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What happens when a Zulu monarch dies

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Zulu Monarch, Goodwill Zwelithini

OVER a period of time, customs and culture undergo changes.

In olden times the king’s death was announced after about three months. When the king was ill, his condition was described as ailing (dunguzela – not feeling well). Only a few people would know His Majesty was dying.

As soon as the king passed on, a black bull was slaughtered. The hide of the bull was wrapped around the king’s body. The body of the king was sewn into the hide. As the hide dried up, it tightened up. Thereafter a number of similar black bulls, figure not specified, were slaughtered.

Their hides were carefully wrapped round the first hide into which the body was sewn. This was done until the hides around the body, serving as a coffin, were quite large and heavy. During all this time the king’s passing on would be kept a secret.

At the end of the seventh month, the king’s regiments were summoned to the royal palace. Some of the members were assigned to cut branches of umbambangwe (a thorny tree). Others were tasked to cut branches of umklele (a very tough bush) for the purpose of making a fence around the grave. Some senior princes and officers of the king supervised this activity.

A deep (about 2.134m) grave was dug. Just before the bottom of the grave, a niche was cut or a curvature was dug, big enough to contain the body of the king.

The personal household servants or “izincek” would enter the grave and receive him. They placed him in that niche. All his attire and articles he had used, including spears, swords, and shields were buried with the king. This is now history.

Some people who had worked closely with the king used to accompany the king. This is no longer done.

The Inyosi does sing praises. It is said that in olden times, like during the reign King Cetshwayo, praise singers kept quiet on such an occasion. Silence reigned while the coffin went to the grave.

The queens shave their heads. A prescription is made for the princes and princesses stipulating how they will be mourning and for how long.

Cattle are slaughtered, people are fed, Zulu beer is brewed. The ceremony is carried out with grace and respect.

It is customary for a male, an inkosi of a clan, and for the king to have a male standing at the head of the grave, pitching a spear and remaining quiet.

This is usually an indication of the likely appointee who will take the responsibility of the family and be the acting head of the family. In some cases this is interpreted as the successor of the deceased.

In the case of kings, a lot more is observed when a successor is appointed, in spite of the pitching of the spear at the graveside.

Some of what used to happen has been modified by the involvement of a government that may accord the king an official burial. The involvement of religious leaders also necessitates adaptations within the broader cultural framework.