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Death of a Zulu king: ‘He is planted, not buried’

Zulu men in traditional warrior outfits at night in Nongoma, South Africa – March 2021

Goodwill Zwelithini, the 72-year-old king of the Zulu nation in South Africa, was laid to rest at a private ceremony shrouded in secrecy and attended only by a select group of royal men in the early hours of Thursday morning. Yet the days leading up to his funeral have opened a rare window into the customs and values surrounding the final rites of passage of a Zulu monarch. For his subjects King Zwelithni has not been buried. They use the Zulu term “ukutshalwa”, a loose translation of which means “planting” – to imply this is not the end of his influence on the people he ruled for more than five decades. One of King Zwelithini’s palaces in the small KwaZulu-Natal town of Nongoma, about 300km (185 miles) from Durban, has been a hive of activity, with mourners streaming in to pay their respects.

For those who revered him, the word death is also felt to be inappropriate, instead the end of his mortal life is referred to as “”ukukhothama”, meaning “to kneel”. It is a symbolic way to show the timelessness of the Zulu kingdom. Metaphorically King Zwelithni is kneeling so the next in line can rise up to the throne. These days of mourning are a fitting tribute to a man who throughout his half-century reign was a staunch advocate of preserving Zulu cultural identity. His leaving is understood simply as a transition to becoming an ancestor, joining generations of other Zulu kings. He was a direct descendent of King Cetshwayo, who led the Zulu nation in the war with the British army in 1879. His subjects’ deeply entrenched spirituality means that even as they mourn, they celebrate too. On display are some of the things the Zulu nation holds dear – like the leopard skin regalia of the “Amabutho” warriors.

On Wednesday afternoon, sombre songs filled the air as the king’s regiment escorted the black car, with blacked-out windows, that carried the monarch’s body from a local mortuary to a palace. They slowly walked along the motorcade, singing his soul into the heavens. Alongside the warriors were the young women, referred to as maidens, wearing colourful beaded skirts and elaborate necklaces.

Their attire is a nod to a tradition reintroduced by the monarch in 1991, known as “Umhlanga” or the “Reed Dance”. It is an annual gathering of young women, which celebrates chastity and virginity – and aims to educate them about HIV and Aids. Zulu folklore has it that if a woman is not a virgin, the reed she carries during the ceremony before the king will break, embarrassing her in public. While some see it as patriarchal, some, including the young women here, take pride in its existence.

“It has taught me to look after myself – not having to worry about the pressure of sex or risk having a child while young has given me time for my education,” 30-year-old Happy Buthelezi told me outside one of the palaces. “Being a part of Umhlanga over the years has protected me.” A white tent was erected outside the kwaKhethamthondayo Royal Palace on a field overlooking Nongoma, where dignitaries on Thursday attended a memorial service, including President Cyril Ramaphosa and members of the royal family.

Three grieving queens were amongst those at the memorial to hear tributes to their late husband. He leaves six widows and 28 children. “It was during the course of his reign that his people, alongside all the people of our country, realised their dream of freedom from the injustices of colonialism and apartheid,” the president said in his eulogy. “And it was during his reign that the decades of dispossession and the wilful destruction of our knowledge and economic systems, our culture and governance institution came to an end.”

It is not clear yet who will succeed King Zwelithini to lead the 11 million-strong Zulu nation – who make up about 18% of South Africa’s population. This may be in part for the future monarch’s safety but also in reverence for the man who has been respectfully known as “Isilo Samabandla Onke”, meaning “King of all Zulu kings”. But people here tell me they are clear about the kind of king they want – a visionary, a straight-talker – like their former monarch – someone who will honour their culture and be a guiding light for future generations.

Five things about King Goodwill Zwelithini:

Named successor to the throne at just 20 years old in 1968
Not crowned until 1971 because he went into hiding after receiving death threats
Role was ceremonial but still hugely influential
Reigned as king of the Zulu nation for five decades
Leaves behind six wives and 28 children.