South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, will bid farewell on Thursday to their king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who for half a century was their charismatic but also controversial figurehead.
The longest-serving king in Zulu history, the monarch died on Friday after 50 years on the throne.
Under Zulu funeral rites, he should be interred by a few select men — an event the palace calls a “planting” of his remains rather than a burial.
The Zulus are popularly known for their vibrant culture, especially the timeless and riveting ancient war dance performed by the rhythmic stomping of feet.
The late king exuded the image of a traditional chief, typically sporting a poncho-like leopard-skin chest cover and wielding an unquestionable spiritual authority.
He spoke to powerful political leaders, and appeared in public with Nelson Mandela.
He also had visits from President Cyril Ramaphosa and ex-president Jacob Zuma, during which they were seen performing the gripping Zulu war dance, known as “umzansi.”
Even though he lacked executive power under the South African system, he still had moral clout over more than 11 million Zulus, nearly a fifth of the country’s population.
At the fall of apartheid, traditional leaders were constitutionally recognised and they continue to play an important symbolic and spiritual role.
They advise legislators and have a say in cultural, land management and justice administration in their territories. The Zulu king remains the most influential of all these traditional leaders.