South Africa's Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini dies aged 72

South Africa’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, 72, who made thousands of bare-breasted virgins dance before him in annual festival, dies after weeks in hospital for diabetes treatment

  • Goodwill Zwelithini wielded great influence among millions of Zulus in his role
  • Role was mostly ceremonial as he had no official power in modern South Africa 
  • Was admitted to hospital for diabetes but his health took a ‘turn for the worse’ 
  • The King, from Nongoma, passed away in the early hours of this morning

South Africa’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, 72, has died after weeks in hospital for diabetes treatment. 

Zwelithini was admitted to hospital for diabetes last month but his health took a ‘turn for the worse’, a palace statement read.

The King – from Nongoma, a small town in the south-eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province – passed away in the early hours of this morning.

He 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 where bare-breasted young women danced in front of him, was blamed for fuelling deadly xenophobic violence, slammed gay people as ‘rotten’ and enjoyed a lavish and hedonistic lifestyle in a country where millions live in poverty.

Goodwill Zwelithini (pictured), the controversial but revered king of South Africa’s Zulus, died Friday aged 72 after weeks in hospital, his palace announced 

Queen Elizabeth looks up to Zulu King Zwelithini as he presents her a replica of a cup given to King Cetshwayo by Queen Victoria in 1882 at a lunch in Durban, South Africa, in 1995

The King (pictured with Nelson Mandela in 1996) wielded great influence among millions of Zulus through his largely ceremonial and spiritual role – despite having no official power in modern South Africa

Swaziland King Mswati III (right) is joined by his brother-in-law Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini (left) for the celebration of his 30th birthday and the 30th anniversary of Swazi independence from British colonialism in 1998

The statement was signed by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a powerful veteran politician who is also a Zulu prince.

The statement read: ‘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. 

‘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 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.

King Zwelithini (right) celebrates his 51st birthday along with his grandchildren at the Lindizulu palace in Nongoma

Former South African President of the apartheid regime PW Botha (left) laughs with King Zwelithini during the Day of Reconciliation commemorations in 2003

Nelson Mandela flanked by King Zwelithini (left) and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi (right) gather at Hluhluwe Game Reserve in Northern Natal in 1995

Zwelithini prepares to deliver a speech during the traditional Imbizo gathering at the Moses Mabhida Football Stadium in Durban in 2015

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (right) sits next to King Goodwill Zwelithini (centre) at the City Hall of Durban in 2016

King Zwelithini (left) watches members of a re-enactment group perform as Zulu warriors and British Soldiers during the 140th anniversary re-enactment of the Battle of Isandluana in Dundee in 2019

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. 

In 2015, Zwelithini gained international notoriety for anti-foreigner remarks suggesting immigrants were responsible for rising lawlessness in South Africa and that they needed to be kicked out.

The remarks were blamed for inflaming a spate of xenophobic attacks on mostly African migrants, which left seven dead, thousands displaced and revived memories of xenophobic bloodshed in 2008, when 62 people were killed.

Zwelithini later denied whipping up xenophobic sentiments, saying his remarks were taken out of context.

The Zulus are South Africa’s largest ethnic group with over 11 million people. Pictured: African National Congress Presdient Jacob Zuma (left) and King Zwelithini in 2008

Swaziland’s King Mswati III (centre) and Zulu King Zwelithini (left) attend the annual reed dance in Ludzidzini, Swaziland, in 2005

‘If it was true I said people must kill each other, the whole country would (have been) reduced to ashes,’ he said.

A descendent of the all-powerful Shaka – who ruled the Zulu nation until his assassination in 1828 – Zwelithini revived the annual Reed Dance in 1984, where thousands of bare-breasted young women celebrate their virginity by dancing in front of the king.

He was the most prominent among a handful of traditional rulers who hold sway over emotive issues such as land ownership in South Africa.

In 2018, he sought an exemption for nearly three million hectares of royal land which the government had wanted to expropriate for redistribution to landless marginalised blacks sidelined by apartheid.

As the sole trustee of 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of land through the Ingonyama Trust, he wanted his land to be left untouched, warning ‘all hell will break loose’ if its ownership was challenged.

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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