William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

The crown jewels are looking a tad tarnished

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, warned Shakespeare. And as it happens, 2013 is turning out to be a tough year for Europe’s kings and queens.

Royalists argue that monarchism’s value lies in the seamless continuity that is provided by inherited office, whereas in other constitutional arrangements political leaders come and go. The downside, however, is that inherited power is subject to potentially calamitous disruption, with no solution except to fume or to revolt. That is what is happening here.

Last week’s coronation of a new Dutch king, following the abdication of the 75-year-old Queen Beatrix, was somewhat marred by the revelation that their supposedly thrifty ‘bicycle monarchy’ costs more than the be-ermined and bejewelled British version. In Spain there have been angry mutterings about King Juan Carlos, whose popularity is at a record low, following anger over his luxurious lifestyle at a time that his subjects struggle to cope with an economic meltdown. And Belgium’s Queen Fabiola has been exposed as scheming to avoid inheritance tax.

In comparison, the problems in Britain seem minor. Queen Elizabeth II, who last year celebrated an astonishing 60 years on the throne, has been Royalty (Pty) Ltd’s equivalent of the unflagging Duracell bunny.

This week, however, Buckingham Palace announced that the 87-year-old monarch would not be attending November’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka. Instead she would be substituted by a mere stripling, the 65-year-old Prince Charles.

Elizabeth, passionate about the Commonwealth, has been the glue that’s kept it afloat despite bitter fall-outs between member nations. She’s missed only one CHOGM in the 40 years of its existence, so this absence is significant. There is more to it than the bland official explanation of her absence merely being part of a review of the amount of long-haul travel she does.

Media speculation is that it is related to her earlier this year being laid low for a month by a yet undiagnosed illness. Whatever the reason, Elizabeth has made it clear that unlike her continental counterparts, she won’t retire. So in contrast to the euphoria around her jubilee, the queen’s CHOGM absence should remind her loyal subjects that an octogenarian queen has limited mileage, that any road ahead is going to be increasingly rocky, and that there is a right Charlie in the nation’s near future. South Africans have gone through much the same experience with an ailing Nelson Mandela, who in a republican state has earned the fealty that hereditary monarchs expect as their right.

Actually, despite being a unitary republic, SA has its own royal problems. The country’s patchwork history of vying nations has bequeathed seven official monarchs and half a dozen disputed ones. So there is always some royal rumblings in the background.

Former president Thabo Mbeki set up a commission to sort out the tangle of actual and wannabe regents. After six years it decreed seven legitimate SA kingships, being the AbaThembu, the AmaPondo, the AmaZulu, the AmaXhosa, and the BaPedi. The AmaNdebele and the VhaVenda regencies were also recognised but having no incumbents, government decided that the commission would appoint these. This process subsequently has become mired in the courts, as would-be monarchs press their suits.

There are six further kings who are recognised but whose monarchies will end with them. As one might predict, the princelings and princesses are not amused by the prospect of demotion from exalted royal to the new bureaucratic definition, that of ‘principal traditional leader’. The issue continues to simmer.

Meanwhile, this week His Royal Majesty Quinn Makhanda, living in New Jersey, demanded in that the SA government forthwith pay unspecified damages and ensure that he is ‘repatriated and acknowledged’ with immediate effect as rightful heir to the Zulu throne, him being inheritor to a line bypassed when the Makhandas were exiled in the 1960s.

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini is unlikely to easily relinquish his divine rights, especially the fiercely defended privilege of having a sacrificial bull rended live from limb to limb in the annual first-fruits ceremony. Maybe the young pretender would be better served pitching for an upcoming European vacancy?

Way things are going, he’ll be able to take his pick.

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