JOHANNESBURG — Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu, the king of South Africa’s Zulu nation, who shepherded his people from the apartheid era into a modern democratic society, died on Friday in the eastern coastal city of Durban. He was 72.
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the king’s prime minister, announced the death, at Inkosi Albert Luthuli hospital. He did not state a cause. King Zwelithini was admitted there last month to be treated for diabetes.
Born on July 14, 1948, he was the eighth monarch of the Zulu nation, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, and a direct descendant of the Zulu warrior kings who fought against colonial rule. The eldest son of King Cyprian Bhekuzulu ka Solomon and his second wife, Queen Thomozile Jezangani ka Ndwandwe, he was educated at the Bekezulu College of Chiefs and then privately tutored at the Khethomthandayo royal palace.
He was crowned in 1971, three years after the death of his father; subsequent assassination attempts had forced him into hiding. When he was able to take the throne, his role was largely ceremonial as head of a quasi-independent homeland under the apartheid government.
Still, King Zwelithini tried to assert himself politically, clashing with Mr. Buthelezi, who is also his cousin and who at the time was the government-appointed administrator of the KwaZulu homeland. In 1979, King Zwelithini tried to form his own political party to challenge Mr. Buthelezi, but he was sanctioned, and his salary was cut. The two men later reconciled, with the king throwing his weight behind Mr. Buthelezi’s political party.
During the 1980s and ’90s, as violence in the KwaZulu region threatened to upend South Africa’s transition to democracy, the king was at times a voice of peace and dissent in the negotiations.
He sparred with the leaders of the African National Congress, which would become the governing party in post-apartheid South Africa, over sanctions against the apartheid government. He also called for an end to the bloodshed that nearly plunged South Africa into civil war as supporters of the A.N.C. and Mr. Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party clashed ahead of the pivotal 1994 election.
The king was instrumental in securing recognition of South Africa’s royal houses as the new constitution was written. This was largely seen as a concession by Nelson Mandela and the A.N.C. after the king had threatened to boycott the election.
Afterward, as the traditional leader of nearly 20 percent of South Africa’s population, King Zwelithini maintained political influence, with subsequent presidents and political leaders showing deference to him. At times, his utterances caused upheaval, as in 2015, when his remarks about “foreign nationals” led to xenophobic violence in which at least seven people were killed.
“We ask foreign nationals to pack their belongings and go back to their countries,” the king said at a rally in Durban. He later condemned the violence, saying his comments about migrant workers and joblessness among South Africans had been taken out of context.
King Zwelithini, who as the Zulu leader was allocated the largest share of a compensation fund that the government sets aside for South Africa’s traditional leaders, was one of the country’s largest landowners. He opposed plans to nationalize and redistribute land.
For many he was a living symbol of Zulu history, and a link between the nation that fought British colonialism and a people who maintained their language and culture in a post-apartheid South Africa.
“The king was the voice of reason, and it’s important that no matter what the political changes, he was a constant that rose above,” said Mkhuleko Hlengwa, the 33-year-old spokesman for the Inkatha Freedom Party. “We are Zulu regardless of who is in government.”
It is not yet certain who will succeed the king. His eldest son, Lethukuthula Zulu, 50, was murdered in his home in Johannesburg in November, and five people have been charged.
King Zwelithini is survived by six wives and 26 children.