Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini of South Africa has died at age 72, his cousin, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a powerful veteran politician who is also a Zulu prince, confirmed in a statement on Friday.
“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.
“Tragically, while still in 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 read.
The king was admitted to an intensive care unit for diabetes treatment in a KwaZulu-Natal hospital last month, according to local media.
There had been rumors about the Zulu leader’s death since his hospital admission, which his aides had reportedly been denying.
The traditional leader of the Zulu nation, Zwelithini did not hold political office but had considerable influence over the country’s estimated 12 million Zulus, the largest ethnic group of South Africa’s 60 million people.
Goodwill Zwelithini was named successor to the throne at the age of 20 following his father’s death in 1968. He wasn’t crowned until 1971 because he went into hiding after receiving death threats.
Zwelithini, the eighth Zulu king, reigned for more than 50 years, making him the longest-serving Zulu monarch.
King Zwelithini was an outspoken critic of the government’s planned land redistribution policy, which could affect large tracts of land belonging to the Zulu nation.
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,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in a statement.
Opposition politicians also expressed their condolences to the Zulu nation.
“Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family, the Royal House and the Zulu nation in this time of loss. May you find comfort and strength as you mourn and celebrate his full life,” John Steenhuisen, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said.
Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement also expressed his sadness at Zwelithini’s passing.
“As the custodian of Zulu tradition and customs, he specifically played a critical role in the Zulu nation during the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa,” said Mr. Holomisa, referring to Zwelithini’s public statements that increased awareness of that virus.