Zulu war of succession: Hundreds of warriors escort Queen Mantfombi’s body through Johannesburg

Mourners draped in leopardskin have paraded in honour of Zulu Queen Mantfombi, rumoured to have been poisoned after she was named successor to the late king.

Hundreds of warriors with cowhide shields escorted the queen‘s body through the streets of Johannesburg on Wednesday ahead of a private funeral held in her ancestral lands today.

The pageantry masks a bitter war of succession being waged within the palace among King Goodwill Zwelithini’s five surviving wives and 28 children – not just for the title but for the vast wealth and land which goes with it.

There have been lurid allegations, including that the king’s will was forged and that Mantfombi was assassinated.

Princess Thembi, one of Zwelithini’s sisters, denied the claims last week, complaining to reporters: ‘People think we (she and her brother the Prince Mbonisi) are murderers.’ 

Zulu Queen Mantfombi in 2013

Zulu Queen Mantfombi in 2013

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini gestures to his supporters at The Moses Mabhida Football Stadium in Durban in 2018

Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini gestures to his supporters at The Moses Mabhida Football Stadium in Durban in 2018

Queen Mantfombi, 65,  died suddenly on April 30 just weeks after she was made regent when her husband King Goodwill Zwelithini died

More than 200 Zulu traditionally dressed people parade through the streets in Johannesburg, on May 5 to pay their last respects to Zulu Queen Mantfombi

More than 200 Zulu traditionally dressed people parade through the streets in Johannesburg, on May 5 to pay their last respects to Zulu Queen Mantfombi

More than 200 Zulu traditionally dressed people parade through the streets in Johannesburg, on May 5 to pay their last respects to Zulu Queen Mantfombi

Zulu warriors dressed in leopardskin and carrying shields and staffs parade through the South African city of Johannesburg on Wednesday, escorting the body of Queen Mantfombi

Zulu warriors dressed in leopardskin and carrying shields and staffs parade through the South African city of Johannesburg on Wednesday, escorting the body of Queen Mantfombi

Zulu warriors dressed in leopardskin and carrying shields and staffs parade through the South African city of Johannesburg on Wednesday, escorting the body of Queen Mantfombi

Mourners make way for a car carrying Mantfombi's body ahead of her funeral in the ancestral Zulu lands on Thursday

Mourners make way for a car carrying Mantfombi's body ahead of her funeral in the ancestral Zulu lands on Thursday

Mourners make way for a car carrying Mantfombi’s body ahead of her funeral in the ancestral Zulu lands on Thursday

(From L) Zulu Queens Queen Sibongile Dlamini, Queen Buhle Mathe, late Queen Mantfombi Dlamini, Queen Thandekile Ndlovu and Queen Nompumelelo Mamchiza attend the festival of 'Zulu 200' celebrating the existence of the Zulu Nation at the King Shaka International airport in Durban on September 22, 2013

(From L) Zulu Queens Queen Sibongile Dlamini, Queen Buhle Mathe, late Queen Mantfombi Dlamini, Queen Thandekile Ndlovu and Queen Nompumelelo Mamchiza attend the festival of 'Zulu 200' celebrating the existence of the Zulu Nation at the King Shaka International airport in Durban on September 22, 2013

(From L) Zulu Queens Queen Sibongile Dlamini, Queen Buhle Mathe, late Queen Mantfombi Dlamini, Queen Thandekile Ndlovu and Queen Nompumelelo Mamchiza attend the festival of ‘Zulu 200’ celebrating the existence of the Zulu Nation at the King Shaka International airport in Durban on September 22, 2013

Mantfombi was named interim successor at a private gathering where the family was read the king’s will after he was interred following his death on March 12.  

Known as the ‘Great Wife’, Mantfombi came from another royal household, she was the sister of Africa’s only absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland.

King Zwelithini paid a high bride price of around 300 cattle for her hand in marriage in 1977, cementing her senior status among his wives. The couple had eight children together. 

She died unexpectedly in hospital on April 29, but despite no evidence of foul play rumours have swirled that she was poisoned.

Days after the king’s death, his siblings, Princess Thembi and Prince Mbonisi held secret meetings at the palace – they were apparently not in favour of Mantfombi as interim successor.

When news of these clandestine discussions emerged it cause further disquiet at the palace.

The pair have since denied any involvement in Mantfombi’s death, with Princess Thembi holding a press conference at the weekend to deny the claims of murder.

She told reporters: ‘People think that we are murderers since it is claimed the queen was poisoned, people who are said to be behind this are my brother and I because we had a meeting that started at KwaKhethomthandayo (the palace).’

It had been expected that Mantfombi’s US-educated eldest son Prince Misuzulu, 47, would be next line to the throne.

But in another dramatic turn of events, Zwelithini’s first wife, Queen Sibongile Dlamini, has challenged the king’s other wives, claiming that she is his only legal spouse and that only her children can ascend the throne.

