OPINION: Ace Ncobo weighs in on the King Dalindyebo debate


I have lost my restraint of not making any comment on the King of AbaThembu saga. I am a commoner. But my father was a very close friend, advisor and counsel to Africa’s longest reigning monarch (at the time of his death), His Majesty, King Xolilizwe Sigcawu of AmaXhosa.

This gave me the privilege to grow up with and amongst Royals. I spent as much time in my own homestead as I did at the palace. The King had 5 wives and that gave me 6 mothers and 2 fathers.

This exposure granted me an opportunity to have deeper understanding of and respect for the institution of traditional leadership.

When we fought for a democratic South Africa we did not fight so that democracy could replace the way we did things before 1652. I’d like to think we fought in order to restore what colonialism and apartheid had taken away from us.

Apartheid had taken away our nationhood, inclusive of the right to practice our culture. Central to this is our reverence for and acceptance of the institution of traditional leadership.

We have to admit that, in the excitement of finally defeating apartheid we forgot that we were not only starting a new country but had the responsibility to restore that which had been taken away from us.

The African National Congress was formed with the full involvement of chiefs and Kings. One of its earlier presidents was a chief, Chief Albert Luthuli. The biggest contributor at the 1912 Congress was the AbaThembu Kingdom from which comes the now incarcerated King, who sent dozens of cattle to be slaughtered for the thousands of delegates. As a movement, we continue to enjoy the support of traditional leaders. Contralesa, although professing to be apolotical as it has to be, is nonetheless known by all to be aligned to the ANC.

The fact that both Codesa and The Constitution were finalized without clearly entrenching the rights, responsibilities and roles of traditional leaders is one of the biggest blunders we made. The fact that, 24 years after freedom, we still hail our Constitution as the best in the world yet it fails to restore our fundamental system of leadership for the majority of citizens is a serious indictment on us.

I know the argument by many Democrats that we are a constitutional democracy and therefore there is really no proper space for a system of traditional leaders which they say is autocratic in nature.

Firstly, those who allege autocracy do not really understand how the traditional leadership system works, especially the functioning of the King’s Council without which the King cannot make decisions. That “cabinet” is elected from amongst the junior chiefs and ordinary subjects to be the voice of reason and to represent the subjects. In gatherings of the nation, imbizo, everyone is allowed to debate issues and things are agreed upon by reaching consensus instead of voting. It is one of the most democratic systems known to man.

Secondly, some of the countries from which we took our borrowed jurisprudence have Kings and Queens. None of the powers of those Royals were taken away by their laws. Instead they were strengthened. Have they ceased to be democracies?

Part of our culture and traditional system has always been the royal public courts. The Headman has his own which tries minor transgressions in the same way that a magistrate’s court does. The Chief’s court could be regarded as the District Court to which more serious matters are referred amd those that the Headman could not resolve. The King’s Court doubles up as both the “High Court” and “Supreme Court of Appeal”. There would be no need for a Constitutional Court as all traditional and cultural prescripts are fully known by all and need no arbiter beyond the King and His Council.

The key question that to me, as a legal novice, has not been answered in the AbaThembu King’s case is this: Is it criminal for a Headman, Chief or King to preside over a traditional court and be part of the process out of which a punitive measure against a transgressor is decided upon, based on our age-old traditional systems?

If a resident within that jurisdiction is fined a goat as is usually the case and that goat is taken away from him, does it constitute theft? It would seem so from what has panned out in the King’s case. And then the court’s presiding officer is the one charged for that theft! Yhe madoda!

How many people are languishing in jail serving lengthy prison terms when in fact they were innocent? Recently a man was released after spending 11yrs in jail wrongly convicted. Has that judge been arrested as the presiding officer? Would we be correct in arresting the State President as the “presiding officer” for each illegal act committed by people in government such as innocent civilians killed by police?

How can, in a country whose Constitution guarantees the right to one’s culture, we have laws which outlaw that very same culture? I have yet to hear that the King actually personally carried out the acts for which he has been convicted. Surely, at least from my knowledge of how the traditional courts operate, the suggestion of punitive measures would have come “from the floor” comprised of the masses and from the members of the King’s Council. All that the King would have done would be to make the final pronouncement of what had been suggested and agreed upon by the nation.

It therefore holds water that those who say the entire nation of AbaThembu itself is culpable for the acts and the King’s trial was in fact a trial of the nation is indeed true. It is the nation that should have stood on the dock, not the King in his personal capacity.

Those who really know me know me as a person who always fights on the side of the victims and underdogs. But I do not do that at the expense of the truth.

Yes a person regretfully died but was the sentence passed a death sentence? NO! The sentence was to administer corporal punishment, a sentence that has been a usual decision in traditional courts for centuries, long before 1652.

Is it far-fetched to think that in their over-zealousness those whose task was to administer such corporal punishment may have killed people before 1652? Which court would the King have been taken to back then? Have we therefore not allowed a situation where the adoption of foreign laws, European to be exact, has eroded and superseded that which defines us as Africans?

It is sad that a life was lost. It is sad that a house was torched. But corporal punishment and banishment of people who had become persona non grata as decided by the nation through its traditional court is part of our culture.

As far I know the facts around the incidents that led to his incarceration, King Zwelibanzi did not personally assault anyone. He did not personally torch anybody’s house. All he did was preside over a gathering of his subjects as part of his duties. All he did was simply being the born King of his people. Why is he in jail? Is it a crime to be born a King?



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