South Africa’s government human rights agency is investigating whether the Zulu king made comments that could increase anti-homosexual sentiment in a country where gays face hatred and attacks despite laws ensuring their rights.
Johannesburg newspaper The Times reported that King Goodwill Zwelithini called homosexuals “rotten” during a speech at the weekend to commemorate the Zulu victory over British colonial forces at the Battle of Isandlwana on 22 January, 1879.
He was quoted as saying: “Traditionally, there were no people who engaged in same-sex relationships. There was nothing like that and if you do it, you must know that you are rotten.”
He allegedly added: “I don’t care how you feel about it. Same-sex is not acceptable.”
Disputing the newspaper report in a statement yesterday, the royal household said the king was mistranslated and had been expressing concern about moral decay that he believes leads men to rape other men.
Vincent Moaga, a spokesman for the country’s Human Rights Commission, said: “These are very serious allegations.
“There are millions of people in South Africa who look up to King Zwelithini. He is revered and respected. It’s important that an accurate reflection of what he said is put out there.”
The king made his speech in a remote rural area in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, the stronghold for Zulus, the largest ethnic group in the country.
President Jacob Zuma, who is a Zulu, appeared with the king at Sunday’s anniversary ceremony. Mr Zuma’s frequent public appearances alongside the king bolster his appeal to South Africans who value tribal tradition.
However, a statement yesterday from the president’s office put distance between himself and the king: “Today, we are faced with different challenges, challenges of reconciliation and of building a nation that does not discriminate against other people because of their colour or sexual orientation.”
The king has no governing powers in South Africa’s democracy, but is an influential figure who frequently speaks out on social and cultural matters.
South Africa’s constitution charges the Human Rights Commission with promoting and monitoring respect for human rights. It often has gone to court to fulfil its responsibilities.
Last year, the commission won a 100,000 rand (about £8,000) judgement against South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda, who was found guilty of hate speech over a column he wrote in a South African paper before his appointment. Uganda has come under criticism in recent years for threatening the rights of gay people through a series of proposed laws.
Same-sex marriage is legal in South Africa and the country has laws against discrimination because of sexual orientation. However, cultural attitudes toward gays in South Africa resemble those elsewhere on a conservative continent. Lesbians in particular have faced brutal assaults in South Africa.
Gays are “constantly under attack,” Mr Moaga said.
The Battle of Isandlwana is recognised as one of Britain’s worst ever colonial military defeats. More than 1,300 British soldiers were killed when a column 1,800-strong was attacked by around 20,000 Zulu warriors.