JOHANNESBURG – Zwelethene ka Picuzulu, king of the Zulu country of South Africa who had nurtured his people from the era of apartheid into a modern democratic society, died Friday in the eastern port city of Durban. He was 72 years old.
Prince Manjusotho Buthize, the King’s Prime Minister, announced his death at the Incosi Albert Lotuli Hospital. No reason was mentioned. King Zwelethene was admitted there last month to receive treatment for diabetes.
Born on July 14, 1948, he was the eighth king of the Zulu nation, the largest ethnic group in South Africa, and a direct descendant of the warrior Zulu kings who fought against colonial rule. The eldest son of King Ciprian Picuzulu Ka Solomon and his second wife, Queen Thomuzel Jizangani Ka Nduandwe, was educated at Picizulu College for Presidents and then privately educated at the Royal Palace of Khthumthandio.
Crowned in 1971 three years after the death of his father; Subsequent assassination attempts forced him into hiding. When he was able to ascend the throne, his role was largely ceremonial as head of the semi-autonomous nation under the apartheid government.
However, King Zwelethene tried to impose himself politically, as he clashed with Mr. Buthelezi, who was also his cousin who was at that time the government-appointed administrator for the homeland of KwaZulu. In 1979, King Zwelethene tried to form his political party to challenge Mr. Buthelezi, but he was punished and his salary reduced. Later the two men reconciled, and the king threw his weight behind Mr. Butheliz’s political party.
During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence in the KwaZulu region threatened to overturn South Africa’s transition to democracy, the king was at times the voice of peace and dissent in negotiations.
He quarreled with leaders of the African National Congress, which would become the ruling party in post-apartheid South Africa, over sanctions against the apartheid government. He also called for an end to the bloodshed that nearly plunged South Africa into a civil war as supporters of the African National Congress and the Enatha Freedom Party led by Buthelezi clashed before the pivotal 1994 elections.
The king was instrumental in ensuring recognition of the royal houses in South Africa while writing the new constitution. Nelson Mandela and the ANC largely considered this a concession after the king threatened to boycott the elections.
Then, as the traditional leader of nearly 20 percent of the South African population, King Zwelethene maintained his political influence, with subsequent presidents and political leaders showing respect to him. At times, his statements caused trouble, as in 2015, when his remarks on “foreign nationals” led to xenophobic violence in which at least seven people were killed.
“We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and return to their country,” the king said at a rally in Durban. He later denounced the violence, saying his comments about migrant workers and unemployment among South Africans were out of context.
King Zwelethene, as the Zulu leader, had the largest share of the compensation fund the government had earmarked for traditional leaders of South Africa, and was one of the largest landowners in the country. He opposed plans to nationalize and redistribute land.
For many, it was a living symbol of Zulu history, a link between the nation that fought British colonialism and the people who preserved its language and culture in post-apartheid South Africa.
“The king was the voice of reason, and it is important that regardless of political changes, he was steadfast rising up,” said Mkhleiko Helengoa, the 33-year-old spokesperson for the Inkatha Freedom Party. “We are Zulu regardless of who is in the government.”
It is not yet certain who will succeed the king. His eldest son, Lethukuthula Zulu, was 50 years old He was killed in his home In Johannesburg in November, five people were charged.
King Zwelethene survived six wives and 26 children.