed the office of His Majesty King Zwelithini must not be pushed to the periphery but remain in the epicentre of the scheme of things. They possess critical institutional memory. If would be unfortunate and sad if it is true, that the official who oversaw the protocol of the late king is no longer overseeing protocol but is now a personal assistant for a senior manager. That would be an egregious mistake that ought to be fixed.

His Majesty King Misuzulu kaZwelithini needs to appoint a Privy Council or King’s council of powerful and experienced advisors with their own ability to influence the government and society. The role of the Council should be strictly advisory, and its members are expected to give their opinions even if the opinions conflict with the views of the Monarch. Ideally, the privy council’s advice is a fair sampling of public opinion, which indicates that the council is intended not just to give advice, but to represent the views of the people to the Monarch. The privy council can also represent the views of the monarch and the monarchy to society. Most importantly, King Misuzulu must also be surrounded and guided by more experienced members of the royal family. King Misuzulu is therefore lucky to have people like Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is the Prime Minister, Prince Fihlinqindi, Prince Zeblon, Indlovukazi Gwabini and Indlovukazi Ntombela, and other senior members of the royal family.

With regards to politics, the king must be above politics. The king should be the pillar of political and governmental stability. Whenever there is political turmoil that cannot be resolved, the king, using his prestige and decorum of respect, can intervene and effectively and successfully defuse the crisis. Thus, the king is available to rescue the nation when its political institutions fail.

Equally important, political parties either provincially or nationally are implored not to immerse King Misuzulu in politics, turning him into a political ping-pong. It is worth mentioning that the late Queen Elizabeth was scrupulously professional in never expressing views on political matters and thus avoiding controversy. As a prince, King Charles III, on the other hand sought to engage ministers with his ‘black spider ‘letters, and there was concern that he would continue to express views on policy issues even when he became king.

On social cohesion, King Misuzulu should take advantage of his charisma and prominence to gain the support of all race groups in the province. He can further develop his image through effective charitable donations to various causes of all race groups. In short, the influence of the king should palpably permeate all races not just the Black people. This is important because economic power rests with the race groups that it would be suicidal to alienate. The truth is that all race groups seem to have been charmed by the gentlemanly demeanour of the king.

As cited by Sandra Feride Demiri and Katrine Fangen, in their article, The State of the Nation: the Norwegian King’s annual addresses – a window on a shifting nationhood, Michael Billig, a leading scholar of modern nationalism who is also one of the few social scientists to examine royal speech-acts, posits that to serve a unifying purpose, the monarch must avoid taking a position on controversial issues or expressing partisan perceptions, balancing potentially conflicting perspectives and attempting to create consensus. Further, the monarchy should be taken seriously, for it is the symbolic representation of nationalism. In fact, the Monarch serves as a symbol of the nation.

In his study of the British royal families’ speeches, Billig introduces the concept of common places for understanding royal parlance. He believes that the royals must have non-political roles and must be cautious when speaking. Common place denotes statements that confer an expression of values, socially shared beliefs about what is desirable. Such values are based not on their usefulness or potential impact, but on their own intrinsic value. Common-place statements appear uncontroversial – especially suitable for royal orators. For Billig, because the British royal family have no political role, they become moral symbols, and their utterances are expected to have a moral dimension not linked to specific factions. They must convey general values that have a unifying function: and here the ‘common-places’ concept is salient. When a royal speaker expresses common-places, s/he creates a connection with the audience. Both speaker and listener are part of the same moral community – not that the values are necessarily neutral, but they relate to the shared history of that community.

This is the very same moral dimension that members of the Zulu royal family are expected to have. Not only is King Misuzulu supposed to be apolitical, but his speeches are also expected to be suffused with moral importance because of his role as the official symbol of the nation. As the symbol of the nation, King Misuzulu himself can also take the role of a moral educator, calling for tolerance and greater awareness of the diversity among people in times when diversity makes unity less self-evident.

On diversity King Misuzulu must encourage broader inclusiveness and caring for one another, expanding the scope of ‘accepted differences’ and thus ‘normality’. Although the replete with implicit allusions to Christianity, the following quote captures the sense of diversity that his leadership should espouse:

“The philosopher and bishop Aurelius Augustine, who lived in the 400, wrote something very wise: ‘Firmness in the central, freedom in the peripheral, love in everything’. Perhaps we should try to meet each other with this generosity – and look at what indeed is central and what is peripheral – simply, what is big and what is small. All nations, cultures and religions have expressions for charity. And everyone has an understanding of what dignity means. This is key, and it unites us.”

The quote from St Augustine illustrates what is important and unimportant in a community. Charity and dignity are indicated as things that ‘we can agree on across differences and are important because they unite the nation.

