ARUN RATH, HOST:
Goodwill Zwelithini is the influential king of South Africa's Zulu nation. Comments he made last month had been blamed for igniting deadly attacks on foreigners there that have left at least seven people dead. He denies those claims. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, the king has no official power in modern South Africa, but he commands loyalty among about 10 million Zulu people.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: It took Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, almost a month after his allegedly inflammatory comments to call for an end to attacks on immigrants in South Africa. The king reportedly had said head lice should be squashed and foreigners should pack their bags and leave the country. He called a mass rally on Monday in Durban in the province where the king holds sway and where the attacks began.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GOODWILL ZWELITHINI: (Speaking foreign language).
QUIST-ARCTON: Zwelithini called the xenophobic violence vile. He said his remarks last month were taken out of context by the media. But columnist Mondli Makhanya says there is no way the king's comments could've been misunderstood.
MONDLI MAKHANYA: And anybody who speaks Zulu - I understood exactly what he was saying.
QUIST-ARCTON: Makhanya says coming from a revered traditional leader, such utterances were potentially explosive in South Africa, with its entrenched poverty and high unemployment 21 years after the end of apartheid.
MAKHANYA: There is a saying in Zulu which basically means the mouth that speaks no lies. That is what kings are normally referred to in Zulu. The king can never be wrong. And a lot of people who were running around doing the destruction in recent weeks were saying exactly that. (Speaking foreign language) has told us to go and do this.
QUIST-ARCTON: Veteran Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe says he's appalled by the attacks.
ROBERT MUGABE: The act of treating other Africans in that horrible way can never be condoned by anyone. And whether these are followers of the Zulu king Zwelithini, that must never happen again.
QUIST-ARCTON: South Africa's home affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, acknowledges that his country must mend fences with neighbors and Africans beyond the immediate region.
MALUSI GIGABA: The international community must not view South Africa as a xenophobic and Afro-phobic country. And Africa in particular must not think that we hate fellow Africans so much that we are prepared to do the worst to cause them harm. We are taking steps to address this to ensure that there is better integration between foreign nationals in our country, particularly those from Africa who live in poorer communities and households.
QUIST-ARCTON: But columnist Mondli Makhanya says King Zwelithini, who has six wives and stands accused of an extravagant lifestyle, has not been sanctioned by the governing African National Congress party - the ANC - because he says the party needs the king's support.
MAKHANYA: The biggest challenge for King Goodwill Zwelithini is to restore his place in the society. His moral authority has diminished greatly, and he's going to have to do something quite major to restore that.
QUIST-ARCTON: But Makhanya believes the loyalty of many of the king's Zulu subjects in rural areas and others who cling to tradition remains intact. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Johannesburg.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.