The raging debate on whether we need kings exposes a more urgent one: how those with power use it with regards to the poorest and the most marginalised, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya says.
The sight of the South African president on his knees having a conversation with the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, seated on his throne, has not gone down well with many South Africans, especially with those of a republican persuasion.
President Ramaphosa met with King Zwelithini in an effort to allay his fears that the land under the king’s control could be usurped by the national government.
These fears arose as a result of one of the recommendations made in the Report of the High-Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change. The report is the work of a special committee instated by parliament and chaired by the former South African president, Kgalema Motlanthe, which recommended to parliament that the controversial Ingonyama Trust Act be repealed or amended.
The Ingonyama Trust was established during the transition from apartheid rule to democracy in 1994 by the erstwhile government of KwaZulu.
The trust was created “to hold all the land that was hitherto owned or belonged to the KwaZulu Government […] for the benefit, material welfare and social well-being of the members of the tribes and communities” living on the land.
King Zwelithini was angered by these recommendations and held a special imbizo last Wednesday. The contentious recommendation, that has again raised muted calls for the Zulu people to secede from the rest of South Africa, is one of over 100 recommendations contained in the report.
Still, the president in prostrating himself before the king has gone too far for many South Africans who see this to be grovelling before an anachronistic institution.
“I want to assure the King as I leave here to see him, we have no intention to grab the land from the trust. That land we will never try and grab because we have full respect for our traditional leaders and our king. They will continue administering this land on behalf of our people and the king”, said President Ramaphosa.
The substantial issues of land ownership, management and use, especially relating to the Ngonyama Trust, can be settled one way or another. However, the debate’s subtext – the concept of royalty – will drag on much longer especially as many South Africans become urbanised and the ties to traditional and ancestral places of origin loosen.
As this happens, the concept of traditional and hereditary leadership and its place in a constitutional democracy will face continuing scrutiny.
As with many other issues in society, it is not unusual to hear the scriptures being used to defend the institution of traditional leadership, the so-called divine right of kings.
Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, if kings have a divine right, then it must have come only as an afterthought.
The usual reference to the book of Samuel, to justify the right of kings to lord it over their subjects, seems a conveniently selective reading of the passage which seemingly tells the story of how the people of Israel came to have a king.
In fact, the Book of the Prophet Samuel reveals just how the prophet thought that the idea of having a king, though fashionable in their neighbourhood, was a bad idea.
“But when they said, ‘Give us a king to lead us,’ this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord.
And the Lord told him: ‘Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” (2 Samuel 8:6-7).
What is more, Samuel warned them of the tendency of kings to sponge off their subjects.
“This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.
Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still, others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants.
He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants.
Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use.
He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.
When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
If this passage shows anything, it is that the existence of kings can be argued to be an example of God’s democratic tendency to allow human beings the free will to decide aspects of their lives – so long as they know the options before them and the consequences that may come from decisions taken.
“The people refused to listen to Samuel. ‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us.
Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles’.
When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord.
The Lord answered, ‘Listen to them and give them a king.’” (2 Samuel 8:1-22)
The idea of kings being essentially African in construct is also not entirely true – even though it is an admittedly widespread perception.
For example, one of the largest and better known of the various Nigerian communities, the Igbo have a saying – Igbo enwe eze (The Igbo have no king) – to emphasise the republican nature of this group.
The CIA Factbook estimates that there are as many as 32 million Igbos, 18 percent of Nigeria’s 177 million population. These can hardly be regarded as an insignificant group.
Still, the republican-royalty debate barks up the wrong tree.
Human history and experience has unfortunately shown that the probability of social justice or dictatorship has little to do with whether a society is ruled by hereditary leaders or republicans, either elected or having violently seized power. Hitler, lest we forget, was elected to power.
The existence of systems and institutions to curb humans’ inclinations to abuse power, to materially benefit themselves and those closest to them, does the job better than what title is taken by the head of state.
While the debates about the relevance of kings in the modern age are real, a better and more immediate debate by faith communities should be how those leaders will fare in their duties towards the poorest and most marginalised in their jurisdiction.
For many, regardless of whether they are in rural fiefdoms or urban spaces, oppressed and exploited by elites of whatever inclinations, the words of the prophet Amos ring as true as the day the Hebrew Bible recorded them.
“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.” (Amos 5:10-15).