ADAM SCHWARZ: Retracing SA’s struggle for peaceful change with Mangosuthu Buthelezi
Schwarz retraces the journey his grandfather made 48 years earlier
During my annual childhood trips to visit my grandparents in Johannesburg I would instinctively notice a document displayed on the wall of my grandfather’s study. Despite its humble presentation in a basic wooden frame with faded ink on dated paper, I knew it was a document of great personal significance to him. Yet it was only as a teenager that I grasped its full historical and societal significance to SA.
The document was the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith, a political accord between my grandfather, Harry Schwarz, and Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Signed on January 4 1974, it was the first agreement between black and white leaders in SA that sought to end white minority rule and the racial segregation system of apartheid through peaceful means and build a prosperous multiracial democracy.
Buthelezi’s passing on Saturday at the age of 95 prompted me to reflect on my emotional visit to meet him in the Zulu capital of Ulundi in June last year, which is close to the town of Mahlabatini where the agreement was signed. My 230km drive from Durban airport to Ulundi was through the luscious green foliage of KwaZulu-Natal’s subtropical terrain, winding across the province’s iconic hills topped with rondavel huts. Throughout the trip I was mindful that I was retracing the journey my grandfather had made 48 years earlier and wondered what impression the region’s picturesque scenery had on him.
The drive vividly demonstrated the heritage and legacy of the man I was due to meet. At every stop there were portraits of Buthelezi prominently displayed, indicating the reverence in which the 93-year-old leader continued to be held. “Would you like a photo with our portrait of the prince?” the hotel receptionist asked as I was leaving the following morning. I politely declined, noting I was about to meet him at IFP headquarters.
I had wanted to meet Buthelezi for many years due to my admiration for him as one of SA’s seminal statesmen of the 20th century and to further my research into the declaration. Yet it was only upon meeting Buthelezi that I realised the visit’s emotional significance for myself. It was my first visit to SA from my home in London since my grandmother Annette had passed away in Johannesburg in February 2021. She had described Buthelezi as a “great friend in difficult times”. Meeting my late grandparents’ long-time friend and political ally from a past era provided unexpected comfort and a new connection to them.
“I was so happy when I received your email” a frail but enthusiastic Buthelezi said as he warmly greeted me in his office, indicating his own strength of feeling. Wearing a full suit, the elder statesman presented as a leader with a self-imposed duty to serve his people until his final days. We proceeded to sit down and discuss how his friendship developed with my late grandfather. “We realised we believed in the same things and we thought we should put them down”, Buthelezi noted. At the time of the declaration Buthelezi was chief minister of KwaZulu, a semi-autonomous bantustan homeland, while my grandfather was the leader of the “Young Turks” faction of the opposition United Party that was pushing for the organisation to adopt an unambiguously anti-apartheid policy position.
We examined the declaration’s five principles on which they sought to build a new SA of “equal opportunity, happiness, security and peace for all its people”. Buthelezi explained how his personal history cultivated his political philosophy that became enshrined in the declaration. I was struck and humbled by the similar themes in the lives of Buthelezi and my grandfather. Their backgrounds, as a senior Zulu royal and a German Jewish refugee, could not have been more different. Yet their separate experiences provided the same lessons that fostered shared values.
“All the wars that took place in SA, battles among ourselves, the Anglo-Boer War at the turn of the century, and the Zulu War before that”, Buthelezi said, had shaped his conviction in the need for nonviolent change in SA. Similarly, it was my grandfather’s own childhood experiences witnessing street battles between Nazi and communist activists during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany that sparked his own belief in non-violence.
Their joint philosophy that “change in SA must be brought about by peaceful means” was the declaration’s first principle, supported by its insistence on negotiations with “all groups” that would lead to “government by consent”. This ultimately signified their roles as reformers who sought to transform SA’s political system to facilitate change.
