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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 February, 2004, 15:43 GMT
Africa's mighty royals
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
BBC Africa Live, Johannesburg

Zulu warriors
Zulus want their kingdom to be constitutionally recognised
Think culture and tradition in Africa and which two mighty tribes instantly come to mind?

Yes, the Ashanti of Ghana and South Africa's Zulu.

And there are many parallels between the two kingdoms; instant name recognition, formidable reputations and both fought against British colonial rule.

Both kingdoms are still a going concern and, by force of numbers and their cultural and linguistic dominance, the Zulu and the Ashanti loom large in Africa, sometimes to the annoyance and resentment of other groups.

Traditional rulers are still here today because they serve as the custodians of our rich cultures and traditions.
Vivian, Miami/Ghana

Among the continental royals, South Africa's Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini and Ghana's Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, King of Ashanti, stand out.

Both are powerful and are hugely respected within and outside their traditional spheres.

And they look glorious, the Asantehene in his fabulously hand-embroidered gold, red, green and electric blue Kente cloth, thrown toga-style over his right shoulder, weighed down by golden adornments and heavily be-ringed fingers and toes.

National politics

Traditionally, the Asantehene does not directly get involved in national politics, but his influence and reputation is wide-ranging.

The Zulu king, when he is not in smart suits or casual chic, wears traditional leopard skins, feathers and a leopard-claw necklace, toting his assegai (traditional spear), shield and isagila (knobkerrie).

Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini
The Zulu king remains apolitical
During the violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa, King Zwelithini was wooed by both the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom party, led by his uncle, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and by Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) which is now in government.

Zwelithini was advised to rise above day-to-day politics and has so retained his status as the revered King of the Zulus.

But there are complaints from the Zulus that the South African government has not fully honoured its commitment officially to recognise the Zulu king and kingdom since the adoption of the country's constitution in 1996.

King Mswati

Of course there are other significant royals in Africa, the Swazi King Mswati for instance - reputedly the last remaining absolute monarch in the world.

He no doubt commands total allegiance and respect in his mountain kingdom.

But questions are being asked in Swaziland about whether it is time for King Mswati to become a constitutional monarch with an elected government.

Multi-party democracy may have broken out all over the continent, but elected political leaders can never take the place of traditional leaders in Africa. Or can they?

Courteous relationship

Whatever the case, any political leader who dares ignore the concerns of chiefs and kings or other royals, does so at their peril.

King Mswati III
The Swazi king rules by decree
While a given country's political leadership may not coddle the traditional leadership, most tend to cultivate a respectful, healthy and courteous relationship and keep them sweet.

In poor, rural areas, traditional leaders rule the roost in many parts of Africa. Some are even feared.

They are seen not only as the custodians of culture but as the key to survival with access to resources and to the all important land.

In all its complexity, others around the world are looking to Africa for guidance on how the continent has succeeded in marrying traditional leadership with new Western democratic models.

"In this quest, indigenous people could and should look beyond the Americas," writes Professor Don Ray in Canada's Globe & Mail newspaper in 2001.

"The experience of a number of African countries with Houses of Chiefs - indigenous Houses of Parliament - could provide a useful model for recognising traditional forms of governance and fostering dialogue on indigenous issues and rights in Canada".





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