King Goodwill Zwelithini KaBhekuzulu died at a Durban hospital in the early hours of Friday following a long illness.
Born on 14 July 1948, he was the eldest son born to King Cyprian Bhekuzulu and his second wife, Queen Thomo. He was crowned king in 1971 following the passing of his father in 1968.
President Cyril Ramaphosa led the tributes, describing the late king as a visionary and unifier.
“His Majesty will be remembered as a much-loved and visionary monarch who made an important contribution to cultural identity, national unity and economic development in KwaZulu-Natal and, through this, to the development of our country as a whole,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said.
Other messages of condolences came from senior government officials, political parties and legislators.
Sport, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa extended his “heartfelt sympathies to the family of the king,” saying that Zwelithini made history as the longest-serving monarch of the Zulu kingdom.
“The sun has set on the Zulu nation. King Goodwill Zwelithini was a true custodian of Zulu culture, who was proud of his identity and heritage as umZulu,” the minister said.
Mthethwa said the late king was as a unifying force in the Zulu kingdom and “a bold and fearless leader”.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) described King Zwelithini as a “courageous leader” who cared for the interests of all South Africans irrespective of political party affiliation.
It cited his role in quelling the violent clashes between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“During the intense political violence between the ANC and IFP, King Zwelithini was seen criss-crossing South Africa encouraging people to resort to peaceful and non-violent means of resolving conflict,” the ruling party said.
Main opposition Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said King Zwelithini’s death was a blow to South Africa as he has been “a hugely important and influential figure on our political and cultural landscape for the past five decades”.
Speaker of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Legislature, Nontebeko Boyce said King Zwelithini’s name would be “immortalised by his good deeds” for all South Africans.