She is supported by her daughters, Princess Ntandoyenkosi and Princess Ntombizosuthu, who claim in a separate legal action that the king’s will was forged. 

A handwriting expert has reportedly been hired to try to prove that the king’s signature is a fake.

The queen and her daughters are taking their respective cases to Pietermaritzburg High Court in legal battles that are captivating South Africa.

Queen Sibongile Dlamini is demanding half of the monarch’s estate, as well as recognition that she is the true ‘Great Wife’, owing to the fact that she was the king’s first bride.

Although the title of Zulu king does not bestow executive power, the charismatic Zwelithini had moral influence over more than 11 million Zulus, nearly a fifth of South Africa’s population. 

The monarch also enjoys an annual taxpayer-funded budget of more than £3.5 million and controls around a third of the land in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, charging rent. 

More than 200 Zulu warriors take part in processions in Johannesburg

More than 200 Zulu warriors take part in processions in Johannesburg

More than 200 Zulu warriors take part in processions in Johannesburg

Carrying cowhide shields and ceremonial weapons the men marched in honour of the late queen

Carrying cowhide shields and ceremonial weapons the men marched in honour of the late queen

Carrying cowhide shields and ceremonial weapons the men marched in honour of the late queen

Zulu warriors bang on their shields during a procession for the late queen

Zulu warriors bang on their shields during a procession for the late queen

Zulu warriors bang on their shields during a procession for the late queen

Police officers stand guard close to the morgue as mourners arrive to pay their last respects

Police officers stand guard close to the morgue as mourners arrive to pay their last respects

Police officers stand guard close to the morgue as mourners arrive to pay their last respects

On Wednesday, hundreds of mourners paraded through the Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow to accompany Mantfombi’s body, singing and dancing as they made their way to the mortuary under a clear autumn sky.

Zulu regiments known as ‘amaButho’, donned traditional leopardskin ponchos and headbands, wielding clubs and shields made of animal hide.

Young women wore colourful miniskirts and beads, while their elderly married counterparts followed in head wraps and patterned shawls.

‘Our wounds had not healed from the passing of the king, now the queen has followed,’ said mourner Jabu Mangena, dressed in black and wearing a broad-brimmed red hat.

‘We will remember her as a woman who was proud of her culture and heritage,’ she said. 

Mourners will accompany the queen’s remains to KwaKhangelamankengane Royal Palace in the southeastern town of Nongoma, around 300 miles from Johannesburg, where she will be buried privately on Thursday.

‘In line with her wishes, as was done for… the King, her majesty will be interred at the crack of dawn in a private burial,’ Zulu prince and traditional prime minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi said in a statement.

A memorial service will be held a day after the funeral that will be marked by flags flying half-mast across Kwa-Zulu Natal province. 

The coffin of the late queen is seen inside a van during the procession

The coffin of the late queen is seen inside a van during the procession

The coffin of the late queen is seen inside a van during the procession 

Zulus parade alongside the convoy as it leaves the morgue on Wednesday

Zulus parade alongside the convoy as it leaves the morgue on Wednesday

Zulus parade alongside the convoy as it leaves the morgue on Wednesday

The longest-serving Zulu monarch in history King Goodwill Zwelithini

Zwelithini was the longest-serving monarch in Zulu history, reigning for half a century through years of apartheid and the transition to multi-racial democracy.

He died early on March 12 in the eastern city of Durban, aged 72, after weeks of treatment for a diabetes-related illness.

Born in Nongoma, Zwelithini ascended the throne on December 3, 1971 during the apartheid era.

He became King following the death of his father King Cyprian Bhekuzulu kaSolomon in 1968 – but was forced to flee to St. Helena for three years over assassination fears.

Prince Israel Mcwayizeni acted as regent until 1971, when Zwelithini was officially installed as the eighth monarch of the Zulus in a ceremony on December 3, 1971, aged just 23.    

The Queen receives a gift from Zulu King Zwelithini in 1995. He presented her with a replica of a cup given to King Cetshwayo by Queen Victoria in 1882 at a lunch in Durban, South Africa, in 1995

The Queen receives a gift from Zulu King Zwelithini in 1995. He presented her with a replica of a cup given to King Cetshwayo by Queen Victoria in 1882 at a lunch in Durban, South Africa, in 1995

The Queen receives a gift from Zulu King Zwelithini in 1995. He presented her with a replica of a cup given to King Cetshwayo by Queen Victoria in 1882 at a lunch in Durban, South Africa, in 1995

Goodwill Zwelithini, (left, with senior Prince of the Zulus Mangosuthu Buthelezi, right, in 2019)  passed away in the early hours of March 12 in the eastern city of Durban after taking a 'turn for the worse' following weeks of treatment for diabetes in hospital

