Goodwill Zwelithini, the controversial but revered king of the Zulus, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, died Friday aged 72 after weeks in the 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 the hospital last month for diabetes.
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“Tragically, while still in the 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 has 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.
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.
“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.
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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 a 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 rands ($4 million) in yearly allowances from the state to help fund a lifestyle that includes several royal palaces, six wives and over 28 children.