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Covid-19 cuts down two big African trees.

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The late King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By L.M. Louw

22 March 2021 – Covid-19 has cut down two big African trees. John Magufuli (61) passed away as president of Tanzania last week, while the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini, died in a South African hospital a week earlier at the age of 72.            

Both Magufuli and Zwelithini were controversial, misunderstood, loved by some, and loathed by others. Emotions aside, Magufuli and Zwelithini held immense power within their sphere of influence. Despite being regarded as highly conservative, nationalistic, and patriarchal, their followers would not blink an eye if asked to jump in the fire for them – and at times they did.

Although in later years Zwelithini became a kingpin peacemaker in the troubled South African province of KwaZulu Natal (which is a de facto kingdom of the Zulu nation and a remnant of the Apartheid state’s failed homeland policy), he also played a firebrand role when the Zulu nation was at war with itself in the 1980s. Apartheid’s “divide and rule” strategy worked wonders in the Natal Midlands and in the valley of the 1000 Hills, where the regime pitted Zulu against Zulu, ANC versus IFP, and where the Impi often washed their spears in the blood of their brothers.

However, it was eventually the trio of King Zwelithini, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi (the King’s cousin and leader of the IFP) and a fiercely loyal ANC cadre called Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (who, would, of course, later become president of the Republic of South Africa), that negotiated a peaceful settlement, albeit a restless one.

King Zwelithini held sway over large swathes of the KwaZulu-Natal hinterland, and so will his successor, who has not been appointed yet. The King was the sole trustee of the Ingonyama Trust, which was established in 1994 by the erstwhile KwaZulu Natal government, to hold all the land that was owned or belonged to the KwaZulu Natal government. The mandate of the Ingonyama Trust is to hold all this land for the benefit, material welfare, and social well-being of the members of the tribes and communities living on the land.

The land issue in KwaZulu Natal is controversial and highly politised. A large portion of land in the province of KwaZulu Natal was managed by King Zwelithini and will be by his successor. At this stage, all indications are that the next king will be Prince Misuzulu, the son of Zwelithini’s first wife Queen Mantfombi Dlamini. Queen Dlamini is the sister of the Eswatini King Mswati. Zwelithini married her in 1977.

The influence of the monarchy, Zuma, and Buthelezi in KwaZulu Natal should never be underestimated. Both Zuma and Buthelezi still hold significant political power in a strategic region of South Africa. The province is home to two major ports, Durban, and Richards Bay, and has huge agricultural and tourism potential. Minerals sands and coal are mined in the province and recent oil and gas exploration project could be a gamechanger. King Zwelithini’s death is a significant event in a region of South Africa still shrouded in mystery and shaped by age old tradition.

RIP John Pombe Joseph Magufuli alias “The Bulldozer”    

As significant as the death of King Goodwill Zwelithini, is the passing of erstwhile president of Tanzania John Magufuli, better known as the “Bulldozer”. Although many of Magufuli’s staunchest supporters will deny that the main cause of death was Covid-19 related, the jury is out. Magufuli was one of the world’s most vocal Covid-19 denialists, and to publicly admit that he eventually succumbed to the virus, would taint his legacy. A legacy some would criticise even with the Tanzanian people still in mourning for a president they loved.

Magufuli remained an enigma until the last minute of his life and was never far from controversy. When he became president in 2015, he vowed to eliminate corruption and incompetence and the world loved him for it. However, when his bulldozing (and bullying) tactics started hurting foreign interest in Tanzania, he became enemy number one. And so, it continued – business versus Magufuli, until there was no trust between investors and the president, and that hurt Tanzania. Tanzania is one of the brightest stars in Africa, and Magufuli’s contribution to end corruption and craft should be acknowledged and his views of the world respected. In Tanzania, Magufuli was larger than life, and he had many supporters, including a number of foreign and local businessmen and women. However, the incessant spats between the president and large overseas companies, frightened potential investors, and they later scoffed at any suggestion of Tanzania as a good prospect.

That might change with the demise of Magufuli’s influence and ideology. His successor, President Samia Suluhu Hassan, could be a breath of fresh air, being a women and Muslim, however, she will have her hands full with the emotional Magufuli faction in the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party. The anti-West, anti-business rhetoric will not come from soft spoken Hassan, but it will be hard for the majority of the CCM men to nullify their great leader’s legacy, and they would, more than ever, want to keep the Magufuli flag flying. But there is no doubt that Hassan’s rule will be more business friendly, and that Tanzania will soon return on its growth path, despite the ill-effects of Covid-19. It is sad that Magufuli will perhaps be remembered most for his mismanagement of the Covid-19 health crisis. His rule was a mixed bag, and large business loathed his iron fist. For the majority of Tanzanian people, nonetheless, Magufuli was a hero, a modern day Nyerere, a big tree – one of the biggest – as was King Zwelithini for his Zulu nation, and that should be respected.

On the other hand, when a big tree falls on the African Plains, sunlight penetrates where there was shadow before, and dormant seeds give birth to new growth, and even bigger trees. But the soil has been prepared and fertilised by those who have been there before, so let us not forget the big trees when we walk the same path in the future.

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