Friends, brothers, sisters, foreign nationals, national nationals, multi-nationals, my fellow South Africans; all protocol observed! It is with a double sense of worry and relief that I write to all of you.
On the sixth day of the first month of the two thousandth and tenth year of our Lord, at about fourteen hundred hours, a king from the Eastern Cape almost became your president. The king is one of six in that vast region and one of two among his people. We are talking of none other than His Majesty Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, king of the abaThembu — or at least a section of that nation. Those close to him, the closest of whom is none other than his majesty’s very own self, suggest that he might in fact be the first among equals, so to say.
Do not allow me to bore you with the illustrious history of the abaThembu. I am no Jeff Peires (well-known for his masterful research on and retelling of the Nongqawuse story). But one need not be a Zakes Mda (check his Heart of Redness) to know that the Thembus occupy a special place in the history of struggle, resistance and positive Africanisation in this country.
Dalindyebo is a name that comes close to sacred in that history. I am not merely speaking of the latter-day kinds of the Thembus who followed in the footsteps of their great ancestors. Nor am I hinting at some of their illustrious subjects — who, if I am not mistaken, include the likes of Nelson Mandela, Chris Hani and the Sisulus. It was most satisfying for me when King Sabata Dalindyebo was posthumously honoured alongside Kofi Annan on Heritage Day in 2009. Here is a family that long debunked the myth that African chieftaincy and African kingship stood either for “backwardness” or uncritical support for colonial masters. Here is an African royal family which has been in the forefront of both the liberation and the education revolution.
Let us go back to the story of current Dalindyebo who nearly became your president on January 6 2010. He is no lesser a Dalindyebo than his father and his father’s father before him. He too has struggle credentials. But things appear to have gone awry for him in the last twelve months or so — at least. A series of allegations of abuse of authority and even cruelty culminated in a conviction against him in a court of law early in December 2009. The convictions are too ghastly for a mere mortal like me to utter — even in written form. Fortunately permission to appeal has been granted to the king.
It is what has happened between the conviction of the king and the events of January 6 that should concern us. The happenings include the formation of a Justice for King Dalindyebo Campaign (JKD Campaign) apparently headed by a lawyer, but a campaign whose support base is unclear as well as the submission of legal papers to Parliament, the Presidency and the NPA in which the king asserts his “right” and his wish to secede his people and his territory from the republic as we know it.
January 6 was the date the secession would be declared. In terms of that declaration, about 65% of South Africa would fall under the jurisdiction and rule of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo. This includes the territory on which your house, factory or office is situated as well you yourself — most probably. Now, not all of you realised that you, yours and your possessions are the subjects of his majesty. Not all of you realised how close you were to becoming citizens of the yet-to-be-named kingdom.
Fortunately — and this is where my relief comes from — the king is reported to have backed down at the last minute, late in the afternoon of January 6, thanks to an as yet unconfirmed intervening letter from none other than the president of the Republic of South Africa.
You are waiting for me to tell you that it is all a joke. It is not a joke. It did happen. Well, it nearly happened. But what is going on here? How do we explain the actions of the king and his legal advisers?
From the media reports it seems that the JKD Campaign enjoys very little visible support among the amaThembu and even less support among the anonymous amaThembu like you and I. At least one media organisation reported that several senior abaThembu chiefs distanced themselves from the secession bid. So has the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa. This leaves the king, his legal advisors and a handful of supporters (if any) virtually on their own. The secession threat is apparently accompanied by two conditions, one consisting of an invoice for a billion rands for the new kingdom and the other being that the conviction handed to the king last year should be withdrawn. Both conditions are too rich and over the top, if you ask me.
Anything is possible in law, especially in a new constitutional democracy like ours where some of the provisions are not only prone to misinterpretation but also yet to be tested. But I dare say that the secession bid is probably unconstitutional. And if I am correct, the king and his advisers are in danger of joining members of the Boeremag in being among the few to be charged for treason in post-apartheid South Africa.
We should look beyond the characters in this sorry saga to the stature of offices they occupy as well as the integrity of our constitutional democracy. I am thinking here of the dignity of paramount chieftaincy and kingdom not only of the abaThembu but of others as well. We must also think about the dignity of members of the bar when some among them appear not to be providing constructive advise to our king. We have to think of the dignity of our country too. And yes, we have to think sympathetically of the fate of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo if not for his own sake, at least for the sake of the people (dead and alive) who he represents and leads.
May his advisers focus his energies and theirs on preparing thoroughly for the leave to appeal that has been granted to him, instead of the ill-fated and poorly thought out bid for secession. A way should be found to insitutionalise legal and other forms of counsel for kings and chiefs. Surely we do not want our king to wind up in jail for longer than the fifteen years that was handed down in early December 2009, do we?