Visiting the Zulu king seems top of the to-do the list for presidential hopefuls as the ANC's December national conference draws near -- and there's a good reason for it.
King Goodwill Zwelithini commands substantial influence in many parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the province with the highest number of voting delegates attending the conference. Aspiring politicians are well-aware of this.
Last month, ANC treasurer-general and presidential frontrunner Zweli Mkhize stood side by side with the king at his royal kraal during the annual reed dance festival in Nongoma north of Durban.
Mkhize swopped out his posh suits for a white vest and leopard skin, making an impression on those who hold traditional leadership in high regard. During his speech the king even gave him a special mention for his continued support of the festival, stretching back to when he was KZN premier.
The king holds an important place in the traditional and political dynamics in KZN.
Mkhize's presidential opponent Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has been making an effort to visit traditional leaders whenever she speaks in rural parts of the country -- like she did in Limpopo recently. But her recent visit to the Zulu king specifically stood out, as she was welcomed with open arms. Zwelethini gifted the KZN-born Dlamini-Zuma and her ANC Women's League compatriots a cow upon their arrival.
The king holds an important place in the traditional and political dynamics in KZN, explained political expert at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Lubna Nadvi.
"KZN has a particular set of dynamics, traditionally and politically. The king holds an important place in that he commands respect as a leader in the community and among those who follow him," Nadvi said.
"Traditional leaders are held to a certain standard by politicians. They have great influence over a large size of the electorate and exert that influence on that community to steer the voters."
She said it is part of the candidates' overall campaign strategy.
Before democracy, kings and other traditional leaders across the country were at the forefront of development in rural communities.
"But it also speaks to the way in which politicians engage with traditional leaders, sometimes seeking blessings and advice," she explained, especially for Dlamini-Zuma and Mkhize. "They are from KZN and part of the Zulu tradition. There is an existing respect for traditional forms of governance."
Before democracy, kings and other traditional leaders across the country were at the forefront of development in rural communities, commented political analyst Ralph Mathekga.
"But their influence was withdrawn after 1994, and they lost most of their legitimacy. A lot of the community's trust was given to the new government. But towards 2010, the traditional leaders started gaining legitimacy again," Mathekga said.
"Corruption and lack of service delivery has led to a decline in community trust in local government. This gave traditional leaders a better rapport with community members."
Mathekga said politicians "cozy up" to kings and other traditional leaders to use them as a platform to influence voting.
"It is the same effect in the presidential race because candidates are appealing to branches. Branch leaders work closely with monarchs and local leaders in various communities, so there is a direct connection between the two," he said.