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Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Picture: SANDILE NDLOVU

Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi is the man who led the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) for decades, helped to deliver SA’s negotiated settlement and grew into the role of a responsible cabinet minister and wise, elderly statesman in postapartheid SA. He was often entrusted to the role of acting president of the country. But he will also be remembered for being part of the apartheid regime’s homeland or Bantustan system, for the violence that besieged KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) in the 1980s and early 1990s and for pushing the country to the brink of a civil war before his last-minute decision to participate in SA’s first democratic elections in 1994.

His legacy is thus controversial and complicated.

The connection to the apartheid regime is one that Buthelezi and the IFP would have preferred to wipe from history books. They even went as far as writing to the website, South African History, with a request to publish a sanitised version of his biographical entry.

Tim du Plessis, a former editor of various Afrikaans newspapers, says Buthelezi “went along with the previous government’s diabolic plan to retain minority white control of SA by establishing ethnic based ‘independent states’ or bantustans. Yet the Afrikaner nationalists could never get Buthelezi to agree to a fully independent Republic of KwaZulu-Natal, therefore robbing them of a valuable claim that their policy had the support of the Zulus, SA’s largest ethnic group”.

Buthelezi was born as a chief on August 27 1928 into the Zulu royal family. His mother was King Dinizulu’s daughter and she was the granddaughter of King Cetshwayo. As the firstborn he was entitled to the Buthelezi chieftainship. He matriculated from Adams College in Amanzimtoti and studied at the University of Fort Hare where he became a member of the ANC Youth League. At Fort Hare he took part in student protests and studied under Professor ZK Mathews. This is also where he met Robert Sobukwe and other nationalist liberation leaders like Robert Mugabe.

The Zulu prince, however, took a different path from these leaders; he accepted a clerical position in the department of Bantu administration in 1951 and the leadership of the KZN homeland government. In an article in Politicsweb in November 2014, the IFP leader wrote that he was urged by Oliver Tambo and Alfred Luthuli, who sent a message to him through his sister in the period before the KwaZulu homeland government was established, not to refuse the leadership of KwaZulu as it was a way to undermine the apartheid system from within. “The homelands system was imposed upon us by law, the option of accepting or rejecting it did not exist,” he said. This Buthelezi said was a fact deliberately hidden by the ANC for many years. He described Inkatha as having “been born as the internal arm of the ANC”.

As a homeland leader, Buthelezi was known for his long speeches when he opened parliament. One of his speeches stretched over 18 days and it won him a place in the Guinness Book of Records. He dressed up in leopard skins for ritual war dances and was seen with gold-rimmed spectacles and a black turtleneck when meeting political and business leaders.

An ideological rift with the ANC deepened in 1979 when Inkatha rejected the use of violence against the National Party government, with the ANC branding the IFP as collaborators. In 1980, ANC secretary-general Alfred Nzo described the IFP as “politically bankrupt careerists and renegades” who would be “swept away on the rubbish heap of history”.

The rift between the ANC and Inkatha led to violence that engulfed KZN in the 1980s and early 1990s and continued after the 1994 elections. Many journalists, myself among them, shot television programmes in the KZN Midlands in the early ’90s where one hill would be ruled by Inkatha while another would be ANC territory, and to stray into “enemy” territory would elicit an attack. It was described as the “killing fields” by many publications and an estimated 30,000 people died during this conflict.

Tim du Plessis says that Buthelezi is “with justification, despised by the liberation movements for allowing security forces in the ’80s to get involved on his side in the violent conflict in KZN and parts of Gauteng province between his supporters and activists aligned to the ANC”.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that Inkatha supporters trained in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia in the use of weapons and explosives were responsible for most of the deadly incidents between 1985 and 1996, according to historians Jill Kelly and Liz Timbs. The IFP say on their website that they made a submission to the TRC in 1996, which included claims that 420 IFP leaders and office bearers had been assassinated but said that none of the cases was ever investigated by the TRC.

In July 1990, a few months after the release of Nelson Mandela, Buthelezi announced that Inkatha would be transformed into a national political party. He demanded delegations for Inkatha, the KwaZulu bantustan and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini to participate in the Convention for a Democratic SA or Codesa, the multiparty constitutional negotiation process. When representatives of the Zulu king were excluded, Buthelezi withdrew from Codesa but he did send Frank Mdlalose as a representative.

