Three things you have to know about the death of a Zulu king

Nii Ntreh March 24, 2021
A sculptor's impression of the legendary Zulu king Shaka at Camden Market in London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The recent death and burial of the Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu is the first time in more than 50 years that the world has had the chance to witness such an occasion in the lives of the legendary African people.

South Africa‘s largest ethnic group, the Zulu are the subject of a lot of anthropological and historical interest as well as the source of African pride for those on the continent and out. From the legendary King Shaka to the one who just passed, Zulu history continues to be made on the particular ethnic level as well as in the larger context of South African history.

The funeral of the departed King Goodwill was attended by royalty from around the world. Through his half-century reign, the monarch did establish significant relationships across the world. Now, his successor would pick things up in a world vastly different than what King Goodwill knew in 1968.

But what happens when a Zulu king dies? How is his successor chosen?

Private burial

The burial of a Zulu king is supposed to take place in secrecy. According to custom. only male Zulu relatives and nobility are allowed near the burial grounds during this occasion. This idea was reinforced by Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) co-founder and the traditional royal prime minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi before the burial.

“We had a very long meeting attended by the Queen Mother, the king’s stepmother, uNdlunkulu uMaZungu [et al]…and it was decided that it was the king’s wish that he should be buried privately, and that it should be done at night, and that it should be done by men only,” Buthelezi said.

Planting the king who knelt

The people have their ways of speaking about both the demise and burial of their king. These special linguistic references are seen as a sign of reverence. Instead of saying the king died, the Zulu say ukukhothama, which translates into “to kneel”.

The Zulu also do not actually say they are “burying” their king. The concept of putting the departed monarch into the ground is better described as ukutshalwa which means planting. For them, a king’s life is not over but rather, his departure from this world is an entrance into a realm from which he can watch over his people.

To plant a king also literally means the Zulu, an agrarian people, believe a king’s death is an opportunity for the regeneration of life and a bumper harvest.

Secret successor

A Zulu king’s successor is never immediately revealed to the general public after the departed king has been planted. According to Gugu Maibuko of the University of KwaZulu Natal, “[h]iding the real name of the next king prevents possible tensions within the family, since these are extended families where choices may vary.”

This is a political tactic to prevent palace intrigue in the death of a king. A successor must be found agreeable by all the elements of the royal clan. King Goodwill’s will be chosen among his 28 living children and is most likely going to be a man.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: March 25, 2021


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