A Zulu King planted, not buried: King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Goodwill Zwelithini (14 July 1948 – 12 March 2021), 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 morning on .

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.

King Zwelithini, a descendant of Shaka Zulu, was the Zulu kingdom’s eighth monarch and a political and cultural figurehead in South Africa. He became king in 1968, a time where South Africa’s tribal factions were being aggravated by apartheid-era legislation. He played a leading role in uniting the Zulus across the political divides, and later spearheaded the revival of cultural practices such as the Reed Dance and male circumcision.

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. 

image source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56443464
image source: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-56443464

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.

Zwelithini is survived by six wives and 28 children. 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

Queen Mantfombi MaDlamini Zulu is temporarily in charge of the Zulu nation, following the death of King Zwelithini – here’s what you should know about her.

Queen Mantfombi MaDlamini Zulu will briefly take the wheel while a permanent successor is chosen. It’s thought that one of her sons with King Zwelithini will eventually assume the throne. As a queen consort, she has enjoyed the same monarchal status as her husband, without the extent of his powers. She will, however, assume the political and protective responsibilities during her interim spell in charge. The news was confirmed earlier on Sunday, thrusting the 64-year-old into the spotlight:


It’s not clear how long the process to name a full-time successor to King Zwelithini will take. But it appears the Zulu nation is in good, familiar hands with MaDlamini Zulu. Here’s what you need to know about the senior royal:

  • – She was born in 1956, and her brother is the current king of eSwatini (King Mswati III).
  • – After a traditional upbringing in the Swazi royal family, the princess was betrothed to King Zwelithini in 1973.
  • – MaDlamini Zulu was announced as ‘the great wife’ during their wedding in 1977, a position that gives her family and lineage more power.
  • – Her duties as queen consort over the past 44 years has seen the monarch establish a strong reputation in the Zulu kingdom.
  • – Although the queen will serve as interim leader, one of her sons is likely to permanently replace King Zwelithini.
  • – Mantfombi is one of six wives married to the deceased king, and she has had eight children with him – including five sons.
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