OBITUARY: Longest reigning King of AmaZulu Zwelithini a ‘fountain of wisdom’

King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBekhuzulu died at the age of 72 after he had been in hospital for weeks for what was initially reported to be a problem with his blood glucose levels.

FILE: Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini. Picture: GCIS

DURBAN – King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekhuzulu Zulu made history as the longest-serving monarch of the Zulu kingdom with a reign spanning over five decades.

Born on 14 July 1948 in Nongoma, northern KwaZulu-Natal, he’s the eldest son of King Cyprian Bhekuzulu and his second wife, Queen Thomo.

Following his father’s passing in 1968, King Zwelithini - as he was often called - was appointed to the throne, he was just a 20-year-old student at the time.

But, he was not crowned until 1971 because he had to go into hiding outside the kingdom following a plot to have him killed.

He once detailed this period to international news network Al Jazeera.

“The threat came just after my 21st birthday when I was about to have a cleansing since my late father had just passed away – King Cyprian. One of my elder sisters took the option, and my brother-in-law, to secure me; and then I had to leave the kingdom to another province. I was just in South Africa, but in other provinces, in Transvaal somewhere.”

During his reign, the king revived several Zulu cultural practices – mainly aimed at promoting moral regeneration and addressing social issues such as gender-based violence and the spread of HIV and Aids.

READ: King Goodwill Zwelithini calls on South Africans to join the fight against GBV

However, traditions such as ‘umkhosi womhlanga’ – or the annual reed dance – faced criticism from individuals and organisations who viewed virginity testing as a violation of human rights.

The king was unapologetic about this ritual.

“I feel shame and sorry for those people who have got such a feeling. I am sorry that its some of our black people that have got such things, but as far as that is concerned, I don’t think that we would be having so many people in this country if I never revived some of these events.”

As king, Zwelithini was expected to portray political neutrality but it was not always easy for him to stay out of the political arena.

Before South Africa’s transition to democracy, political power in Natal [now KwaZulu-Natal] largely rested with the apartheid regime and chief minister Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Buthelezi and Zwelithini – although related – did not always enjoy a pleasant relationship.

In 1975, Buthelezi accused the king of meddling in political matters.

The king branded the KwaZulu-Natal government as a puppet of the apartheid regime – which did not go down well with Buthelezi, who also accused the monarch of conspiring to remove him from power.

Over the years, relations between the two cousins improved.

In the later years of his reign, King Zwelithini put up a fierce fight in defending the Ingonyama Trust.

He even joined forces with right wing lobby group AfriForum in a bid to retain his rule over almost 30% of all land in KwaZulu-Natal.

“I want you to know that the land belongs to the current reigning King of AmaZulu. The land will not be taken from us.”

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Kwazulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala has described the late monarch as a fountain of wisdom.

“He has also played the role of being an elder to give advice and guidance to the organisation but also to issues of governance. You will know that if the organisation is not stable, obviously the government will be affected, and he has played quite a pivotal role.”

King Zwelithini had six wives during his lifetime and at least 28 children.

WATCH: Zulu king: I won't let my people forget our history | Talk to Al Jazeera

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