BUMBANE, South Africa — For a king, he is surprisingly casual. In faded blue jeans, sneakers and a secondhand t-shirt that says “Vintage Car Club of Canada,” King Buyelekhaya Zwelibanzi Dalindyebo looks less like the ruler of the Thembu tribe and more like a regular guy taking his dogs for a romp on a Sunday afternoon.
A small, trim man with a full beard, he appears somewhat dwarfed by his two huge guard dogs — a South African breed of mastiff called boerboel — as he tussles with them on his palace grounds.
His traditional seat of power, known as the Great Place, is a series of modest buildings set in the remote hills of the Eastern Cape where he lives with two of his five wives. His subjects include Nelson Mandela.
In addition to being a king, Dalindyebo is also a convicted criminal who was found guilty of attacking his subjects in the name of traditional justice. He is now out on bail while appealing a 15-year sentence for culpable homicide, kidnapping, assault and arson, relating to a dispute with rebellious villagers in 1995.
But rather than rest quietly at his rural palace, the king has stirred up further controversy since his conviction, demanding the government pay him $124 million in damages plus $10.8 billion to the Thembu tribe for the “humiliation” caused by the trial.
He has also declared that the Thembu tribe had seceded from South Africa, and had a lawyer serve notice of independence to the country's parliament. The new nation of “Thembuland,” according to Dalindyebo, includes not only this part of the Eastern Cape province, but also much of the rest of the country, including the major cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, and all of KwaZulu-Natal province. His vision is that one day it will include most of Southern Africa.
The “Thembuland” plan was deemed laughable and received widespread disdain across South Africa, including from the ruling African National Congress party, which declared Dalindyebo’s secession “an attempt to return to homeland rule” — referring to the separate black “homelands” created by the old apartheid regime as a form of segregation.
Despite the negative reactions, the king is holding firm to his views.
In a rambling but articulate two-hour interview at his Great Place, he launched a scathing attack on the Zulu tribe and expanded on his theories of Thembu domination.
Among the traditional royals of South Africa, it is the Zulu kingdom that gets the most attention. The Zulus are the largest tribe in South Africa and one of the most famous across Africa. To foreign ears, “Zulu” is a word synonymous with formidable warriors such as King Shaka and epic battles against British and Dutch invaders.
But Dalindyebo dismisses the Zulus as a mere “minor tribe” that was made and “marketed by the British.”
“The Zulu tribe was co-opted by the Europeans to be used as the front line during the frontier wars, with the Zulus at the front for black-on-black violence,” said Dalindyebo. “We believe that this is where the Zulu tribe comes from — black solders trained by whites.”
“It is a kingdom that is trusted by colonizers, trusted by foreign governments,” he said. “The Zulu kingdom was established in the 1800s — it is not as indigenous as ours.”
He dates the Thembu kingdom to 2,000 years ago, when he said it existed in the Congo before spreading into southern Africa.
“We want to trace our tribe to as far back as the birth of Christ,” he said.
Dalindyebo doesn’t plan a violent uprising to unify Thembuland, but rather explains that the people will be peacefully mobilized once they have been enlightened about this history — it is just a matter of “marketing.”
“We are not autocratic about it,” he said. “We don’t want to cause conflict that would make people fight.”
Tradition continues to play an important role in the lives of many South Africans. Under apartheid, traditional rulers were suppressed and some were puppets installed by the government. A government commission recently abolished six of the country’s 13 traditional monarchies following a six-year probe to determine the legitimacy of South Africa’s royals. Dalindyebo, along with the Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, was among the rulers deemed legitimate.
While Dalindyebo’s claims may seem absurd, many still respect him in large part because of his late father, King Sabata Dalindyebo, an anti-apartheid struggle hero who died in exile. A bust of Sabata graces the grounds of the Great Place, atop a pedestal engraved with the text “AAH!!!” — a traditional tribal greeting of respect for a king in the Xhosa language.
Dalindyebo, too, spent time in exile, leaving South Africa when he was 13 and returning in 1991 after living in neighboring countries including Botswana and Zambia, where he was a member of the armed wing of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party.
Dalindyebo recently appointed Mandela's grandson, Mandla Mandela, to take up the traditional position of chief in the village of Mvezo, a role once held by Nelson Mandela’s father.
Today, at the age of 46, the king views his role as maintaining cultural activities and the social fiber of the Thembu nation, as well as encouraging economic development and presiding over small conflicts in the community.
“For example, if someone goes and fetches his lobola back after arguing with the wife,” he says, referring the traditional payment that grooms make for their brides. The king would settle that dispute.
“Some of our traditional systems, traditional practices no longer exist in our communities. They exist in a zoo for tourists,” he said. “Indigenous values have a way of protecting social fiber.”
The South African government provides financial support to the country’s traditional leaders, mainly in the form of an administrative budget. The newly created Zulu Royal Household Trust will begin managing King Goodwill Zwelithini’s finances in early 2011, an attempt to rein in his wild spending of the $6.5 million budget provided by KwaZulu-Natal government that helps pay for six palaces, seven wives and 30-odd children. The trust is aimed at making the Zulu royals financially self-sufficient and weaning them off the public purse, with an eye to developing the sort of tourism revenue that the British monarchy brings to the United Kingdom.
In comparison, Dalindyebo is a pauper, complaining that he receives little financial help from the government with the exception of administrative support such as home and road repairs, office supplies and occasionally cars.
“We believe they should treat us like the Zulu king, more or less,” he said.
He also argues that the government should be paying the legal costs of his court case because they collect taxes from his kingdom, and explains that he doesn’t have alternate financial resources. This demand has been refused, he says, because he is not a government employee.
Dalindyebo evades discussing the details of the criminal convictions that he is currently appealing, but he accuses the South African justice system of lacking independence and being selective in its application.
“I believe the whole process, during my trial, was not just,” he said. “If I am capable of being prosecuted of crimes, then anyone who commits a crime must be prosecuted.”