Goodwill Zwelithini, (left, with senior Prince of the Zulus Mangosuthu Buthelezi, right, in 2019)  passed away in the early hours of March 12 in the eastern city of Durban after taking a 'turn for the worse' following weeks of treatment for diabetes in hospital

Goodwill Zwelithini, (left, with senior Prince of the Zulus Mangosuthu Buthelezi, right, in 2019)  passed away in the early hours of March 12 in the eastern city of Durban after taking a ‘turn for the worse’ following weeks of treatment for diabetes in hospital

Zwelithini, his six wives and over 28 children enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in a country where millions live in poverty. Pictured: Zwelithini marrying his sixth wife Zola Mafu of Swaziland in 2014

Zwelithini, his six wives and over 28 children enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in a country where millions live in poverty. Pictured: Zwelithini marrying his sixth wife Zola Mafu of Swaziland in 2014

Zwelithini, his six wives and over 28 children enjoyed a lavish lifestyle in a country where millions live in poverty. Pictured: Zwelithini marrying his sixth wife Zola Mafu of Swaziland in 2014

The Zulus are South Africa’s largest ethnic group with over 11 million people.

Traditional rulers play a largely symbolic and spiritual role in modern South Africa, where they are constitutionally recognised. 

They advise legislators and have a say in cultural, land management and justice administration in their territories. 

Under the white-minority regime which ended in 1994, kings ruled homelands where most blacks were confined to defuse broader national struggles. 

In 2015, Zwelithini gained international notoriety for anti-foreigner remarks suggesting immigrants were responsible for rising lawlessness in South Africa and that they needed to be kicked out.

The remarks were blamed for inflaming a spate of xenophobic attacks on mostly African migrants, which left seven dead, thousands displaced and revived memories of xenophobic bloodshed in 2008, when 62 people were killed.

Zwelithini later denied whipping up xenophobic sentiments, saying his remarks were taken out of context.

‘If it was true I said people must kill each other, the whole country would (have been) reduced to ashes,’ he said.

A descendant of the all-powerful Shaka – who ruled the Zulu nation until his assassination in 1828 – Zwelithini revived the annual Reed Dance in 1984, where thousands of bare-breasted young women celebrate their virginity by dancing in front of the king.

He was the most prominent among a handful of traditional rulers who hold sway over emotive issues such as land ownership in South Africa.

In 2018, he sought an exemption for nearly three million hectares of royal land which the Government had wanted to expropriate for redistribution to landless marginalised black people sidelined by apartheid.

As the sole trustee of 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of land through the Ingonyama Trust, he wanted his land to be left untouched, warning ‘all hell will break loose’ if its ownership was challenged.

Three years ago, the outspoken king courted controversy when he spoke in support of corporal punishment, saying it helped pupils perform better in school.

He also sparked a storm in 2012 when he slammed same-sex relationships as ‘rotten’, drawing rebuke from rights groups.

‘If you do it, you must know that it is wrong and you are rotten. Same sex is not acceptable,’ he said at a ceremony marking an anniversary when the Zulu army defeated imperial British forces.

Charlene of Monaco looks on during the memorial for the late Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini at the KwaKhethomthandayo Royal Palace in Nongoma

Charlene of Monaco looks on during the memorial for the late Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini at the KwaKhethomthandayo Royal Palace in Nongoma

Charlene of Monaco looks on during the memorial for the late Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini at the KwaKhethomthandayo Royal Palace in Nongoma

Zwelithini's six widows sat in the front row with their bowed heads covered in thick black lace.

Zwelithini's six widows sat in the front row with their bowed heads covered in thick black lace.

Zwelithini’s six widows sat in the front row with their bowed heads covered in thick black lace.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during the memorial service of King Goodwill Zwelithini

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during the memorial service of King Goodwill Zwelithini

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa speaks during the memorial service of King Goodwill Zwelithini

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) speaks with former South African President Jacob Zuma (L) during the memorial service of King Goodwill Zwelithini

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) speaks with former South African President Jacob Zuma (L) during the memorial service of King Goodwill Zwelithini

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) speaks with former South African President Jacob Zuma (L) during the memorial service of King Goodwill Zwelithini

In 1994, he sparked fears of a secessionist conflict when he rallied between 20,000 and 50,000 stick-wielding men – most of them supporters of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – to march through Johannesburg to support his call for sovereignty ahead of the country’s first democratic election.

The marchers engaged in a firefight outside the headquarters of the IFP’s main rival, the now-ruling African National Congress, leaving 42 people dead.

Zwelithini enjoyed the trappings of his royal status, receiving more than 60 million rand ($4 million) in yearly allowances from the state to help fund a lifestyle that includes several royal palaces, six wives and over 28 children.  

The Zulus are popularly known for their vibrant culture, especially an ancient war dance performed by the rhythmic stomping of feet.

They do not refer to a deceased kind as ‘dead’, but say the monarch has ‘bowed’.  

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