You Zulu guys really need to stop telling us to respect your king

The next time you want to complain about a 'Zwelithini' headline, do me a favour and remember this column.

Last week when the headlines were dominated by stories about Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, something quite unexpected became a talking point in our newsroom.

We noticed we were seeing a lot of complaints on our Facebook account from people who weren’t happy about headlines that referred to the king as “Zwelithini”. The complaints insisted we should rather say ‘King Zwelithini’, as that would be more respectful.

“But we always use people’s surnames, or even just first names or nicknames if the person’s well known enough,” I told my newsroom.

I used to work on print newspapers, where space for headlines is always at a premium.

One of my team members, who happens to be Zulu, said that merely referring to the king as “Zwelithini” in a headline was, in his opinion indeed disrespectful.

“You wouldn’t just say ‘Elizabeth’ when talking about the queen of England,” he said.

But that’s exactly how most writers in the UK refer to the queen after writing “Queen Elizabeth” at first mention. I can show you an avalanche of headlines that simply say ‘Elizabeth’, and that’s not considered disrespectful. Some of the less respectful titles just call her ‘Liz’ or ‘Lizzie’ – and that’s not even a reference to David Icke believing the royal family are all lizard people.

Most of us aren’t even aware the queen of England has a surname (it’s Mountbatten-Windsor, by the way, and good luck trying to get that into a newspaper headline).

I realise now that some Zulus appear to be sensitive about any perceived disrespect being shown to their monarch. Furthermore, there has been more than a hint of suggestion from them that this perceived disrespect towards their king might be evidence of racism, especially if the headline concerned is being produced by a newspaper owned by a white guy, as this one is.

How dare one even try to say the Zulu king is just one among loads in South Africa – and that this particular monarch should probably consider himself lucky to have fallen in the butter in our post-democratic dispensation?

I always find it amusing whenever we hear about the nearly R60 million in taxes that are paid over each year to support the king’s lifestyle – or whatever it’s used for – when all the other kings from Contralesa or the House of Traditional Leaders go on to moan about it. They don’t complain that Zwelithini is getting too much, just that they’re not getting nearly as much.

The truth is they should be happy to be getting anything at all, because this is the 21st century and monarchs are a needless anachronism. I’m not saying this because I have anything against any of our local kings, queens and chiefs – but the concept of royalty should surely be irrelevant the world over by now.

British comedian John Oliver recently said in an interview, when asked about his thoughts on the British royal wedding: “It’s just weird to kneel in front of another adult. It’s odd.”

And it is.

I’ve been told that the British royal family is a good tourist attraction. But the French haven’t had a living human being under a crown since 1870, and they’re no worse off for it – their tourism industry seems to have survived too.

I remember playing the video game Civilization as a kid and taking it for granted that at about a quarter of the way through my strategy adventure I would be upgrading my pixellated nation to a more advanced form of government. South Africa already has one of the most advanced forms of government around  –democracy, that thing the whole struggle was fought for, you know – and our royals seem to be kept around now as mascots because they’re considered useful at election time to supposedly tell people who to put their crosses next to.

Zwelithini has way more power than most of them mainly because he oversees 30% of the land in KwaZulu-Natal through the Ingonyama Trust. It’s the source of his relevance and influence. No wonder he’s scared to lose it. I happen to agree with Kgalema Motlanthe, though, that the best thing for the king’s rural “subjects” would be to give them title deeds and security of tenure.

And if you need a reminder of what a “village tin-pot dictator” is really like, just read this article about why King Dalindyebo was given a prison sentence.

These are not the kinds of people we want in charge. And no one should ever be considered a leader simply because of an accident of birth.

I set out to write this column for two reasons, and that’s to tell all the complaining Zulus on our Facebook feed two things, and here they are:

We – and just about everyone else in the media – aren’t referring to the king as “Zwelithini” in headlines because we are going out of our way to disrespect him. Surnames and first names is how we refer to everyone. We even often refer to the president just as “Cyril” because we try to break up the clash of having too many long “Ramaphosas” on our home page.

What we are in fact doing is treating the Zulu king the same way we do everyone else, because he’s just another human being. He shouldn’t qualify for special treatment, nor should worse treatment be reserved for him. We will report on him as fairly and as accurately as we can. And that’s exactly how it should be.

Secondly, speaking personally, I’d like to be clear I don’t respect him. What is there to respect? He’s a walking symbol of patriarchy we’d all be better off without. But that’s just me.

Of course, if ever I were to meet him I would no doubt be completely intimidated and on my very best behaviour, but that would just be my normal cowardly reaction to being in the presence of so much pomp and circumstance, and because I’d probably be speared by an assegai if I wasn’t.

Let’s keep in mind I grew up watching the TV show Shaka Zulu, so all that childhood terror would no doubt kick in and I’d probably be one twitch of a groin muscle away from pissing myself at any given moment. I had a few people raise an eyebrow and tell me to “be careful” when I told them I was going to write this thing.

Still doesn’t mean I really respect him though.

Which is why we should all be reminded of this old video of a Shembe man last year who refused to kneel before the king, even when he demanded it.

Now that is a man I can respect.

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

Read more on these topics


Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits