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S.Africa’s Ramaphosa leads tributes to late Zulu king

South African politicians, traditional leaders and celebrities gathered Thursday to bid farewell to Zulu king Goodwill Zwelithini, with tributes led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who declared “a huge tree has fallen.”

The leader of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, who died of illness last week, was laid to rest overnight at a palace near his birthplace in an intimate ceremony referred to as a “planting” in Zulu culture.

VIPs gathered in the small southeastern town of Nongoma for a memorial service in a carpeted marquee set up on the front lawn of the king’s royal residence.

Guests sporting a variety of black dress and traditional attire included ex-president Jacob Zuma, the newly-elected Confederation of African Football president Patrice Motsepe, and Princess Charlene of Monaco.

“We are bidding farewell to our leader,” Ramaphosa said, remembering Zwelithini as a “staunch defender of his people” who “valued diversity” and respected other cultures.

“It is a difficult day because a huge tree has fallen.”

Zwelithini’s six widows sat in the front row, bowed heads bowed covered in thick black lace.

Giant portraits of the king in traditional leopard skin hung on a blue panel behind the wooden altar where an Anglican priest led the ceremony, overlooking a line of red carnations.

Zwelithini was the longest-serving monarch in Zulu history, reigning for half a century through years of apartheid and the transition to multi-racial democracy.

He died early on Friday in the eastern city of Durban, aged 72, after weeks of treatment for a diabetes-related illness.

Ramaphosa hinted that Zwelithini was also battling Covid-19 at the time of his death.

“Our beloved leader and king… succumbed to the deadly disease that has taken the lives of so many people,” he said, without naming the virus.

The president switched between English and Zulu during his speech, honouring the most-widely spoken of South Africa’s dozen official languages.

There are more than 11 million Zulus in South Africa, nearly a fifth of the country’s population.

Although Zwelithini’s title did not bestow executive power, he had moral clout over his people and played important symbolic and spiritual roles.

As the most influential of traditional leaders, he advised legislators and met with powerful political leaders throughout his rule.

The king would ordinarily be succeeded by the eldest son born to the senior of his wives, with whom he sired 28 children.

But that first son was murdered aged 50 last November in his Johannesburg home, raising speculation about the yet-to-be-disclosed heir to the throne.