, CAPE TOWN, Apr 22 – In his royal leopardskin regalia, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini conjures up Hollywood images of his once-feared tribe and the legendary warrior-king Shaka, his direct ancestor.
Zwelithini has no official power in modern South Africa, but he still commands loyalty among some 10 million Zulu people, and critics who blame him for an outbreak of xenophobic violence say that his words can kill.
In a speech last month Zwelithini said immigrants were responsible for rising crime and demanded that they leave the country — an outburst followed by a spate of attacks on migrants from other African countries that left seven dead and thousands displaced.
Under intense pressure from the government and civil society to calm the situation, the king on Monday denied whipping up hatred — saying he had been misinterpreted — and condemned the violence as “shameful”.
Zwelithini, 66, is the most prominent among some 10 kings who play a largely symbolic role in the democratic republic established in 1994 under Nelson Mandela — who was himself born into the Thembu royal family.
They are recognised in the constitution as traditional leaders and supported in relative luxury by the government — with Zwelithini last year being allocated more than R50 million ($4.1 million), according to local media.
While some taxpayers might resent the cost, support for Zwelithini is firmly entrenched among his rural subjects and his role is seen — somewhat ironically given the outbreak of xenophobia — as essential to peace.