Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini dies aged 72

Updated: Mar 13

King Zwelithini reigned for 50 years (Image credit: Getty)

King Goodwill Zwelithini, the traditional leader of South Africa's Zulu nation, has died. He was 72.

He had been admitted to hospital in KwaZulu-Natal last week to monitor his ongoing diabetes condition.

Zwelithini, the eighth Zulu king, reigned for more than 50 years, making him the longest-serving Zulu monarch.

Born in Nongoma, a small town in the southeastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province, Zwelithini ascended the throne in 1971 during the apartheid era at the age of 23, three years after the death of his father.

He was a direct descendent of King Cetshwayo, who led the Zulu nation during the war with the British in 1879.

Zwelithini was a strong advocate for preserving cultural identity. He was also an outspoken critic of the government’s planned land redistribution policy, which could affect large tracts of land belonging to the Zulu nation.

The Ingonyama Trust controlled by the king owns 29% of the land of the KwaZulu-Natal province, about 28,000 square kilometers. It is estimated that more than 5 million people live on the land, most in rural farming communities. The land could be expropriated from the Zulu kingdom if the government follows some of the proposals it has made.

Historically, under the leadership of King Shaka Zulu from 1816 to 1828, Zulus gave fierce resistance to British colonialism.

King Zwelithini was one of the most well-known monarchs on the continent and perhaps globally.

He led the 11 million-strong Zulu nation - about 18% of South Africa's population - but he also has family links to the Swazi and Xhosa nations through marriage and is respected by other cultural groups too.

He helped to bring the Zulu nation into the new political system by persuading Chief Buthelezi and his party to take part in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994.

President Cyril Ramaphosa praised Zwelithini for his contribution to the province’s economic and cultural development.

“His Majesty 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,” Ramaphosa said.

It is not clear who among the king's 28 children will succeed him.