JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The king of the AbaThembu, the tribe of the late Nelson Mandela, has proved masterful at staying out of jail.
Two decades after the traditional monarch attacked his own subjects, flogging them and burning down their homes in the rural Eastern Cape where he reigns, Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo is still a free man — though perhaps not for much longer.
Dalindyebo’s case, which has dragged on for almost the entire duration of this country's post-apartheid democracy, has added fuel to a continuing debate over the role of traditional leaders in modern South Africa.
In 2009, Dalindyebo was found guilty of culpable homicide (similar to manslaughter), as well as kidnapping, assault and arson, relating to a dispute with rebellious villagers in 1995-1996.
He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars, but has continued living at his Great Place, the king's traditional seat of power in the Eastern Cape, while appealing his conviction.
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Tradition continues to play an important role in the lives of many South Africans. South Africa has 10 kings and one queen, as well as thousands of lesser traditional leaders, including chiefs and headmen. In rural areas they play important roles in mediating local disputes.
Mandela was born into the AbaThembu royal family, and his father was a counselor to the king.
During the apartheid years, traditional leadership was entrenched, with the white minority government propping up compliant rulers. Under President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu traditionalist, the government has sought to strengthen the role of traditional leaders, seen as a way of shoring up the African National Congress’s rural base.
But while customary law is recognized under South Africa's progressive post-apartheid constitution, and the government provides traditional leaders with financial support, they are not meant to be above the law.
Sindiso Mnisi Weeks, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, writes that traditional leaders have long argued they should not be subject to the constitution.
“Of significance is that Dalindyebo is testing the degree of impunity with which traditional leaders can act," she writes for The Conversation. "He is testing the extent to which they can be exempted from the democratic parameters established by the Constitution for all governing authorities.”
Perhaps the best-known of South Africa's traditional leaders is King Goodwill Zwelithini, leader of the Zulu people. Zwelithini has been repeatedly criticized for exorbitant spending as well as for his controversial statements, including praising apartheid, telling foreigners to leave South Africa, and saying that same-sex relationships are "rotten."
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When GlobalPost interviewed Dalindyebo five years ago at his Great Place, he was free on bail and had recently declared that the Thembu tribe had seceded from South Africa. Dalindyebo also demanded that the South African government pay him and the AbaThembu tens of millions in damages for the “humiliation” caused by his trial. (None of these claims went anywhere.)
In October, the Supreme Court of Appeal set aside Dalindyebo’s conviction for culpable homicide but confirmed the other verdicts, reducing his sentence to 12 years. The appeal court judgment described Dalindyebo’s behavior as “all the more deplorable because the victims of his reign of terror were the vulnerable rural poor, who were dependent upon him.”
The Constitutional Court, the highest court in South Africa, subsequently rejected Dalindyebo's application for leave to appeal.
On Tuesday the minister of justice refused the king's request to have his case reopened. Dalindyebo has also petitioned South Africa’s president for clemency. He is still out on bail, and last week managed to get it extended until Dec. 30.
Dalindyebo is being supported by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (known as Contralesa), which said this week that he should not go to jail because the crimes he committed took place during unstable times.
Contralesa has also claimed that Dalindyebo can appoint one of his subjects to serve the jail time on his behalf.
Louise Flanagan, a South African journalist, argues that South Africa needs to have a national discussion about the role and behavior of the country’s traditional leaders.
“The Thembu king’s 20-year avoidance of justice brings the entire system of traditional leadership into disrepute, as it underlines just how badly a king may behave,” she writes in The Mercury, a Durban newspaper.
For now, Dalindyebo is enjoying December holidays at his Great Place — though it might be his last for a while.