Potential poisoning and succession posturing for South Africa’s Zulu king

Conflicting reports over king’s health highlight ongoing bitter power struggles

South African president Cyril Ramaphosa and King Misuzulu
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa (left) and King Misuzulu
(Image credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Power struggles within South Africa’s Zulu monarchy have intensified amid contradictory claims from two high-profile officials over the king’s health.

The prime minister to the Zulu royal family, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, said on Saturday that the king had been hospitalised in neighbouring Eswatini on suspicion of poisoning after the sudden death of one of his advisers.

This was vehemently denied by the spokesperson to the king and by King Misuzulu kaZwelithini himself, who insisted that he was “fit and sound”, undergoing a routine check-up.

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The contradiction “is a sign of how the relationship between King Misuzulu and Chief Buthelezi has fallen apart”, reported Nomsa Maseko from Johannesburg for BBC News.

Misuzulu, 48, ascended the Zulu throne last year “following a bitter family succession battle”, said Africa News. His father, Goodwill Zwelithini, died in 2021 after reigning for half a century, leaving behind six wives and “at least 28 children”, two of whom legally contested the succession.

What happened?

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, prominent MP and founder of the right-wing Inkatha Freedom Party, (IFP), is now 94 and has served as prime minister to the Zulu royal family since 1952. He said in a statement on Saturday that the king was receiving hospital treatment in Eswatini.

The king’s adviser, Douglas Xaba, “passed on quite suddenly”, said Buthelezi, and “there are suspicions that he was poisoned”. When the king began to feel unwell, “he suspected that he too may have been poisoned”, said Buthelezi.

But the king’s spokesperson, Prince Africa Zulu, told AFP on Sunday that this was “an orchestrated agenda and a desperate narrative to communicate defamatory and baseless claims of his majesty’s ill health”. The king had undergone “precautionary and thorough” medical tests in “a context of Covid” after the adviser’s death, he said.

“The motives are unclear,” he is quoted as saying by The Times’s Jane Flanagan in Cape Town, but “the political environment is ripe” due to the approaching elections.

On Monday, the king himself denied both reports, telling AFP he was “fit and sound”. “I’m happy, everything is well-functioning, there is no poison whatsoever,” he said in a video the same day. “So please people, mostly to the Zulu people, the Zulu royal family also to remind everyone to please don’t listen to everything that people say.”

Misuzulu “finds himself at the centre of a political tug-of-war” between the two factions, said News24, who both see the Zulu king as important ahead of the 2024 elections.

A riposte came from Buthelezi on Tuesday, saying in a statement that there was “certainly no growing rift” between him and the king. He had not “acted in malice”, he said. There may be “disagreements on matters from time to time”, but that was “like any other family”.

What is the Zulu royal family?

The Zulu monarchs – like all traditional chiefs and sovereigns – are recognised by the South African constitution but hold no formal political power. The Zulu king’s role is “largely ceremonial”, said the BBC, but he enjoys “a yearly government-funded budget of several million dollars”.

The House of Zulu nevertheless wields huge influence and “profound moral authority” over the more than 11 million Zulus, said Africa News, who make up nearly a fifth of the population.

Misuzulu’s father was the longest-reigning Zulu monarch, sitting on the throne for nearly 50 years. When he died in March 2021 of diabetes-related complications, he willed the interim regency to his third wife, Queen Mantfombi Dlamini-Zulu, known as the “Great Wife”, as the only one of six with royal blood.

But just over a month later, she died suddenly aged 65 without having appointed a successor, amid rumours – denied by the family – that she had been poisoned.

At her funeral, her first son, Misuzulu, was announced as the new king. This was “a development that did not go down well with other family members”, said AFP.

What is the Zulu succession drama?

Indeed, Misuzulu’s elevation “triggered the nation’s gravest crisis in the two centuries since its founder, Shaka Zulu, was speared to death by family members”, said The Times.

At least two of the late king’s other children have made rival claims to the throne “amid accusations of forged wills and incest”, taking their challenge to the courts.

The drama all hinges on the Zulu tradition of polygamy. South Africa only allows for “customary” multiple marriages to take place, not civil ones, so technically only the king’s first marriage is legal. The absence of “written procedures” related to multiple marriages have led successions to be contested “for generations”, Flanagan wrote.

When Queen Mantfombi’s will was read out, naming Misuzulu as the next king, the palace “quickly descended into chaos”, reported the South African Sunday Times. Misuzulu “had to be whisked away from the meeting” by the South African police for his own safety.

When Misuzulu was crowned last year, the traditional spear-carrying regiments were flanked by riot police.

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.