Let's Think

King Goodwill exposes weakness in constitution and dangers

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King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu nation might not have caused KZN’s xenophobic violence; he might only have supplied the trigger. In the process he, however, exposed a weakness in the South African constitutional construct.

It would be an oversimplification, even a dangerous one, to blame the xenophobic violence that erupted last week in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal and has since spread to other parts of the country, on an ill-considered utterance by the Zulu monarch. The underlying causes and roots of what happened are infinitely more complex, crying out for a holistic strategy to come to grips with it.

Alluding to both these complexities and the dangers looming in KZN, the South African Institute of Race Relations in a May 2008 report, in the wake of the wave of xenophobia at the time, listed a number of policy failures and wrote:

“Combined failures in these key policy areas have come together to create a virtual tinderbox of dissatisfaction with government delivery and the protests originating in Alexandra where merely a matter of a spark igniting the tensions at the right time in the right place. 

“Similar political risk factors exist throughout South Africa and there exists the danger that the violence could spread further at a point in time. A second danger exists that the violence could come to take on a more ethnic nature and devolve into a renewed conflict particularly if it spreads in KwaZulu-Natal.”

In the broader context of factors driving a general trend of social unrest in the country, including xenophobic violence, it is probably not coincidental that the largest number of informal/squatter settlements in the country (511) are to be found in KZN.

It is against this background that the king’s statement at the end of March, at a moral regeneration gathering, could have tipped community frustrations into a xenophobic outburst when he said: “As I speak, you find their (foreigners) unsightly goods hanging all over our shops, they dirty our streets. We cannot even recognise which shop is which, there are foreigners everywhere.” And to loud applause: “We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their countries.”

But in there were also some sentences that go to the heart of a constitutional dilemma: “I know it is hard for other politicians (our emphasis) to challenge this because they are after their votes. Please forgive me, but this is my responsibility, I must talk, I cannot wait for five years to say this. As King of the Zulu Nation … I will not keep quiet when our country is led by people who have no opinion. It is time to say something.”

Crux of the problem

The Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, subsequently and without directly referring to the king, called on leaders to refrain from using inflammatory language.

The king, in a thinly veiled reference to the minister, responded at the induction of another traditional leader with: “These leaders (elected for five years) should not act as if we herded cattle together.

“I ask political leaders that we should respect each other. Democracy should not make them feel like demigods.”

Herein lies a serious dilemma of the South African constitutional construct: it is a democracy, but has in its midst an absolute monarchy not subject to democratic accountability. The king has a distinct advantage over government when it comes to influencing the country’s strongest ethnic group, the Zulu nation, with its strong own cultural identity.

The reality is, the majority of the people in KZN, and many living elsewhere in the country, are the king’s ‘subjects’ and political leaders’ ‘voters’. This makes for completely different power relationships.

The crucial role the king plays, was illustrated during the violent clashes in KZN between ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party supporters in the run-up to the 1994 election. Peace was only established after tough negotiations (in which Mr Jacob Zuma, now the president, took part) persuaded the king to move to a politically neutral position.

Up until that point the king was strongly associated with Inkatha, which began life as a Zulu cultural organisation, to some extent modelled on the erstwhile Afrikaner Broederbond.

Whether the king likes it or not, he does not live on an island, neither is he the king of all South Africa. The country can also not afford to treat any leader as if they are above the law.

In the case of King Goodwill, with so many of his ‘subjects’ living and working elsewhere in the country, at times his actions and words affect all of South Africa. 

How destructive it can become when members of the Zulu nation mobilise themselves, l have personally experienced towards the end of apartheid. War broke out between township people, mostly affiliated to the then ‘Civics’ movement and the so-called Kopdoeke – the mostly Zulu migrant workers living in the hostel in Kwathema in my parliamentary constituency of Springs.

It was the most challenging time of my life, trying to negotiate peace between the two sides with the help of a wonderful community leader by the name of Cyril Jantjes.

Constitution is a work in progress

King Goodwill is the most acute example, but the constitution negotiated after 1994 does not satisfactorily deal with the situation of traditional leaders.

If the concept of a Rainbow Nation is to be saved from becoming a shattered dream, we should realise that our constitution should still be treated as a ‘work in progress’.

As have happened so often in recent times, the judiciary might be doing some of that work for us. It seems that at least two cases of hate speech against the king are heading that way.

How the king and his ‘subjects’ will react to such a process, is difficult to predict and should best not be left to chance. It might be time for leaders from all spheres who can exert influence on the situation to be proactive in the interest of South Africa and all who live in it.

by Piet Coetzer

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