DURBAN, South Africa — The son of the Zulu king strutted into the room clutching a wooden scepter, trailing a praise singer who chanted odes to past kings while adoring supporters shouted “Bayede!” — hail.
His crown-shaped lapel pin shimmered with gold and diamonds as he settled into a high-backed leather chair draped in leopard-print fabric, keeping his guests standing until he decreed the interview could begin.
Misuzulu Sinqobile Zulu, 47, carries himself like a king. He is the son of King Goodwill Zwelithini, who died last year after a 50-year reign, and a descendant of the family of King Shaka Zulu, whose bloody conquest to unite the Zulu kingdom two centuries ago has made him something of a mythic figure in popular culture.
But Misuzulu’s claim as their successor is hotly contested. His father left behind more than a dozen sons. And although Misuzulu has received the blessing of several powerful members of the royal family, as well as the president of South Africa, some of his relatives — including uncles, aunts and siblings — have cast him as a reckless playboy unfit to lead them.
Now members of one of Africa’s most storied monarchies are locked in a vicious fight that threatens to tear the family apart. Two of the deceased king’s sons are now calling themselves king. There have been many lawsuits, public insults and dramatic confrontations — all captivating a country where an estimated 14 million Zulus make up the largest and most culturally influential ethnic group.
“I like to call it domestic terrorism — family domestic terrorism,” Misuzulu said in a rare news media interview, his first with a foreign outlet. “The family is still deeply, deeply divided.”
Misuzulu is scheduled to enter the cattle kraal — a Zulu ritual said to introduce the next king to the ancestors — on Saturday. It is traditionally one of the final customs before coronation.
Although the Zulu king has no official government powers, he holds real sway. He controls a vast swath of land — slightly larger than Haiti — belonging to the kingdom. He oversees a $3.9 million annual budget that the government provides for the royal family. And he serves as the moral leader of a people brimming with pride.
All this grants him an influence that leads politicians to shower him with gifts (especially around election time) and makes him the envy of South Africa’s other monarchs.
“The voice of the king, to the Zulus, overrides any other voice,” said Mphumeleli Ngidi, a lecturer in the department of historical studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the province that was the historic seat of the Zulu people. “People still bow to the king.”
This succession soap opera has been complicated by the Zulu custom of polygamy, and by the fact that the traditions established for passing on the crown have been handed down orally, not recorded in a formal document. These transitions have often produced conflict.
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King Zwelithini, who died at 72, left behind six wives and at least 28 children. Misuzulu is the first child of his father’s third wife.
But he and his supporters within the family say his claim to power is straightforward. They argue that his mother, Queen Mantfombi Dlamini Zulu, takes precedence over the king’s five other widows because she comes from the Swazi royal family. Her father was King Sobhuza II of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), who died in 1982, and her brother is the current leader there — King Mswati III, Africa’s only absolute monarch. Her royal status means that her offspring take precedence in the line of succession, Misuzulu’s supporters argue. And because Misuzulu is her oldest child, he is the heir, they say.
Born in rural KwaZulu-Natal, Misuzulu moved to Eswatini when he was 5. He returned to South Africa at age 11 and completed high school at an elite private institution. His family then forced him to attend university in the United States, he said, as part of a scholarship program of the Swazi royal family that sends family members, and some ordinary Swazis, to study overseas.
He said that after spending time at schools in Evansville, Ind., and Vincennes, Ind., he eventually landed in Jacksonville, Fla., where he graduated with a degree in international trade and commerce from Jones College, a small private school that closed in 2017.
Misuzulu said he remained in the United States for several years to volunteer at a Baptist church in Jacksonville that did a lot of charity work in Africa. He returned to South Africa after 10 years away at the urging of his father.
Back in South Africa, he lived a largely anonymous life as a businessman, negotiating contracts for a company that makes pipes.
Until his father died on March 12, 2021.
Within a week, Misuzulu’s name began to surface publicly as a successor. His father’s will called on his mother, Queen Mantfombi, to be the regent — or temporary leader — of the Zulu nation. That indicated to some that King Zwelithini had wanted one of her sons to succeed him. A faction of the family is challenging the will in court, arguing that the king’s signature was forged.
Among Misuzulu’s most prominent early supporters was Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the prime minister of the Zulu nation since 1954. Prince Buthelezi, 93, has arguably wielded more power than any other Zulu, including the king, over the years, having founded the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu nationalist political party.
In the weeks and months after King Zwelithini’s death, Prince Buthelezi convened a series of family meetings in which Misuzulu emerged as the successor.
