A royal pain

royalsLike all great fairy tales, it started with a palace; a gigantic thing, all gold and gleaming.

The young man at the nearby table used his hands to describe soaring columns and endless corridors. His friend shook her head, enchanted.

The Palace of Versailles was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, he said. But it hadn’t just been the beauty that had affected him. Visiting the place had taught him two incredible lessons.

The first was about the past, namely, that people in the olden days were far more skilled than we give them credit for. Did his friend realise that the palace had been built, like, 200 years ago and yet – his eyes grew wide and his friend gaped in amazement – it was still standing?

So far, so normal. I used to teach 19-year-olds and I quickly discovered that to most of them history is what you had for breakfast. But I must confess I was surprised by the second lesson.

Visiting Versailles, he said, had taught him that if you have enough passion, you can achieve anything.

Fairy tales are full of unlikely events, but this felt absurd for a very specific reason: the man telling the story was black. It sounded tone-deaf, jarringly discordant; a young African, living in an era and a country defined by narratives of liberation and unearned privilege, being inspired by a monument to the triumph of the unelected super-rich over the disenfranchised poor.

Then again, perhaps such confusion and contradictions are inevitable in our confused and contradictory country. Talk about palaces in modern South Africa, and things get very messy, very quickly.

Lenin and King Louis must be spinning in their graves

How do you stay ideologically consistent when the SACP is an ally of the ANC which defends the privilege of traditional leaders? Communists allied to kings? Lenin and King Louis must be spinning in their graves.

Inconsistency lies at the heart of South Africa’s relationship with royalty. Most of us have marvelled that citizens of a constitutional democracy are taxed by a democratically elected state which then uses some of that money to pay 10 kings, hundreds of chiefs and thousands of headmen to enact a set of laws that run parallel to the laws of the land.

Last week supporters of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo protested against the decision by the Supreme Court of Appeal to jail him on charges including kidnapping and assault of his subjects, saying he was merely doing his kingly duty, and acting within traditional law. But what tipped this over into the surreal was that the spokesman for this group is also the deputy labour minister. When it comes to democracy versus royalty, many of our public officials are taking Marie Antoinette one step further: they’re having cake, and eating it.

royals are simply Mafia families that haven’t needed to rub out anyone for a while

Perhaps that’s because, despite our claims that we like and understand democracy, a surprising number of people around the world still believe that royalty is actually a thing. Whether the training is coming from folklore or from Disney, it works the same, teaching us that kings and queens are special. We refuse to see that royals are simply Mafia families that haven’t needed to rub out anyone for a while. We love the continuity that royals seem to represent, but we seldom ask how the first of the line got all that power, maybe because, deep down, we know the answer: they hacked somebody to death and took it out of the dead hands of its previous owner.

The only difference between the Windsors in London and a psychotic warlord building a narco-state in the Caucasus or the Amazon jungle is time. He knows he will have to settle for being president. His son will be president commander. His grandson will be lord commander. But his great-grandson, ah, his great-grandson will be king, and will be applauded with silk gloves as he releases flocks of doves over an Olympic ceremony.

If you think I’m being cynical, consider the fairytale kingdom of Monaco. In 1967 it issued a stamp commemorating Lucien, Lord of Monaco in the early 1500s. Lucien got the gig because he murdered his brother, Jean. But it didn’t last as long as he hoped, because he was duly murdered by his nephew. That’s the kind of dirt most normal families try to bury, but if you’re rich enough you put it on a stamp. I put it to you that these are not well people.

Compared to Europe’s most successful plunderers, our local royals seem fairly benign. Except, of course, that Europe’s traditional leaders have no power to do anything except wave. Our country is a democracy, so if people want to be judged and jailed by kings then that’s their right. But traditional leaders, too, need to check their privilege from time to time. After all, Versailles represents more than just a pretty building.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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