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AbaThembu King Buyelekhaya has been in prison since December 2015, serving a twelve-year sentence for, amongst others, arson, assault and culpable homicide.
Black South Africa in particular has since started debating whether or not it sits well that a whole king is in jail. The trial alone drew a whole lot of debate around a royal patriarch treated like a commoner, tried by a judge employing a legal framework with colonial roots.
People argued, as they still do, that ‘it was never heard of’ that a king be incarcerated and so, in their desperation to go intellectual about it, sought to draw equivalents between Afrika and the West on royal matters while going to town about how British law would never subject their Queen (or King) to such. Political formations have also weighed in on the matter, arguing that the Monarch be released, and charges dropped. To them, the trial bordered on Europe waging a war on Africa.
A monarch and an African customary expert have even offered ifa-nankosi as a worthy option to be pursued in the case. Well, ifa-nankosi (literally Nguni for a person who will die with the Chief) in precolonial Africa was a person – a servant or a chief – who would either take blame for a monarch’s sins or wrongs. We have even had stories (I do not believe) of how on death, revered royals like Shaka would be laid on and cushioned by bodies of freshly-killed commoners who would make sure a royal ‘slept’ comfortably and was not alone in the grave. In Wole Soyinka’s ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ (based on a true story that took place during Nigeria’s British colonial rule), a Yoruba King dies and, by customary duty, his horseman Elesin must commit a ritual suicide within a month to accompany the King’s spirit to the other world. The idea of ifa-nankosi is based on narratives of such a kind.
I feel the option encourages a culture of impunity that we have already lived with for centuries from the former colonial masters, and provides them the opportunity to do as they please with their subjects’ lives and livelihoods. And, perhaps, some research work is needed to establish if in the history of Africa, a Chief/King has ever acted so arrogantly violent and destroyed their subject’s lives, and if anything was done about it.
The most vocalised of the King’s sympathisers’ main heads of argument is that a King cannot be tried and convicted using laws with a colonial background. But the King himself is on record professing his respect for ‘our’ courts.
Funny though, none of the King’s people touch on what brings us to the debate. Well, let remind you, dear reader, that between 1995 and 1996, right in the midst of the hype and hunger for human rights in South Africa, fuelled by the enactment of the Constitution and its accompanying Bill of Rights in 1996; the King torched the houses of his subjects, destroyed their properties, evicted and assaulted quite a number, most of whom, twenty-four years later, are still struggling to make ends meet and require constant medical care. At least one is recorded to have died as a direct result of the King’s orders, if not beatings.
Mr Mbuzeni Makhwenkwana was already back in Johannesburg working, having previously served a prison sentence for murder and released on parole when he got word that his two houses had been burnt down and that the King wanted to see him back in Tyhalarha village, eMthatha. When he got there, indeed the what he left as houses were now just dongas and some of the property that had been in the house, in the car outside and other items lying on the ground. He then rushed to Bumbane, the Palace, where, on the spot, the King fined him six heads of cattle and ordered him out of the village for good, effectively evicting him, for a crime he had already served time for.
Another villager, Mr Koto Wofa, once came across his son, Saziso Wofa, naked, pants hung on his shoulders and his back ripped open. He was surrounded by villagers. He was told that he had allegedly raped and was being taken to the King. Mr Wofa, afraid if he were to ask to be released home, would also be beaten up, lied that he was dropping his parcels home and coming back to the Palace. He did not. The following day he saw a group of men approaching, helping each other carry what seemed like a pallet. They were coming to him and led by the King himself.
“Are you accepting this body?” the King is reported to have asked him, while his son laid on the pallet’s rails, lifeless and brutalised. Hurting but fearing he had no other choice, Mr Wofa lied, “yes, I accept him as he is”. The King then summoned Mr Wofa to the Palace, where he fined him twenty heads of cattle, in addition to a permanent eviction.
Another villager, Mr Welile Duma, reported being woken up in the middle of one night in 1995 by a board member who told him the King wanted to see the young men of the village and he, being one, was also needed. When he got in the van, he was shocked to find he was the only one in the van. In Bumbane, he was told of how he had allegedly raped ‘someone’ in a neighbouring village and so he was tortured.
Today, a number of the King’s victims, who by the way all happen to have been hardworking peasant and working-class families; require constant (and sometimes expensive) medical care not found in rural communities and, as a direct result of ill health emanating from his orders, have been rendered physically disabled and can no longer provide for themselves and their families.
In describing the King at the end of the trial, the judge spoke of…
‘…a tyrannical and despotic king who deals with dissidents and people he seeks to evict by torching their houses in front of the terrified families… who decides that the way to deal with other dissidents is to beat them to within an inch of their lives.’
Mr Wofa says he can only forgive the King they day he brings his son back, alive; and Mr Mbuzeni Makhwenkwana too insists he will never forgive him and has no king in him; while others agree that during his reign of terror in the mid-1990s, the King was ‘a monster’, a ‘wild lion let loose’.
Well, I still hope the call for the King’s release has not been a populist move inspired not by real concern but by narrow politicking for additional followership which may (hopefully) translate to more votes for the brands concerned, or that the debate around this issue touches on all the factors involved.
‘Tyhalarha’ by the way, the name of the King’s village; for reasons known to me and others whose first language is isiXhosa, is indeed very interesting a name.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Vernac News
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