That left several siblings of King Zwelithini seething. Two of the king’s surviving brothers, Prince Mbonisi Zulu and Prince Vulindlela Zulu, said in an interview that Prince Buthelezi sought to install a successor he could control. The brothers accused Misuzulu’s supporters of bypassing the traditional process for determining the heir. And they confronted Misuzulu, demanding that he stop calling himself king. They claimed that as King Zwelithini’s surviving siblings, they were the most senior royals and should be in charge of the process to select the next king — not Prince Buthelezi and his allies.
“They were undermining us,” Prince Mbonisi said.
Prince Buthelezi responded, “They are just being silly.” He added that as a close aide to two former kings, he had more credibility in the succession process than Prince Mbonisi, who was born from a former king’s out-of-wedlock relationship.
“Mbonisi did not grow up in the royal court,” Prince Buthelezi said. “Can he have the last word against all of us?”
The drama exploded in April 2021 when Queen Mantfombi, who had just been named the Zulu nation’s temporary leader, died 48 days after the king.
Rumors swirled that she was poisoned. Fingers pointed at Misuzulu’s loudest critics — Prince Mbonisi and another sibling, Princess Thembi Ndlovu. They held a news conference denying that they had killed her. (Queen Mantfombi died of natural causes, an adviser to Misuzulu said.)
The week after his mother died, Misuzulu upset his detractors when he arrived at her memorial service in traditional leopard skin regalia, surrounded by Zulu warriors singing songs reserved for a king. Some saw it as a presumptuous display.
It was a “matter of having to step up to the plate,” said Misuzulu, soft-spoken and wearing a crisp suit. The moment a king’s soul leaves his body, he added, “a new king takes over immediately.”
That night, chaos broke out in one of the royal palaces during a reading of Queen Mantfombi’s will, in which Misuzulu was named the successor. With television cameras rolling live, a royal family member interrupted the proceeding to object. Amid the commotion, Misuzulu’s security whisked him away.
The objector was a family member who believed the rightful successor was King Zwelithini’s oldest living son, Simakade ka Zwelithini. He plans to file a lawsuit with proof that senior royal family members had chosen him to assume the throne, said his lawyer, Johann Hammann.
Last Saturday, Simakade himself went through the pre-coronation ritual of entering the cattle kraal — an attempt to pre-empt the ritual scheduled for Misuzulu a week later. After his ceremony, Simakade sat on a throne outside of a royal palace while his supporters hailed him as king.
“God and the ancestors placed me on this throne and only they can remove me,” he declared.
But in a sign that even Misuzulu’s opponents are divided, Prince Mbonisi and Prince Vulindlela said that the family had not chosen Simakade as the successor either. That decision remains to be made, they said.
Tensions in the family have only grown over the past year with multiple lawsuits over the royal family’s future — from the division of King Zwelithini’s estate to the naming of a successor.
On the one-year anniversary of King Zwelithini’s death in March, rival factions of the family honored him with separate prayer ceremonies at different palaces. They argued over which ceremony had a larger attendance.
Days later, President Cyril Ramaphosa officially recognized Misuzulu as the next king, the last legal hurdle for the coronation to proceed under South African law governing traditional leaders.
Prince Mbonisi — backed by 12 family members — filed a court application in early July to try to prevent the coronation from taking place.
In his court filing, Prince Mbonisi raised scandalous allegations that had been detailed in the South African press. An article from the City Press newspaper last October claimed that Misuzulu was an excessive drinker who fathered children with two cousins and one of the family’s domestic workers.
In the interview, Misuzulu conceded some basic facts of the article, but said that they had been misconstrued.
“It sounded like some porn fantasy,” said Misuzulu, who was married last year and has two children with his wife and three from other relationships. “I’m not that kind of guy.”
He said he fathered a child with a woman he was in a relationship with, and the family gave her a job as a domestic worker after that to support her.
His advisers said that the cousins he had children with were actually distant relatives, and that he had not grown up close to them because of the sprawling royal family.
And while he drank occasionally, Misuzulu said he did not overindulge or party.
“I don’t have friends at all,” he said with a laugh. “I have subjects.”
A judge threw out Prince Mbonisi’s application in late July, clearing the way for the crowning of Misuzulu. But Misuzulu’s opponents are still fighting to thwart his ascension. Prince Vulindlela — a brother of the former king — said he would not attend the ceremony.
“Because,” he said, “there’s no king.”