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JOHANNESBURG: Goodwill Zwelithini, the controversial but revered king of the Zulus, South Africa's largest ethnic group, died Friday aged 72 after weeks in hospital for a diabetes-related illness, the royal palace announced. The king wielded great influence among millions of Zulus and beyond through his largely ceremonial and spiritual role, despite having no official power in modern South Africa.

In a short statement, the palace said the king "took a turn for the worse and he subsequently passed away in the early hours of this morning". Born in Nongoma, a small town in the south-eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal province, Zwelithini ascended the throne in 1971 during the apartheid era. No succession plans have been divulged yet.

His body will be taken from a Durban hospital to the palace in Nongoma, around 300 kilometres away, to lie in state for "a couple of days", said Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a powerful veteran politician who is also a Zulu prince. President Cyril Ramaphosa has granted the king a special official funeral of the type usually reserved for presidents and ex-presidents.

The date is yet to be announced, but in the meantime national flags will fly at half-mast.

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