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Now That The Zulu King Is Dead, What Happens Next?

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Just as Africa reels from John Magufuli’s death, the rest of the continent joins South Africans to mourn the death of the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini. At the time of death, the Zulu King reigned for over 50 years, making him the longest-serving Zulu King. After the announcement of his passing, tributes began to pour in honor of the great monarch who died aged 72. He reportedly died of illness relating to diabetes.

Formally announcing the death of the king, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, greatly eulogized him as a “man of courage and honor.” While speaking at the Memorial Service, he said,

“On behalf of the people of South Africa I express my deepest condolences to the royal family and the Zulu nation. The king is not dead, because kings don’t die. Their spirits live with us”.

Ramaphosa also praised the late Zulu King’s dedication to fighting AIDS, gender inequality, and gender-based violence. Loved by many, hated by some, he left his mark in the sands of time. But who really was Goodwill Zwelithini and how will South Africans remember him?  

The Life and Times of Goodwill Zwelithini

Born into the Zulu Royal family in 1949, the Zulu king ascended the throne at the young age of 23. Due to threats on his life by the ruling white minority, he fled into the Transvaal region. This made Prince Israel Mcwayizeni the regent from 1968 till 1971. He is a descendant of the great King Shaka who fought the Boers back in the 16th century. 

After undergoing extensive studies in KwaZulu Natal, he married his wife, Sibongile Winifred Dlamini, in 1968 at age 21. He went on to marry five other wives who bore him 28 children. Having ruled for five decades, Goodwill Zwelithini passed on in March 2021 after a long illness. At his burial, his traditional Prime Minister announced that he died of COVID-19 related complications. Throughout his reign, he is regarded as one of the most powerful persons in South Africa. His influence extends beyond his ceremonial role. 

A Popular Figure Amongst His People

Throughout his reign, one thing which his critics and supporters both agree on is that the Zulu king was hugely popular among his people. Although he faced criticism for his $4million huge allowance, it never dented his popularity. This is due to the feeling of safety and support which Zulu felt with him.

“He swore to protect his people. And protect his people he did,” says Jakkie Cilliers, an analyst at South African think-tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS). 

In addition to securing his constituency, the Zulu King also fought social injustices within the Zulu nation. He became popular for his efforts at curbing theft, domestic violence, and the AIDS pandemic in South Africa. His constituents—and South Africans generally—saw him as a charismatic who was able to inspire his people to action.

A Controversial Zulu King

Zwelithini remains the longest-serving Zulu king of all time, ruling over 11 million Zulus in South Africa. Although his role was largely ceremonial and spiritual, he continued to receive criticism from the government. Despite the numerous good he did for his people, the monarch had a number of run-ins with South African authorities. 

First, in 1994, aware of the ANC’s abhorrence for traditional leadership, Zwelithini infamously threatened to boycott the first free elections. This led to speculation about the possibility of renewed bloodshed in South Africa. 

Within the same year, the monarch once again clashed with the government. This time, the bone of contention was the Ingonyama Trust Act which placed all land in the control of the government. The Act required all Zulus to turn in their lands, but Zwelithini blithely objected. This led to the government ceding 30% of all Zulu land to a trust board headed by the Zulu King. Later on, he reduced tenants’ rights, going against the South African Constitution in doing so. 

What Legacy Does the Zulu King Leave Behind?

Depending on who you ask, the legacy of the late Zulu king could be a good or a bad one. To every Zulu person, King Goodwill Zwelithini was a great king who will leave a good legacy, almost insurmountable by whoever succeeds him. 

Among other South Africans though, the majority believe that his rule did more harm than good to his people. Many believe he joined forces with the ANC to impoverish his people while offering them protection as a smokescreen for his actions. “I think his role has genuinely impoverished his people,” says analyst Cilliers. 

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