Several hundred years ago, even after the arrival of European settlers, the South African Zulu clans lived in groups of huts called kraals. Each kraal was ruled by a chief, whilst the Zulus as a people were represented by a king. The king played an important role, navigating the tenuous relationships between clans, and even representing his people when foreign nations alighted on their shores.
The kraal is ruled by respect. Younger people must greet older people first. A child must not look adults in the eye. A bride cannot call her in-laws by their names or eat in front of her father-in-law. You cannot enter a hut without giving praise to the owner or his clan. And the chief is not called by his name, nor does he speak to anyone except for his helpers.
A chief is called Nkosi, or captain. Nkosi is also the word used for god.
In modern times, we still have kings. In fact, South Africa's 12 kings, 829 senior traditional healers and 5,311 local chiefs are costing the taxpayer more than $73 million (or 54 million euros). Each king earns a yearly salary of $100,000, with many fringe benefits, including a supplement of $2 million in the case of King Zwelithini -- used to build a palace for his sixth wife. Six of the kings own new Mercedes-Benz ML 320CDIs. They are also entitled to a $3,000 monthly cell phone allowance.
Despite the fact that a hefty portion of my tax money goes towards these individuals, I'd be hard-pressed to name them. This is probably because unlike many European monarchs, they do not feature in public affairs. They do not fulfill formal political roles and they have no administrative duties. Claims to the throne date back a hundred years and the legitimacy of these kingships are, at best, murky. And note the fact that most of their subjects live below the poverty line.
In light of these facts, I can only wonder whether there is any need for a monarchy in Africa at all.
Of course, it's not a unique problem. India has its princes, Britain their queen. When Elizabeth celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, marking 60 years on the throne, many British citizens wondered whether there should still be a place for her in the 21st century. Polls on the subject were divided. Some maintain that she is an important figurehead that unites the people, others felt that the Royal Family was too expensive to maintain and that they were perpetuating social inequality.
Regardless, the British monarchy still draws millions of tourists to England -- Africa cannot claim the same. Our constitution does state that traditional leaders should be acknowledged -- it doesn't specify what that acknowledgement entails.
That's not to say that the monarchy cannot offer a significant contribution to society. We've seen exasperated medical workers turn communities around by enlisting the help of traditional "witchdoctors" in order to educate people about the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS. They can keep the peace between angry citizens and local municipalities. They can put a word in the president's ear about the needs of their people, giving the disenfranchised a voice. But whether that warrants a million-dollar home, or picking up the tab for their several dozen children and grandchildren's education and medical insurance -- I'm not convinced.
Right before the storm broke, President Jacob Zuma announced that there are only six "legitimate" kingships in the country. But, he urged us, no one will be dethroned or have their benefits revoked. The "illegitimate" kingships will come to an end upon the death of the current kings. Their successors will be recognized by the relevant politicians as "principal traditional leaders."
What this will mean, and what this will cost, has yet to be decided.
Perhaps it's telling that the most supreme chief of our country, the president, a Zulu, has been the most stringent advocate for the Protection of Information Bill -- also known as the Secrecy Bill. One does not simply speak ill of the chief, as any traditionalist would tell you. The secrecy around the Marikana mine massacre, the use of public funds on the president's homestead and, of course, the lavish wedding Zuma's close friends, the Guptas, threw -- with taxpayers coughing up for 20 flying squad members, 10 high-powered flying squad cars, 40 members of the police counter-assault time and several armored vehicles used to guard the guests.
Did I mention they landed their private jets at our military base? A South African Air Force official working on the day said they had been told the guests were "royalty" and that they should be treated as such.
I doubt that any king in our country would consider me a subject. After all, the kingships are divided among territories, and the Western Cape (where I live) doesn't belong to any of them. I don't belong to a South African tribe, unless you count the Afrikaners -- which you shouldn't, because we simply don't have the organization for it. It does not mean that I do not understand the need for a monarchy.
I watched the British royal wedding, with bated breath. I visited Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. And although I'm not British, I felt a deep connection to the history and the tradition of it -- a sense of empire and dignity and order. Although the royals do not serve a function in England, they remain a very powerful symbol.
Africa had empires once. With proud histories and a code of honor and a way of life that we are losing a little bit more of every day. I should know the names of our kings, but I don't. That history dissipated with the arrival of the Europeans, who ultimately disrupted and took over these kingdoms -- either by force, or with bribery.
In South Africa, the Apartheid government paid the country's monarchs exorbitant subsidies to keep the peace, and police people within the so-called "homelands." These kings operated as middlemen, protecting the National Party government from the revolution that was threatening to explode. But the bribery didn't end when Apartheid did. Perhaps to relieve the tension that often erupts whenever traditional African values are forced to reconcile with a modern -- and arguably Western -- democracy, perhaps because many of the village elders still hold their kings in high regard and that their opinions would ultimately sway voters in favor of the ruling party.
The problem isn't that we have monarchs. The problem is that they are in power because they've succumbed to politics, rather ruling their people. The problem is the belief that monarchs should be above reproach.