Buthelezi got considerable mileage out of the threat that could follow what the New York Times described in 1993 as the Savimbi option, that he could lead his men into the bush and a war (as Jonas Savimbi did in the struggle for Angola). Both the president at the time, FW de Klerk, and Nelson Mandela thought that Buthelezi and Inkatha posed a risk and made concessions to appease him. Bill Keller from the New York Times wrote that important provincial government powers were agreed upon “thanks in large part to Mr Buthelezi”.

The creation of the Ingonyama Trust which placed 2.8-million hectares of KZN territory, which is roughly 30% of the province, under the administration of the Zulu king, is also linked to concessions that the other parties around the negotiation table made to ensure that the IFP participated in the 1994 election. It has been described as a sweetheart deal that ensured the IFP did not boycott the country’s first democratic elections. Buthelezi and the IFP did, however, reject the idea that the Ingonyama Trust Act was a bribe made in secret to pacify Buthelezi.

What is indisputable is that he remained a fly in SA’s negotiated settlement ointment until shortly before the 1994 first democratic elections in SA and he agreed to participate only a week before April 27.

In the elections, Inkatha won 10.5% of the national vote and 50% of the vote in KZN, giving Buthelezi control of the province. This did not bring an end to the violence in the province. Between May 1994 and December 1998 an estimated 4,000 deaths occurred there as a result of continued strife.

Support for the IFP dwindled throughout the years. It lost control of the province to the ANC in 1999 and in 2014 it came third after the DA became the official opposition in KZN. On a national level the IFP had only 2.4% of the vote. There was a resurgence in the 2019 elections and in the 2021 local government elections IFP support grew to 5.46%.

Buthelezi served as home affairs minister for two terms with Mandela entrusting the position of acting national president to him on several occasions. Government officials described him as easy to work with and said he consulted before making decisions. The IFP claims on their website that Mbeki offered Buthelezi the position of deputy president of SA, but the move was scuppered by the ANC in KZN which demanded that the IFP hand over the premiership of the province.

The man once reviled by the ANC became a respected elder statesman and his wise counsel was heeded amid the chaos to try to remove Jacob Zuma as president. He was the longest serving member of the postapartheid parliament. At the centenary anniversary of the University of Fort Hare in 2016 it was Buthelezi who was asked to deliver the memorial lecture on Prof ZK Matthews, a legendary figure in the struggle for liberation and one of the ANC’s most revered heroes.

But in the relationship between the ANC and Buthelezi, bygones did not appear to be bygones. When Buthelezi announced his retirement from public politics in SA in October 2017, Bantu Holomisa praised Buthelezi, saying, “Shenge was very influential at the negotiating table during Codesa. His vision and commitment could not be ignored.” Mmusi Maimane, Democratic Alliance leader at the time, thanked Buthelezi for the 1994 decision to participate in SA’s first democratic elections, while the ruling ANC offered lukewarm well wishes with Gwede Mantashe saying Buthelezi “run his race and played his role”.

During his career in politics, Buthelezi, or Prince Buthelezi as he reminded the ANC, was called many things. A collaborator, a careerist and a traitor. Talking about his legacy; Buthelezi told News24: “I never condoned, or ordered or ratified any orders that we should kill any members of the UDF or ANC. But I said that everyone has an inalienable right to defend themselves. And our people should have a right to defend themselves and their loved ones.”

Buthelezi has taken credit for helping to secure the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which he said happened after he told De Klerk that the IFP would only come to the negotiation table if Mandela was released. Du Plessis says Buthelezi seldom gets credit for the fact that “he insisted that no negotiations on SA’s political future could take place without the unbanning of the ANC, his arch-opponent, and the unconditional release from prison of Nelson Mandela”.

Buthelezi took issue with many publications for their portrayal of his role in history and established The Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Museum and Documentation Centre in Ulundi in August 2015 to tell his side of the story. He saw himself as the lone voice of reason and pragmatism during the dark days of apartheid, pushing non-violence.

Buthelezi was at the centre of pivotal moments in SA’s history and his legacy will mirror his political career of more than five decades – mired in controversy and contradiction.

With his late wife, Princess Irene Thandekile Buthelezi, he had eight children, five of whom died before him.

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