South Africans mourn longest-serving Zulu monarch
Zulu mourners, many wearing traditional leopard skins, on Wednesday accompanied the body of their king Goodwill Zwelithini, the late leader of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, to the royal palace ahead of his burial.
ulu mourners, many wearing traditional leopard skins, on Wednesday accompanied the body of their king Goodwill Zwelithini, the late leader of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, to the royal palace ahead of his burial.
welithini 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.
His remains were taken back to his birthplace, the small southeastern town of Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal province, where he will be laid to rest after midnight.
The casket draped in leopard skin was placed within the compound of the KwaKhethomthandayo royal residence surrounded by tall trees.
Half a dozen priests recited prayers on a patio of the red-roofed palace.
Around 200 mourners listened sombrely to the prayers while others milled around on the lush lawns or in white marquees erected around the gardens.
One of the king’s sons broke down into loud sobs as a handful of women rushed over to console him.
welithini’s body will later be moved to a freshly built grass hut outside the main house before burial.
The intimate ceremony, to be conducted behind closed doors by a select few men, is referred to as a “planting”.
Earlier in the day, bare-breasted women in elaborate necklaces and headbands sang and danced as they paraded through the small town to the palace several kilometres away.
Men known as “amaButho”, or Zulu regiments, followed the maidens in traditional leopard skins and ostrich feathers — wielding spears, shields and clubs known as “knobkerries”.
The mourners marched behind a banner reading “thank you for being the shining light of hope”.
They stopped for a brief vigil outside the town hall where they were joined by locals, some still in work uniforms.
“We feel extremely naked, we feel like somebody has undressed us, deprived us of the blanket that covered us,” said town mayor Albert Mncwango.
Around 50 “amaButho” were allowed into the mortuary, together with family members who arrived in black Range Rovers.
The hearse emerged shortly afterwards, flanked by regiments chanting “we are mourning our king”.
Residents lined the streets as the procession slowly made its way to the palace under a menacing sky.
As the dark clouds thickened and it started bucketing, historian Khaya Ndwandwe said the rain was “a symbol that we are planting a king”.
By nightfall, the palace was blanketed in mist.
– ‘Forgiving disciplinarian’ –
Although Zwelithini’s title did not bestow executive power, the charismatic king had moral influence over more than 11 million Zulus, nearly a fifth of South Africa’s population.
“He was a symbol of respect, unity and he loved his people,” said Mazwi Zulu, 31, a distant cousin to the king.
welithini rose to the throne during apartheid in 1971, aged only 23, three years after his father died.
Returning from hiding over assassination fears, he was crowned as the eighth Zulu monarch.
welithini basked in the legacy of famous and defiant Zulu kings — his ancestors — who inflicted one of the British Empire’s worst defeats in 1879.
But he was also divisive, accused of playing into the hands of the apartheid system’s fight against the then banned African National Congress party, which opposed white minority rule.
An elderly resident, who could not state his age but said he was an agemate of the king’s father Fanyana Zwane, said he fondly remembered the monarch as a little boy who enjoyed collecting honey in the bush.
Later, he recalls him as a “forgiving disciplinarian,” he told AFP.
– Dancing with presidents –
South Africa’s traditional leaders have been constitutionally recognised since the end of apartheid, and continue to play important symbolic and spiritual roles.
They advise legislators and have a say in cultural, land management and justice administration in their territories.
The Zulu king remains the most influential of all these leaders.
welithini spoke to powerful political leaders during his reign, and appeared in public with Nelson Mandela.
He also had visits from President Cyril Ramaphosa and ex-president Jacob Zuma during which they were seen performing a gripping Zulu war dance known as “umzansi”.
Ramaphosa himself is expected to deliver the eulogy on Thursday, and has ordered flags to be flown at half-mast.
welithini’s successor has meanwhile yet to be disclosed.
The monarch had six wives and 28 children.
But his first son, who would traditionally have inherited the throne, was murdered in his Johannesburg home last November at age 50.
The circumstances of his death remain unclear, though arrests have been made.