Buthelezi spoke at length on how his divergence from the approach of the ANC and rejection of its “armed struggle” caused great friction, with some accusing him of being a “collaborator” with the apartheid regime. Yet his use of his position to intervene in white politics via the declaration was an act of revolutionary courage. By demanding negotiations with all groups, the declaration deliberately defied and challenged the entrenched policy of the ruling National Party.
Indeed, a private telegram cable from the US Embassy in Pretoria to the US state department shortly after the accord was announced questioned whether it was in Buthelezi’s “long-term interests to have become embroiled in white politics”. The declaration also had major consequences for my grandfather, who was ultimately expelled from the opposition United Party the following year for signing it.
Buthelezi made it clear that the declaration was not merely a theoretical vision of idealists, but a key source of SA’s new political values. Holding a copy in his hands, he unequivocally declared it as the “basis of the blueprint that ultimately became the constitution of the country” and the “foundation of everything I stand for today”.
While the National Party only embraced multi-group dialogue 16 years later, Buthelezi drew a direct link between the declaration and final negotiations. “Even during negotiations, my contribution and the contribution of my party towards the new constitution were based on the beliefs of the Mahlabatini Declaration”, he said. He noted how SA’s Bill of Rights, originally proposed in the declaration, was the initiative of his IFP during negotiations with Nelson Mandela and FW De Klerk.
Buthelezi also expressed his frustration that SA had not embraced federalism, as had been proposed in the declaration to avoid “domination by any group over others”. Yet, given that the key powers of SA’s provincial governments can be attributed “in large” to Buthelezi’s push for federalism during negotiations, as Bill Keller of the New York Times argues, it’s clear that his desire for federalism still shaped SA’s new power structure.
Buthelezi’s naturally upbeat tone dimmed as we examined the declaration’s provision that “opportunity must be afforded to all our people for material and educational advancement”. Despite the declaration’s political aims being mostly realised, Buthelezi lamented that “economic freedom” had not accompanied political change. Witnessing Buthelezi’s despair triggered my memories of my grandfather’s own frustration and disappointment in his final years that the new SA had not liberated more people from economic destitution and poverty. Yet, even more movingly, it demonstrated Buthelezi and my grandfather’s mutual care and love for SA’s people that served as the basis for their enduring friendship and political collaboration.
After we both signed a copy of the Mahlabatini Declaration Buthelezi piled up several books from his shelf. “For your research”, he said as he handed the books to me. We proceeded to have lunch with his grandson, Zamokuhle (Zamo), where I saw Buthelezi in a more informal role as a loving and proud grandfather.
After the meal, Buthelezi accompanied me to the exit to say goodbye. It was an unexpectedly emotional farewell. We agreed that my grandfather would have been pleased that we had met. “He’s looking down at us now”, he said. I was deeply moved by Buthelezi’s enthusiasm during our discussions. His hospitality and generosity towards me felt like an extension of his friendship with my late grandfather, who I was proud to represent. “Goodbyes are tough. He’s become more emotional as he’s got older” Zamo said to me as we walked to the car park.
We drove to the Mangosuthu Buthelezi Museum just a few minutes away, where Zamo proudly gave me a personal tour. I was humbled when seeing the Mahlabatini Declaration and a photo of my grandfather feature in the exhibition’s opening section, having just enjoyed the rare privilege of retracing the event with one of SA’s last remaining giants of history. Zamo’s museum tour provided a poignant conclusion to my trip. A sense of continuity and optimism replaced the sombreness of saying farewell to elder statesman Buthelezi as Zamo and I discussed our grandfathers’ joint legacy.
Zamo summarised his relationship with his grandfather by noting, “I first knew him as a grandfather and then as a leader”. I greatly empathised with his perspective, which neatly characterised my own journey that led me to Ulundi. As a child I was intrigued about the Mahlabatini Declaration on my grandfather’s wall. I now have a copy of the declaration on my own wall from the trip to meet Buthelezi, which we both signed in renewal of its values.
As Zamo concluded: “It’s up to us to keep their legacy going”.
Schwarz is a UK-based writer and political commentator.
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