Johannesburg, March 12 (AFP/APP): Goodwill Zwelithini, the controversial but revered king of the Zulus, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, died Friday aged 72 after weeks in hospital for a diabetes-related illness, the royal palace announced.
The king wielded great influence among millions of Zulus through his largely ceremonial and spiritual role despite having no official power in modern South Africa. During a decades-long reign, he revived festivals celebrating virgin women, was blamed for fuelling deadly xenophobic violence, slammed gays as “rotten” and enjoyed a lavish and hedonistic lifestyle in a country where millions live in poverty.
“It is with the utmost grief that I inform the nation of the passing of His Majesty King Goodwill Zwelithini… King of the Zulu nation,” the palace said a statement signed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a powerful veteran politician who is also a Zulu prince.
The king was admitted to hospital last month for diabetes. “Tragically, while still in hospital, His Majesty’s health took a turn for the worse and he subsequently passed away in the early hours of this morning,” the statement said.
Born in Nongoma, a small town in the south-eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province, Zwelithini ascended the throne in 1971 during the apartheid era. President Cyril Ramaphosa said the king “will be remembered as a much-loved, visionary monarch who made an important contribution to cultural identity, national unity and economic development”.
Returning from hiding over assassination fears, Zwelithini was crowned the eighth Zulu monarch at the age of 23. The Zulus are South Africa’s largest ethnic group with over 11 million people. Traditional rulers play a largely symbolic role in modern South Africa, where they are constitutionally recognised. Under the white-minority regime which ended in 1994, kings ruled homelands where most blacks were confined to defuse broader national struggles.
Three years ago, the outspoken king courted controversy when he spoke in support of corporal punishment, saying it helped pupils perform better in school. He also sparked a storm in 2012 when he slammed same-sex relationships as “rotten”, drawing rebuke from rights groups. “If you do it, you must know that it is wrong and you are rotten. Same sex is not acceptable,” he said at a ceremony marking an anniversary when the Zulu army defeated imperial British forces.
In 1994, he sparked fears of a secessionist conflict when he rallied between 20,000 and 50,000 stick-wielding men — most of them supporters of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) — to march through Johannesburg to support his call for sovereignty ahead of the country’s first democratic election.
The marchers engaged in a firefight outside the headquarters of the IFP’s main rival, the now-ruling African National Congress, leaving 42 people dead. Zwelithini enjoyed the trappings of his royal status, receiving more than 60 million rand ($4 million) in yearly allowances from the state to help fund a lifestyle that includes several royal palaces, six wives and over 28 children.
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