Vimbeni Shembe, a leader of a major but divided South African church, died Monday. He was 77.
President Jacob Zuma, who announced Shembe's death, did not say what caused it.
"He played a key role in the history and development of the African independent churches in the country, and the growth and promotion of indigenous culture and traditions," Zuma said in a statement. "The Shembe Church is at the center of the lives of thousands of people of this country, and our hearts go out to them on this major loss."
Shembe led one of four factions of the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church, founded in 1910 by Isaiah Shembe in what is now KwaZulu-Natal province, the homeland of South Africa's largest tribe, the Zulu. Church teachings combine Christian beliefs and Zulu traditions.
The church has been divided since the 1970s in a family dispute _ at times violent, and strained by rival political allegiances _ over succession. All the factions were led by descendants of the founder, and Vimbeni Shembe's is believed to be the most powerful of the four.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whose Inkatha Freedom Party is the main rival in KwaZulu-Natal to Zuma's African National Congress, expressed "shock and sadness" at Vimbeni Shembe's death.
"I believe it was Rev. Vimbeni Shembe's greatest desire to see the reconciliation of the church during his lifetime, and it is a great tragedy that he did not live to see such reconciliation," Buthelezi said. "It is my hope that Rev. Vimbeni Shembe's passing will inspire members of the church to set aside their difference once and for all."
Every year, thousands of white-robed Shembe church followers set out barefoot on an 80-kilometer (50-mile) pilgrimage through the hills of the Zulu heartland to their holy mountain, Nhlangakazi.