On Saturday 29 October 2022, South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, formally presented a certificate of recognition to AmaZulu King MisuZulu kaZwelithini, in front of an estimated crowd of over 50 thousand people at Durban's Moses Mabhida stadium.

As the Zulu Nation’s Prime Minister Prince Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi said, ceremonies of this nature are not quite common and it is possible for one never to witness them in his or her lifetime. For instance, the coronation of King MisuZulu was the first Zulu coronation since South Africa attained democracy in 1994. This explains the wide excitement not only in South Africa but also in other countries in the region.

Given the historic significance and influence of the Zulu nation in the politics of South Africa, it came as no surprise to see the heavy presence of political leaders, including that country’s Deputy President, former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Ministers, opposition leaders, as well as other prominent traditional leaders such as Mandla Mandela. King Mswati III of eSwatini was also present, as well as former Botswana President and leader of the BamaNgwato royal family in Botswana, Seretse Khama Ian Khama.

Worth mentioning is the glaring importance attached to the Zulu monarchy insofar as the political affairs of South Africa are concerned. One would assume that the role of the monarch is ceremonial and symbolic. No, far from it! To underscore and exhaustively demonstrate how the democratically elected government values the Zulu royalty, President Ramaphosa said: "Your majesty, you are the bond that binds the AmaZulu nation together," conferring a uniting status to the Zulu monarch.

Interestingly, it would seem that King MisuZulu also sees himself as being far more than just a ceremonial figure; he wants to play a role in addressing the socio-economic problems affecting AmaZulu. "I understand that history has chosen me at this time when the Zulus are facing several challenges at this time," he said, referring to the challenges of poverty, unemployment, a trust deficit in government and traditional leadership, climate change and food insecurity.

Essentially, the power of the Zulu monarch is derived from a number of areas, including ensuring peace and stability, being a symbol of unity, and being a powerful influence on South Africa’s largest ethnic group (approximately 10 – 12 million). What this means is that political parties scrambling over voters have to be in the good books of the Zulu monarch to amass many votes. The Zulu monarch is aware of the power it has over the political parties and it has utilized it to the fullest capacity over the years, including as it relates to demanding an increase in budget allocations for the royal family.

Furthermore, at the centre of power is the issue of land ownership in the Zulu nation, and the establishment of The Ingonyama Trust, a corporate entity established to administer the land traditionally owned by the Zulu people, represented by their king, for the benefit, material welfare and social well-being of the Zulu nation. The Trust owns approximately 30% of the land in KwaZulu-Natal, which is equivalent to 28,000 square kilometres. The land vests in the King as trustee.

While there has been some controversy surrounding the issue of Ingonyama Trust over the years, particularly the signing of a lease, there has been no fundamental shift in the power dynamics around the land question. The high court ruled in June 2021 that the Trust's policy of forcing people to sign leases was unlawful and unconstitutional. The Supreme Court of Appeal has ruled that leases by the Ingonyama Trust are unlawful.

What prevails in South Africa is the case with many countries all over the African continent, where monarchies exist. Note that we refer to constitutional monarchies, not a case where a monarch has full and absolute political power such as eSwatini. We refer to monarchies where a constitutionally founded government exists and where the monarch is not supposed to be having any semblance of power over national affairs. In theory, it is like that but in practice, the monarchies have some power and influence over those affairs.

It is this power that led to numerous people seeking to be recognized as kingdoms in South Africa. In 2010, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma announced the outcome of the Nhlapo Commission into the legitimacy of various kings and queens, as well as other traditional leaders. The commission had been set up to remedy the apartheid government’s divide-and-rule tactics, which created some kingdoms to serve the regime. The commission recognized the AbaThembu, AmaXhosa, AmaMpondo, AmaZulu, BaPedi, VhaVenda and amaNdebele as legitimate kingdoms.

The issue of monarchies and their complexity exists in many parts of Africa and must be viewed in the context of traditional leadership in its entirety, including chiefs, queens and kings. Apparently, monarchies are not going anywhere in Africa and a large number of people seem to be excited about their existence; these people struggle to define their identity and cultural heritage outside of the institution of the monarchy.

In a Discussion Paper published by Dr. Hlengiwe Dlamini on July 14, 2022, and entitled: A History of the Constitutionalisation and Dynamics of African Monarchs in African Republics since Independence, it is mentioned that out of Africa’s 54 fully recognized sovereign states today, 51 are constitutional republics which still contain traditional monarchies which stand out as sub-national entities while three are sovereign monarchies.

Reads Dr. Dlamini’s Discussion Paper: “Prototypes of sub-national entities within African sovereign states include, but are not limited to, the Yoruba kingdoms (Nigeria), the Buganda kingdom (Uganda), the Ashanti kingdom (Ghana), the Zulu kingdom (South Africa), the Ndebele kingdom (Zimbabwe), the Gaza kingdom (south-eastern Zimbabwe stretching down to the southern part of Mozambique), and the Lozi kingdom (Zambia).”

What this reveals is that the institutions of the monarchy cannot be wished away overnight on the African continent, as is the case with other nations in Europe and elsewhere – monarchies exist but in different forms. Even as they exist in different forms, what is clear is that they have some form of power in the political life of their nations, including within republics.

Dr. Dlamini highlights that in some other African countries, the state administration ignored chiefs and left them to their own devices and expected them to either thrive in the locality or to slowly wither away. “This did not happen because during the first decades of independence, Chieftaincy institutions did not disintegrate. They continued to be relevant to their constituencies because of the important roles they played in their communities,” she says.

There is a case of two African countries that abolished the chieftaincy institutions, Tanzania and Mozambique. Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania abolished the chieftainship institutions and replaced them with a modern administrative system.

In Mozambique, the socialist FRELIMO government upon gaining its independence in 1975 banned chiefs and set up new governance structures to undermine them. However, some analysts argue that this should not have been done, at least not immediately, because it created a web of problems.

“The legal abolition of traditional authorities, early in the process of construction of a postcolonial state, proved to be a complex political and social problem for the FRELIMO government. To begin with, there were no resources to deploy the new political-administrative structures throughout the whole country, and where they were deployed they were not automatically accepted by the populations. As a result, the traditional authorities continued to rule under different forms and conditions,” posits Maria Paula G. Meneses (Traditional Authorities in Mozambique: Between Legitimisation and Legitimacy).

These examples help in catching a glimpse of the complexity of the subject of traditional institutions as society discusses their future and relevance in new and democratic societies. A majority of people claim that there is no function of monarchy in the modern day, and complaints of monarchies’ immense wealth and power are rampant. Quite recently, the Dutch government revealed a budget of more than €48 million for King Willem-Alexander for 2022, funded by the taxpayer.

The same applies to other constitutional monarchies and those existing within democratic republics – large amounts of money go towards funding those royal families. The least said about absolute monarchies the better!