JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has been accused of homophobia and fueling violence against gays and lesbians in South Africa over comments he reportedly made on the weekend.
The Zulu king called gay people "rotten" during a speech in KwaZulu-Natal province, according to South Africa's Times newspaper.
Zwelithini was speaking at a commemoration ceremony for the Battle of Isandlwana, where in 1879, during the Anglo-Boer War, Zulu warriors famously beat the British.
According to the Times, the Zulu monarch said:
"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. I don't care how you feel about it. If you do it, you must know that it is wrong and you are rotten. Same sex is not acceptable."
South African President Jacob Zuma, who shared the stage with Zwelithini at the event in Nquthu, indirectly responded to the king's remarks.
"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 color or sexual orientation," Zuma said.
Zuma caused a similar controversy after a speech in 2006 in which he said same-sex marriages were a "disgrace to the nation and to God," and that he would have beaten up gays when growing up. He later retracted his comments and apologized.
More from GlobalPost: Rainbow Planet: The worldwide struggle for gay rights
The Zulu Royal Household has denied that Zwelithini condemned gay relationships, blaming a "reckless translation" of the king's speech, and arguing that the king had merely expressed concern at the moral decay and rampant sexual abuse in society.
The South African Human Rights Commission said it will be investigating the matter and obtaining transcripts of the speech.
In an editorial titled "Admit it, dear King, you are a hardcore homophobe," the Times said it is standing by its translation of the king's remarks.
"There are many South Africans who view King Goodwill as their monarch, and who are immensely proud of their Zulu heritage, who might view this as encouragement to openly support an anti-gay stance," the editorial said.
According to The Witness newspaper, on a recording of part of the speech, the audience can be heard laughing during the king's comments.
More from GlobalPost: South Africa fails to protect black lesbians: rights group
Gay and lesbian advocacy groups in South Africa have demanded that Zwelithini retract his remarks about same-sex relationships, saying his comments could encourage hate crimes.
The South African Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation told News24 it was disappointed by Zwelithini's "vexing and degrading" comments, in a country with "enough instances of hate crimes."
South Africa is one of the few countries in the world to extend equal rights to homosexuals, and is the only nation in Africa to allow same-sex marriage.
But the reality of life in the townships for gays and lesbians has been one of brutal violence. Activists say that 31 lesbians have been killed in the past decade because of their sexuality, and more than 500 a year report themselves raped because they are lesbians.
In a high-profile incident last year, Noxolo Nogwaza, a lesbian activist based in KwaThema township near Johannesburg, was gang-raped and then stabbed and stoned to death, in what the New York-based group Human Rights Watch described as part of an "epidemic" of hate crimes against gays and lesbians in South Africa.
More from GlobalPost: Mounting violence haunts South Africa’s gays and mobilizes activists
The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you relevant, fact-based and human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year.
Make your gift of $100 or pledge $10 monthly, and we’ll thank you on The World’s podcast in early 2023. And every gift will get us one step closer to our goal.