JOHANNESBURG, 12 March 2021 – King Goodwill Zwelithini of South Africa’s Zulu nation has died in hospital reportedly from complications arising from diabetes.
The king was 72.
He came to the throne in 1968 when he was just 20-years-old.
He was, however, not crowned until 1971, because he went into hiding after receiving death threats.
King Zwelithini, who is survived by five widows and 28 children, died at a hospital in KwaZulu-Natal.
He was admitted last week to monitor his diabetes condition, according to a statement Friday from the royal court delivered by the king’s prime minister.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was among the first to issue a statement of condolence, describing the king as a “much-loved visionary”.
The king of the Zulus, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, “will be remembered as a straight-talker, at times to the ire of some,” wrote the BBC’s Pumza Fihlani on Friday.
The influential king was known on occasion to be critical of the governing African National Congress (ANC), accusing South Africa’s ruling party of mishandling the country.
King Zwelithini, whose reign was 50 years long, “was a direct descendent of King Cetshwayo, who led the Zulu nation during the war with the British in 1879,” wrote Fihlani.
His rule of the Zulu nation – largely ceremonial – was recognized under the Traditional Leadership clause of South Africa’s republican constitution.
The king cherished and spent part of his time on the throne working to revive Zulu traditions, customs and practices, including Umhlanga (the Reed Dance ceremony) which celebrates virginity among girls and young women. [Watch YouTube video at link below].
The king defended the revival of Umhlanga as useful in raising awareness about responsible sexual behavior in one of South Africa’s provinces with the worst rates of positivity when it comes to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In 2015, the king was slammed for xenophobia after his call for foreigners to return to their countries was seen as directly encouraging violent attacks on other Africans resident in South Africa.
The king later said his call had been taken out of context, describing attacks on him by critics as “vile”.
His contribution to the fight against Apartheid (legalized racism celebrating white supremacy) in South Africa is not well documented.
On the contrary, members of the ANC who fought Apartheid, have said the king allegedly allowed his uncle, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, to use him and Zulu nationalism to shore up Buthelezi’s political position as head of the Inkatha Freedom Party, known for its controversial positions and bitter rivalry with the ANC.
“King Zwelithini helped to bring the Zulu nation into the new political system by persuading Chief Buthelezi and his party to take part in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994,” one tribute Friday to the king read in part.
It is not yet known which of the king’s 28 children will be hier to the throne.