Thousands of people gathered at the Zulu royal palace in South Africa on Saturday to witness the crowning of a new king in the country’s richest and most influential traditional monarchy.
Misuzulu Zulu, 47, ascended to the throne once held by his late father, Goodwill Zwelithini, during traditional ceremonies that were partially overshadowed by a bitter succession dispute.
The northern KwaZulu-Natal town of Nongoma was abuzz with activity on Saturday morning. A group of Zulu maidens sang and danced on the main road from the town centre, near the St Benedictine Hospital. They were members of the Amazolo Amatshitshi and Izinyosi maidens, who were waiting for transport to take them to the royal palace, where the coronation and attendant festivities were due to take place.
“Today the Zulu nation starts a new chapter, I promise I will work to unite the Zulu nation,” the new sovereign told well-wishers speaking from a podium in a large white marquee, wearing a traditional leopard skin and a necklace of predator claws.
Although the title of king does not bestow executive power, the monarchs wield great moral influence over more than 11 million Zulus, who make up nearly a fifth of South Africa’s population and has a yearly taxpayer-funded budget of more than $4.9m (£3.5m).
The history of the Zulu kingdom is littered with succession wars but this latest saga, following the death of King Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu more than a year ago, has been an embarrassing public spectacle.
Various royal family factions continued to champion their preferred candidates through several legal challenges. By the time he died last year, King Zwelithini had six wives and had ruled for more than half a century.
In his disputed will, he named his third wife Queen Mantfombi Dlamini Zulu as regent – a sort of caretaker role pending the appointment of a successor.
Queen Mantfombi held the highest status among the king’s wives, because she came from royalty – her father was the late King Sobhuza II and her brother was King Mswati III of Eswatini. Her marriage to the Zulus came with the condition that her first-born son would be first in line for the throne on her husband’s death.
When she died a month after becoming regent, their son, Misuzulu ka Zwelithini, was seen as the obvious choice to take power. He had also been named as successor in his mother’s will.
Prince Misuzulu was the only person to inherit the traditional weapons of his grandfather King Cyprian Bhekuzulu ka Solomon which was seen as an endorsement that he would eventually take over from his father.
However, two more of the late king’s sons have been staking their claim to the throne. The royal family has split into three factions, each backing their preferred prince – Misuzulu ka Zwelithini, Simakade ka Zwelithini and Buzabazi ka Zwelithini.
Back in March, South Africa’s president formally recognised Misuzulu ka Zwelithini as the new Zulu king, but a legal challenge was mounted by Misuzulu’s brother, Mbonisi Zulu, who asked the court to halt the coronation.
On the eve of the coronation, Zulu royal family members opposed to the ascendancy of Misuzulu announced the nomination of Prince Buzabazi, a little-known Zulu prince and son of the late King Goodwill Zwelithini, as their preferred heir to the throne.
Also on Friday, 19 August, the Pietermaritzburg High Court dismissed an urgent application by Princess Ntombizosuthu Zulu-Duma and Princess Ntandoyenkosi Zulu to halt the coronation from taking place. The court said their application was not urgent and they could have used the normal court processes to launch whatever challenge they had.
In his speech, King Misuzulu decried the deep divisions besetting the Zulu royal family. He thanked Queen Zola Mafu-Zulu, the late King Zwelithini’s sixth wife from Swaziland, as the only queen mother to attend the ceremony.
The new king extended an olive branch to members of his family who were not on his side, saying the conflict should come to an end and the family must unite.