The Repositioning of the Zulu Monarchy – Financial Self Sufficiency and Independence

It is time for the Monarchy to reposition itself. Central to the repositioning of the Monarchy is the creation and sustainability of conditions conducive to the Royal family’s financial self-sufficiency and independence. The king should not and cannot be perceived to be a mendicant.

Besides, the monarchy needs to regularly adapt to modern conditions, or it will become increasingly irrelevant, out of step with contemporary opinion of major sectors of society. In repositioning and making the Monarchy self-sustainable, the following ideas come to mind.

∎ Marketing the Monarchy as a tourist attraction. This includes the activities, cultural events (e.g., the Reed dance) associated with the Monarchy.

∎ Creation of a fully-fledged agency to run the king’s farms along business lines or, alternatively, the Provincial Department of Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development should run the farms

∎ Conversion of one of the palaces into a historical museum displaying objects, artifacts and works of art associated with Monarchy, and opening it up to tourists / visitors for a fee.

∎ Revisiting the purpose, objectives, and procedures of the Ingonyama Trust Board with a view to finding ways of generating financial benefits that can accrue to the Monarchy through its activities.

∎ The Monarchy could play a significant role in the province’s new priorities for growth in the form of tourism and culture industries.

∎ Heritage sites could also serve as sources of revenue to sustain the Monarchy. Visitors could pay a fee to watch activities organized around the heritage sites – along the lines followed by Royal households in Europe (e.g., the handing over of the keys ceremony in the United Kingdom).

∎ A massive fundraising campaign in the form of Royal sporting competitions (e.g., Isilo Golf Challenge tournament), music shows)

∎ Collection of royalties for all companies, institutions and persons using the King’s name or the image of the Monarchy in generating income for themselves. The Shaka Marine and Sibaya casino, for example, could be requested to make donations in lieu of being modelled after or using the name of the Monarchy.

∎ Registration of exclusive copyrights to publications, words, phrases, etc, associated with the Monarchy.

∎ Nguni cattle breeding – (textile industries).

∎ Image of the Monarchy – Because of its opulence and being in the limelight, an institution like royalty is always susceptible to criticism, sometimes unnecessarily so. A well-developed image management plan must be developed and implemented which introduces deliberate image building activities closely aligned with the institutional role of the Monarchy.

∎ Liaison with other Modern Monarchies. The process of transforming our Monarchy to an initiative-taking, self-sufficient state could be significantly aided by liaison with other Monarchies, which have made this same transformation. The uniqueness of this function suggests that real benefit could be realized by learning from other success stories; particularly those related to self-sufficiency and culturally based tourism development.

∎ Courtesy visits to the eleven districts to meet Amakhosi.

∎ Help to provide stability and continuity in times of change

∎ Encourage public and voluntary service

∎ Recognise achievement and excellence – establish the King Misuzulu Annual awards for best performing Amakhosi who have done well in developing their areas thus improving the lives of the people they lead.


The issue of self-sustainability regarding the Zulu Monarchy is paramount to the interests of the province and should therefore enjoy priority treatment. The king should not hesitate to seize the day or to “take the current when it serves”. If he fails to do this, he will “lose his ventures” to establishing a new and vibrant role for the Monarchy. Despite uneven pacing and underbaked themes regarding monarchies, the significance and fame of the Zulu monarchy stands uncontested. Ironically, the monarchy’s acceptance by the political class may well depend on its powerlessness and complete neutrality. But for the public, its popularity will depend on its wider roles, in particular the welfare Monarchy.

The nation would have to be patient with His Majesty King Misuzulu kaBhekuzulu. Like all human beings, there would be times where he would stumble and make mistakes. He would need assistance rather than pillory. He would need counselling and guidance rather than chastisement. This also applies to the fiendishly intrusive media. Nobody is perfect. One of the threats to the Monarchy is the self-sacrifice involved on the part of the Monarch. Being a Monarch is a lifelong service with no prospect of retirement. Second is the loss of freedom.

King Misuzulu has had to abandon freedoms which the rest of us take for granted: freedom of privacy and family life; freedom of expression; freedom to travel where he likes, and free choice of careers. He used to live a carefree life quaffing one or two of his favourites ‘drink’. Now suddenly, quaffing his drink is seen as a weak point of his character. For the Royal family, these basic human rights are all curtailed. King Misuzulu must now make self-sacrifices required of living in a gilded cage.

Now one understands his uncle, King Mswati, when he said that ascending the throne is like being killed. The British historian Bagehot attests to what King Mswati when he observed of the Monarchy that, “its mystery is its life”. “We must not let daylight upon the magic.” But we have, especially through relentless invasions of privacy by the press. The press is insatiable, and fickle; if the popularity of the Zulu Monarchy comes to depend on the support of the press, that Faustian pact may prove, eventually, to be the greatest threat to the future of the Zulu Monarchy.

Dr Vusi Shongwe works for the KZN Department of Sport, Arts and Culture in South Africa. The piece is written in his personal capacity.