STILL FREE: AbaThembu king Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo (centre, with beard) and his supporters rejoice after the Mthatha High Court recently granted him leave to appeal against his jail sentence. Picture: LULAMILE FENI

WE ARE, most of us in this fair land, soon to be subjects of the AbaThembu kingdom - according to a declaration of secession presented to Parliament this month.

If this comes as a surprise to the people of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape and parts of Gauteng and the Free State - all claimed as part of the independent AbaThembu kingdom - it's been a compelling issue in the Eastern Cape recently, where the AbaThembu 's most famous son is Nelson Mandela.

The man at the centre of the debacle is King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, Mandela's clan nephew. Not only are the Dalindyebos an important Xhosa royal family but they have political blue blood as King Sabata Dalindyebo chose exile over the apartheid government's Bantustan policy. The African National Congress (ANC) government named the Mthatha municipality after him to honour his stand.

The fact that it took a decade to bring the current king, Buyelekhaya, to trial in the Mthatha High Court last year for a raft of serious crimes - including kidnapping, culpable homicide, arson and assault with intent to commit grievous bodily harm - shows just how influential the family is.

Dalindyebo was sentenced in October to 15 years in jail. But last month, Votani Majola, Dalindyebo's lawyer and head of the King Dalindyebo Justice Task Team, demanded the state compensate the AbaThembu nation with R80bn and the royal family with R900m for the humiliation of Dalindyebo's criminal conviction. Failure to do so would result in secession .

Majola served notice on President Jacob Zuma's office and the National Prosecuting Authority on the intention to secede and then, on January 14, a declaration of secession was given to Parliament.

Parliament said it had received the declaration but was not certain such an issue fell within its jurisdiction. Last week, Majola threw down the gauntlet and told the Daily Dispatch in East London: " We have officially cut ties with SA and we are no longer South African."

Dalindyebo is a wily political player and has been careful to make no pronouncements on the issue. But his spokesman, Phumla Matshaya, confirmed the king was aware Majola had served notice on Parliament. "Votani is working with us . He has done his research. He is not a crazy man."

Is this a looming constitutional crisis or is Dalindyebo SA's answer to mad King George? And how should the government and the ANC respond?

Zuma and ANC leaders have always trodden softly around kings in the Eastern Cape, the party's historical heartland . The Presidency referred Business Day last week to the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs . The Daily Dispatch reported that the department had stated it would intervene only if Dalindyebo approached it.

So far the king's chief advisers and other Transkei traditional leaders have distanced themselves from Majola's claims.

At a meeting of AbaThembu leaders at the king's Great Place in Mthatha on Friday - attended by Patekile Holomisa, president of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of SA - a decision was made to help find funding for the king's appeal against his convictions, but secession was not discussed.

Holomisa said afterwards secession would be discussed at a meeting scheduled for next month.

Majola said his task team was consulting people in the Transkei and the next step would be engagement with the government. United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said Transkeians would not take secession seriously until they had been consulted.

Historian Jeff Peires said he believed Dalindyebo's subjects sympathised with the king and would not like to see him go to jail for decade-old crimes. But Dalindyebo would respect the voice of the people and his advisers if secession were rejected, he said.

Prof Pierre de Vos, a law expert at the University of Cape Town, warned if the king and his lawyer acted on the threat in any way, they could be charged with treason.

Dalindyebo has leave to appeal against his sentence, and the state can appeal too, which could result in a murder charge against him .