South Africa’s Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini dies aged 72

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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 fueling 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.

“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”.

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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 recognized.

Under the white-minority regime which ended in 1994, kings ruled homelands where most blacks were confined to defuse broader national struggles.