Zwelithini's Lice Comment Only Deflects Attention for Parasitic Royal Households

By Alexander O'Riordan · 5 May 2015

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments
Picture: King Goodwill Zwelithini courtesy Wikipedia
Picture: King Goodwill Zwelithini courtesy Wikipedia

Reuters, amongst other news agencies, directly links South Africa’s xenophobic violence to King Goodwill Zwelithini’s incendiary statements: “Let us pop our head lice. We must remove ticks and place them outside in the sun. We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and be sent back."

However horrific and objectionable these statements are for migrants, they are also illustrative of the anxieties of the Zulu royal house. Lice and ticks are scavengers that attach themselves to their hosts in a parasitic relationship living off their host without contributing anything of value. If anything, the life of these parasites is more akin to the modus operandi of royal families than that of migrants. After all, migrants have no established right to extract rent from their host communities and tend to only stay if they are able to participate in the local economy.

In contrast, South Africa’s royal households have embedded themselves so firmly in the post-apartheid political economy, that the South African taxpayer forks over vast resources to maintain these often moribund and decidedly medieval institutions. Royal households and chiefs are largely unaccountable, with citizens and subjects having little recourse to make these unelected leaders answerable for what they do with publically owned resources. No matter how sick or poor their host and no matter how little value they deliver, kings and chiefs, like parasites, continue feeding unabated. King Goodwill’s omission is a slip of the tongue, giving voice to his own primal anxieties. Royals should be running scared because eventually, South Africans will figure out what they themselves already knows: that the real parasites in our society are institutions such as those royal households that refuse to be accountable while extracting rent without delivering any meaningful public good.

With six wives, twenty-eight children and multiple palaces and luxury vehicles, Zwelithini gets over R60 million a year from the state with no conditions attached. According to News 24, South Africa’s tax payers are now financing over 6,000 chiefs as well as 10 kings and their expanded families.

There once was a time when these kings and chiefs were a necessary evil worth paying for in South Africa. In the run up to the 1994 elections, policy makers were inclined to argue that financing these households was less about a hand out and more an investment in safety and security. South Africa’s transition to democracy, as anybody who lived in Kwa-Zulu Natal at the time knows, was far from peaceful with many problematic protagonists closely associated or even embedded in traditional power structures. The government opted to finance these houses in return for their support and endorsement of a peaceful transition to democracy and in many ways this was an excellent investment at the time. Few who witnessed Kwa-Zulu Natal’s political violence in the run up to the 1994 elections, could deny the importance of securing the support of the Zulu royal family for a peaceful democratic transition.

Twenty years into South Africa’s democracy, however, these subsidies increasingly look like a gaudy wastage of public monies that finances an aloof and disconnected leadership. Unfortunately when small minded factionalists get the support of Kings and Chiefs, royalty is rightly tarnished with what is one of the ugliest behaviours in our current society. By using his family to support racist, barbaric xenophobia, Zwelithini is forcing policy makers to rightly ask whether it is now time for South Africa to either wind down these traditional structures or at the very least radically reform them. The only hope for these Kings and Chiefs is for them to evolve away from their parasitic behaviours and to start delivering public goods whilst making themselves actually accountable to the people they purport to serve. This fear of accountability, however, is what is driving Zwelithini’s noxious statements. The King’s hate speech is wrapped up in a much bigger debate on whether his family has a birth right to lead, without being subjected to democratic processes, accountability and oversight.

In rural economic development in Southern Africa, there is the notion of the tallest poppy syndrome. ‘Tallest poppy syndrome’ dictates that when harvesting poppies, the tallest flowers are harvested before any others. Simply put, the metaphor puts forward the notion that in traditional communities with dominant and unaccountable authorities, anybody that stands out from or raises their head above the masses will be considered a threat and quickly cut down just like the tallest poppy in the field. Successful entrepreneurs in rural communities, tend to move away from their home towns and seek success in other communities for fear of being cut down. The problem is that this practice of cutting down or harvesting local success stories becomes an impenetrable barrier to entrepreneurship and initiative. When authorities such as traditionalist royal families push back against initiative and entrepreneurship in their own communities, they actually create the very opportunities for migrants to take advantage of.

Traditionalist royal families inevitably resist their own subjects taking advantage of local opportunities citing the mantra that nothing happens in their kingdom without royal endorsement first. Herein, however, lies the problem: not only do migrants and outsiders illustrate the very parasitic nature of royal families when they succeed, but they also upset locals by drawing attention to those economic opportunities denied locals by their own traditional leaders. The heart of the problem is that the more we afford royal families hegemonic top down control, the more they dampen local initiative and in doing so create opportunities for entrepreneurial outsiders.

Royal households are not likely to go away any time soon. If they are to become more relevant South Africa must put in place incentives for these royal households to become more accountable and service oriented. These families should be tasked with delivering value to their communities and defending South Africa’s human rights and governance structures. The role of royal households and chieftainships needs immediate and radical reform. Mechanisms must be put in place to guarantee and even finance critical feedback on how these families govern.

Government must instruct kings and chiefs on what it means to be a custodian of good community values instead of draconian henchmen enforcing the status quo. More importantly and for the sake of our democratic society, royalty must be held to account in the public court. King Goodwill Zwelithini should appear before parliament and answer for his statements and his role in victimising migrants. In fact, all kings and chiefs should report to be scrutinised by South Africa’s electorate. Continued payment of subsidies and salaries to these families should be performance based and punitively reduced when communities languish in poverty and leaders undermine reconciliation and human dignity.

If civil society plays its role, South Africa’s royal families might have more to lose from perpetuating xenophobic violence than they acknowledge. Theirs is an outdated structure and institution that should be forced to either radically modernise and reform or quietly be put down. Simply put, the most pertinent question right now should not be why these persecuted migrants succeed in these communities, but rather why these kings and chiefs do so much to hold their own subjects back?

O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.

Should you wish to republish this SACSIS article, please attribute the author and cite The South African Civil Society Information Service as its source.

All of SACSIS' originally produced articles, videos, podcasts and transcripts are licensed under a Creative Commons license. For more information about our Copyright Policy, please click here.

To receive an email notification when a new SACSIS article is published, please click here.

For regular and timely updates of new SACSIS articles, you can also follow us on Twitter @SACSIS_News and/or become a SACSIS fan on Facebook.

You can find this page online at

A+ A= A-
    Print this page       comments

Leave A Comment

Posts by unregistered readers are moderated. Posts by registered readers are published immediately. Why wait? Register now or log in!


Rory Verified user
8 May

Traditional governance structures

I could not agree more, Traditional structures of governance should be investigated and where they are found to be not helping to move their communities forward and instead show no signs that they are willing to change in that direction they should be laid down forthwith.

Respond to this comment

11 May

Traditional Leaders Have No Place in the 21st Century

We don't owe traditional leaders anything. Instead they owe it to vast poor people in the rural areas. Even after 21 years of democracy, rural people still do have access to better education, health care, transport, not to mention fast internet access. Now what is the role these leaders?

Respond to this comment