South Africa, a King, and the Rule of Law

AbaThembu King Buyelekhaya Zwelibanzi Dalindyebo speaks to journalists after handing over a memorandum to government officials in Pretoria July 10, 2013. The king was convicted in December 2015 of kidnapping a woman and her six children, burning their house down and beating four young men. Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

This article originally appeared on the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The alarums and excursions over South Africa's economy and economic policy do not stop. December saw the discreditable episode of President Jacob Zuma's hiring and firing multiple ministers of finance in only a few days and a drop in the country's estimated economic growth rate to perhaps 1.2 percent. The new year kicked off with an apparent standoff with the United States over trade that if unresolved would end South Africa's participation in the benefits of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). But, a BBC news item that appeared New Year's Eve highlights how South Africa's commitment to the rule of law makes it well-prepared to weather the multiple crises of the moment.

A South African traditional ruler, King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, reported to prison after his conviction and his appeals failed. The king was found guilty of kidnapping a woman and her six children, burning down their house, and beating four young men because their family member did not present himself before the king's traditional court. (One of the young men died following his beating.) The king claimed he was innocent, that he was merely "disciplining" his subjects under customary law.

The king is one of ten recognized monarchs in South Africa. They play a largely ceremonial role, but many control substantial amounts of tribal lands and in rural areas often exercise arbitrary power over their often illiterate "subjects." President Jacob Zuma has cultivated close relations with traditional rulers as part of his African populism. King Dalindyebo also is connected to national icon Nelson Mandela. He and the former president are both from the Thembu clan.

Following the king's trial, conviction, and failed appeals, the justice minister refused his request for a retrial on the basis that there was no legal justification. The king reported for jail after a judge refused to extend his bail.

According to the BBC, at the sentencing, the Supreme Court of Appeal said of the king, "His behavior was all the more deplorable because the victims of his reign of terror were the vulnerable rural poor, who were dependent upon him. Our constitution does not countenance such behavior. We are a constitutional democracy in which everyone is accountable and where the most vulnerable are entitled to protection."

The BBC reports that during his protracted legal proceedings, the king left the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and joined the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA expelled him from the party following the Supreme Court of Appeal's ruling. It also reports conflicting reports as to whether the tribal elders will replace Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo as king.

In light of the earlier trial, conviction, and appeal of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, BBC commentator Milton Nkosi rightly sums up the significance of the king episode: "South Africa has once again demonstrated that, despite its leadership problems, it upholds the rule of law, even if it means locking up a king and alienating some of his subjects ahead of crucial local elections next year."

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.