The Zulu people are a special tribe in the Nguni ethnic group in Southern Africa. We will be talking about what happens when their kings die.
While the kings are flamboyantly celebrated when they are alive, when they die, they are accorded the highest respect. Recently, the death of the 72-year-old king, Goodwill Zwelithini gave us a rare insight into the values and customs surrounding the final rites of passage of these people’s kings.
The funeral of the king was a private ceremony shrouded in secrecy. Only a few royal men were allowed to witness this final rite. However, his father, King Cyprian was not buried in secret.
While we talk about burying corpses, the subjects of these kings tell you something different. They make use of the Zulu term “ukutshalwa”, in describing the burial. Ukutshalwa means planting of the corpse of the king. That implies that the end of the king’s influence is not his death.
It can be inappropriate to use the word death for the king, but “ukukhothama”, which means “to kneel”. That displays the timelessness of their kingdom. What they want you to understand is that their king’s knee so that the next king can rise to their thrones. The people believe that the death of their king means that he has transited to become an ancestor.
The kings’ subjects mourn and celebrate too in what is known as deeply entrenched spirituality. During the mourning of the kings, people come bearing gifts such as cows, which are slaughtered for the villagers to share. They spend days singing and dancing in celebration of their late kings. They believe that they will sing their souls into the heavens.
The burial rites are sacred and come with a string of rituals. The public is prohibited from witnessing these rituals, including the royal family. No one attends these sacred ceremonies, except a few men or a special regiment. The number of ritualistic activities carried on the bodies of the kings and the grave sites is secret. No one knows what happens or where these kings are buried. Unlike in other tribes where the gravesites of their kings are revealed, the Zulu keeps their kings’ last resting places secret.
The death of Zwelithini was a painful one for the Zulu people because he was a staunch advocate of preserving Zulu cultural identity. His demise is understood simply as a transition to becoming an ancestor, joining generations of other Zulu kings. This ceremony leaves the royal family in dark about these happenings, except for information they deserve to know that are passed. Lately, since these kings have more than one wife, the struggle to ascend the throne by the kids can be fierce. This leaves them in darkness about who will replace their fathers.