The leader of a Zulu dance troupe set to perform at a Bonfire party in Lewes, East Sussex, has added fuel to the fire amid an ongoing row on whether "blacking up" for the parade is offensive or not.

The Borough Bonfire Society is being accused of racism as its white members paint their face to resemble warriors from the Zulu ethnic group - which originated in Southern Africa – for the annual celebration. The society defends its practice, but Bonfire Against Racism argues it is offensive and it is calling for an end to it.

Thandanani Gumede, 32, a Zulu from Durban, South Africa, admitted the issue was sensitive, but said the costumes and paint were neither offensive nor derogatory. Gumede and his dance group, Zulu Tradition, will perform at the celebration on 4 November.

"I would be offended by people showing up in a Ku Klux Klan uniform," he told the Guardian. "So far, based on the information I have, I haven't [seen] anything racist. I was flattered to see there were people trying to look like me as opposed to saying it is wrong to look like me."

Gumede said costumes worn in previous years were not racist.

"When I first looked at the pictures I thought it was a Zulu," he said. "If someone blacked up and dressed like Tarzan [that would be racist], but it looks like they have taken the time to reproduce the costumes carefully."

He added that the Zulu costumes worn by the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society reflected the warrior status.

"On the day I will keep my eyes and ears peeled. If I sense anything derogatory at any point, I won't be part of that," he added.

Gumede's comments come as thousands of people have been signing petitions either supporting the practice or condemning it.

"The decision of a small fraction of the membership of Borough Bonfire Society to engage in the offensive practice of blacking up runs counter to the overall spirit of the event," Bonfire Against Racism said on the petition it created on 38 Degrees website.

"This public display of caricatured, negative stereotypes of black Africans within our community is racist and serves only to increase tension and division within our diverse community."

However, a counter-petition on Change.org read: "We the undersigned wish to defend the traditions of Bonfire and reject racism, sexism and homophobia.

"We assert that nothing about the traditions of Bonfire encourages or incites these attitudes and defend the right of each society to self-determination.

"We further assert that an attack from outside Bonfire on any element of a Society is an attack on that society and that an attack on one society is an attack on all societies."

The bonfire celebration in Lewes attracts thousands of people every year and it is one of the biggest in the country.