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South Africa mourns ‘visionary’ Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, dead at 72

South Africa mourns ‘visionary’ Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, dead at 72
Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, king of South Africa’s Zulu nation, has passed away after contracting Covid-19. He was praised for preserving traditional culture while leading his people through apartheid and the AIDS epidemic.

Zwelithini, 72, died on Friday at a hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, where he checked in last month for diabetes treatment. South African media reported that he contracted the coronavirus there, and was moved to intensive care.

“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,” said Prince Mangosutho Buthelezi, the Zulu prime minister and founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party. “On behalf of the Royal Family, we thank the nation for your continued prayers and support in this most difficult time.”

Born in 1948, the same year the apartheid system of racial segregation was established in South Africa, Zwelithini became the eighth monarch of the Zulu in 1971. His position was traditional and not a state office, but he exercised considerable influence given that the estimated 12 million Zulus amount to one-fifth of South Africa’s entire population.

Both the ruling African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance praised the late king, with the DA calling Zwelithini a “hugely important and influential figure on our political and cultural landscape for the past five decades.”

Zwelithini “will be remembered as a much-loved, visionary monarch who made an important contribution to cultural identity, national unity, and economic development in KwaZulu-Natal and through this, to the development of our country as a whole,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.

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Among the cultural practices Zwelithini revived was the reed dance, in which thousands of Zulu maidens would dance bare-breasted in front of the king to celebrate their beauty and virginity. He argued the practice helped limit the spread of AIDS by preventing pre-marital sex.

More recently, in 2018, he opposed the ANC’s land redistribution proposal. Though it was targeted primarily at white landowners, the government’s proposal would also seize property owned by the royal Ingonyama Trust in KwaZulu-Natal, where more than five million Zulus reside.

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