Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini has come in for a scathing attack from “disgusted” and “alarmed” lesbian and gay rights activists following reports that he condemned same-sex relationships in a speech he gave near Dundee on Sunday.

However, the Zulu Royal Household has denied he made such comments and has blamed “reckless translation”.

According to a story published in The Witness yesterday, Zwelithini said: “This is something new within the Zulu nation and it needs to be condemned. No matter who you are, if you are doing it, you are rotten.”

By noon yesterday, a follow-up story from The Times had President Jacob Zuma, who had attended Sunday’s 133rd anniversary of the Battle of Isandlwana alongside Zwelithini, rebuking the monarch.

According to The Times, Zuma said: “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 colour or sexual orientation.”

However, spokesman Mac Maharaj could not confirm that.

The SA Human Rights Commission also entered the fray, saying it was “concerned about the homophobic utterances allegedly made by King Goodwill Zwelithini”.

“The commission will be writing to the king to ascertain whether he did in fact make such statements and, if he did, to immediately retract them,” spokeman Vincent Moaga said. “In the context of the growing levels of hate crimes against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersexed, the commission finds such utterances to be inflammatory.”

However, the royal household was equally appalled at the reports, and issued a statement saying it was “shocked and dismayed” following the “reckless translation”. Zwelithini delivered his speech in Zulu.

It said Zwelithini had actually condemned sexual abuse by men of the elderly and of other men. The statement argues that the king’s speech read as follows: “In the context of rampant sexual abuse, his majesty remarked: ‘During the good olden days, our forefathers dedicated their lives for the good of the nation. Men would go for months in the battles to fight the enemies without their wives but did not harass each other sexually and there were no cases of rape of women.

“‘Nowadays, you even have men who rape other men. This is a clear sign of moral decay. We condemned those involved – no matter who you are’. At no stage did his majesty condemn gay relations or same-sex relations,” spokesman Prince Mbonisi Zulu said.

Nonhlanhla Mkhize, director of the Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre in Durban, said she felt sickened by the “irresponsible” and “bigoted” remarks, but that the organisation would seek to engage Zwelithini on the matter before deciding on a course of action.

Mkhize said that anti-gay sentiment was not the norm among traditional leaders in KwaZulu-Natal, who were often protective of lesbian and gay community members. “But they are led by someone and that is the king,” she said.

Virginia Magwaza-Setshedi, director of the Equality Project, said that being gay or lesbian was not “new” to Zulu culture, as indicated by the fact that there was a word in Zulu for gay people – inkonkoni.

She said that when influential public figures made negative statements, they eroded the work that organisations like hers did to eliminate homophobia.

“Gay men and women are killed in this country because of their sexuality... It is a violation of human rights”.

In 2006 Zuma, then deputy president of the ANC, himself caused public outcry when he was quoted as saying that same-sex marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God” and that “when I was growing up, unqingili (homosexuals) could not stand in front of me” as he would have beaten them up.

Zuma later apologised.