South Africa's government human rights agency said Tuesday, Jan. 24 it is investigating whether the Zulu king made comments that could increase anti-homosexual sentiment in a country where gay men and lesbians face hatred and attacks despite liberal laws ensuring their rights.
The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper, reported that King Goodwill Zwelithini called gay men “rotten” during a speech. Human Rights Commission spokesman Vincent Moaga said the newspaper stands by the story, but the king's office said the king was mistranslated.
In a statement, the royal household said the king was expressing concern about moral decay that he believes leads men to rape other men.
“These are very serious allegations leveled against the king,” Moaga said. “There are millions of people in South Africa who look up to King Zwelithini. He is revered and respected. It's important that an accurate reflection of what he said is put out there.”
Moaga's agency said it wanted a transcript of the king's speech, made during a weekend ceremony marking a Zulu battle victory over British colonial troops. The king spoke in a remote rural area in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, the stronghold for Zulus, the largest ethnic group in this country of 50 million.
President Jacob Zuma, who is Zulu, appeared with the king at Sunday's anniversary ceremony. Zuma's frequent public appearances alongside the king bolster his appeal to tradition-minded South Africans.
The king has no governing powers in South Africa's democracy, but is an influential figure who frequently speaks out on social and cultural matters.
South Africa's constitution charges the Human Rights Commission with promoting and monitoring respect for human rights. It often has gone to court to fulfill its responsibilities.
Last year, the commission won a 100,000 rand (about $14,000) judgment against South Africa's ambassador to Uganda, who was found guilty of hate speech for an anti-gay column he wrote in a South African paper before his appointment. Uganda is criticized for threatening the rights of gay men and lesbians.
Same-sex marriage is legal in South Africa and the country has laws against discrimination because of sexual orientation. Still, cultural attitudes toward gay men and lesbians in South Africa resemble those elsewhere on a conservative continent. Lesbians in particular have faced brutal assaults in South Africa.