King Goodwill Zwelithini, the leader of the Zulu nation in South Africa has died at the age of 72.
“Bayede” rings out the salute to the king as South Africans, young and old, use the phrase on social media to mourn his passing.
He was a proud man who was a passionate defender of traditional culture, seeing it as a force for good both within South Africa and beyond its borders in the continent as a whole.
But the king had his critics, who have accused him of hanging on to outdated ideas. He was also criticized for being willing to work with the white-minority government in power before 1994, and not wanting to cooperate with the current government’s land redistribution polices.
Born in 1948 and coming to the throne in 1971, Isilo Samabandla Onke (loosely translated as “King of all Zulu kings”), as he was respectfully called, was a direct descendent of the King Cetshwayo, the leader of the Zulu nation during the 1879 war against the British army.
His position as a traditional ruler was recognized in South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, which meant that he got state support.
Though he did not have formal political power and his role within the broader South African society may have been largely ceremonial, he was a revered as a traditional leader, even by those outside his culture.
To many, the father of 28 children from six wives embodied what it was to honour time-held cultural practices and represented an idea that though South Africa was a modern country, it had not abandoned its past.
A feature of his reign was the revival of Umhlanga or Reed Dance in 1991, which the apartheid government had prevented from taking place.
‘Return to morality’
The ceremony, attended by many hundreds of young unmarried Zulu women is meant to celebrate virginity, but King Zwelithini said it was also there to promote HIV and Aids awareness in KwaZulu-Natal – a province with one of the highest HIV-infection rates in the country.
He believed that a “return to morality” would help slow down the spread of the disease in his kingdom.
Some critics said that while the practice of Umhlanga had a place in Zulu tradition, it was fundamentally patriarchal as it placed the role of managing sexual relations and containing the spread of HIV on women. The emphasis was on women remaining pure and not about male behaviour.
Looking beyond South Africa, the king believed that traditional leaders should have a more prominent role to play in addressing the continent’s many problems.
In 2019, he argued that “not all solutions will come from politicians or experts. Traditional leadership is the pillar of the African continent and mustn’t be sidelined”.
It was through emphasizing culture and traditions that the king used his influence in bringing the country’s nearly 11 million Zulus together, Prof Sihawukele Ngubane, chair of the Zulu Royal Household Trust, said.
“He was instrumental in upholding unity among the Zulu people, preserving culture at a time when the identities of African people were marginalized,” he told the BBC.
“He understood his role as having influence both among the Zulu nation but also other cultures in the country and on the continent,” the African languages professor added.
During the apartheid era, when by law white people were privileged above all others, he was not an overtly political figure.
Nevertheless he was often seen at the side of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, his uncle, who was the leader of the hugely powerful Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which was a fierce rival in KwaZulu-Natal to the African National Congress (ANC) of Nelson Mandela.
But the king did appear to reach an accommodation with the apartheid government who recognized him as a figurehead in the Zulu bantustan. The then governing National Party’s policy of creating these client states – or bantustans – within South Africa that were reserved for black people was highly controversial.
Referring to the National Party, the king once said that the “Afrikaners respected me. I don’t know how it happened that the Afrikaners respect me so much.” But that relationship left some wary, if not suspicious, of the monarch.
‘Helped quell tensions’
King Zwelithini, however, was a man who knew how to use his influence, especially for the preservation of his people.
Prof Ngubane says his presence in KwaZulu-Natal helped quell tensions between the IFP and the ANC that erupted during the struggle to end apartheid.
From 1985 to 1995 thousands died and many more were injured or forced from their homes as rival supporters clashed.
Looking back at his life, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa described him in a tribute as a “much-loved visionary”.
“He 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,” he said.
But King Zwelithini was not afraid to criticize the government and will also be remembered as a straight-talker, whose words sometimes irritated those in power.
He was at times critical of the governing ANC, saying the nation should not be led by “thieves”.
He also once controversially praised the former apartheid government for building a strong economy, saying the ANC were reversing those gains.
In recent years, King Zwelithini became increasingly critical of the ANC’s land redistribution policy.
As chairman of the Ingonyama Trust, he was the custodian of swathes of traditional land in KwaZulu-Natal, making up about 30% of the area of the province.
He was worried about the government’s policy of taking over land without compensation.
As a result, in 2018, he partnered with the Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum, which was fighting to protect white-owned farms from land reform.
AfriForum at the time said the partnership was one of “mutual recognition and respect”.
When the king spoke, people listened and he was also known by the Zulu phrase “Umlomo ongakhulumi amanga”, which loosely translates as “the one who does not lie”.
But it was precisely this influence that troubled some people when he said that foreign nationals should return to their countries so that black South Africans were not forced to share already limited resources.
At the time, his utterance was said to have fuelled xenophobic attacks in his province.
The king later said the comments had been taken out of context and described the attacks as “vile”.
His successor will now be chosen, but whoever follows him will have the tough job of upholding Zulu culture, responding to the problems of the day while inspiring reverence, even among critics.
This is no small task.