Let's Think

King Goodwill Zwelithini – a situation that needs to be dealt with

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The alleged role King Goodwill Zwelithini played in triggering the recent wave of xenophobic violence could still become an international poser and a domestic crisis for South Africa.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), an institution South Africa helped to create, has confirmed that it is investigating a complaint of hate speech against the king. The charge against him was laid by a Nigerian NGO, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (Serap), in the wake of the wave of attacks on foreigners.

In its petition to the ICC Serap states that it “considers the use of speech by the monarch to promote hatred and/or incite violence against non-nationals, such as Nigerians particularly in the media, as a clear violation of the provisions of the Rome Statute of International Criminal Court”.

South Africa was an active participant in the negotiations that led to the adoption of the international treaty, known as the Rome Statute, adopted in 1998. In terms of the treaty the ICC came into being in July 2002 when 60 states, including South Africa, ratified the treaty. Since, the number of countries that had ratified the Statute of Rome have grown to 116.

The treaty’s stipulations and the obligations that go with it became part of South African law in August 2002 after the passage by the South African parliament of the  Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act 27 of 2002.

If someone charged by the ICC should find himself in South Africa, the country is obliged to arrest such a person and hand him or her over to the ICC for prosecution.

For example, when President Jacob Zuma was inaugurated in May, included among the invitations to African heads of state was one to President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir of Sudan. President al-Bashir, however, in March of that year was indicted by the ICC for alleged involvement a campaign of mass killing and other atrocities against civilians in Darfur.

While the invitation went out to him, the Sudanese ambassador in South Africa was informed that should his president decide to travel to South Africa for the inauguration, South Africa would, in terms of its obligation under the Rome Statute and relevant legislation, have to arrest him and hand him over to the ICC.

King Zwelithini conundrum

The same treaty, law and obligations will apply, should the ICC decide to indict King Zwelithini.

If government politically, or for the sake of stability in the country, could afford to oblige, is very unlikely. King Zwelithini’s implied threat, in reaction to the criticism of his original speech shortly before the xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal – “If it was true I said people must kill each other, the whole country would be reduced to ashes” – is something that cannot be taken lightly.
Developments around the Human Rights Commission’s (HRC) investigation into possible hate speech by him, give some indications of the dangers involving the position of the Zulu king.

Despite the king having also said that he welcomed the investigation by the Human Rights Commission against him – adding that the role of the media in fostering xenophobic violence should also be investigated – there have already been threats against the HRC.

At a briefing of parliament’s portfolio committee on justice, HRC chairman, Lawrence Mushwana, revealed that threats had been made against HRC staff relating to the investigation. “Following complaints, we have had some key challenges as an institution of some threats which have been flying around our staff. We were receiving threatening calls and there was some posting even on Facebook,” Mushwana told members of the committee.

While the HRC investigation can offer South Africa an escape route from the ICC conundrum on the basis that it has the legal framework to deal with the matter, and indeed is dealing effectively with it, there are domestic political pressures coming into play.

A strong indication of that came from the chairman of the justice portfolio committee,

Mathole Motshekga. Hinting at the dangers involved, Motshekga in his “personal capacity”, advised Mushwana to drop the investigation and “let the sleeping dogs lie”.  

More controversies

This situation is not the only one that exposes a fault line in the South African constitutional construct surrounding the king – accommodating an absolute monarchy within a constitutional democracy.

After the window for land claims, which originally closed in 1998, was reopened last year, King Zwelithini has indicated that, based on historical grounds, he would lodge a massive land claim himself. Indeed, traditional leaders have been prompted to do so by none less than President Zuma.

Central to those historical grounds is the “Zulu empire” established by the conquering King Shaka and his successors, starting in the early 19th century. The claim includes Durban, parts of the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Free State.

It also puts the king on a collision course with landless communities whose existing claims date back nearly 15 years and who argue the king’s claim, if successful, will give rights to the king, but not to the residents.

In the meantime reports have surfaced that plans are already afoot to build an eighth palace for the king on land subject to an existing claim of labour tenants, outstanding since 1998.

This also, again, brings another contradiction and controversy into focus: the fact that the king and his household of six wives and 27 children are funded to the tune of close on R60 million of taxpayers’ money without being accountable to a single voter.

We think it is time for a rethink on how the king and other traditional leaders are accommodated in a fast-urbanising democratic South Africa, before it becomes a threat to our democracy.

by Piet Coetzer

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