How world sees SA: Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s mixed legacy

Certain memories recorded during my stint as head of News Input at the SABC between 1992 and 1994 will never fade. The murder of our amiable reporter Calvin Thusago by a panga-wielding mob when he and cameraman Dudley Saunders were on assignment to report on desecrated graves in Sharpeville. Horrific footage, which was never broadcast, that the inimitable Denis Goddard brought back daily from what was glibly referred to at the time as ‘black on black’ violence. The Boipatong massacre; the disastrous Bophuthatswana ‘invasion’; and seemingly endless deaths in KZN. Memories of those dark times resurfaced for many South Africans over the weekend with the passing of one of the period’s central characters, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In the headline to a powerful report in the FT from its local correspondent, the late 95 year old was described as “polarising”. That captures his legacy – the great-grandson of Isandlawana-winning King Ceteswayo was revered among Zulu traditionalists, despised by those on the sharp end of their Impis. Although an outsider, or perhaps because he is one, the FT’s Joseph Cotterill has done as good a job as anyone in finding the balance in the piece below, published over the weekend by our partners. Below that is Bloomberg’s report. And above, a pic from the historic WEF meeting in 1992 when Buthelezi, Mandela and De Klerk shared a public platform for the first time. – Alec Hogg

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By Joseph Cotterill of The Financial Times

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu prince, nationalist leader and kingmaker who played a polarising role in South Africa’s transition from apartheid, has died at the age of 95.

Buthelezi, the traditional prime minister to three generations of Zulu kings but arguably the figure who truly dominated the Zulu nation as founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party, died in hospital in the early hours of Saturday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

His death coincided with the annual traditional Zulu reed dance, one of the institutions buttressing the monarchy Buthelezi remade. Last year he played a crucial role in elevating King Misuzulu kaZwelithini.

Buthelezi was “an outstanding leader in the political and cultural life of our nation, including the ebbs and flows of our liberation struggle, the transition which secured our freedom in 1994 and our democratic dispensation”, Ramaphosa said.

Many in South Africa will be far more ambivalent about a figure who threatened to boycott 1994’s first democratic election until relenting just days before the vote, the culmination of decades of rivalry with the African National Congress and the IFP.

Buthelezi said that an accord with Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, apartheid’s last leader, for the IFP to join the post-apartheid poll might have saved South Africa “from disastrous consequences of unimaginable proportions”. 

But by that point his Inkatha loyalists had already fought a bloody civil war in all but name against the ANC and the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front as the white minority regime crumbled in the 1980s.

Thousands died. The IFP “sought and received training and arms from the security forces, which assisted it in forming death squads”, according to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

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“Although I have not orchestrated one single act of violence against one single victim of the political violence that has cost us many lives, as the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, I know that the buck stops right in front of me,” Buthelezi told the commission in 1996. The IFP has always denied that it instigated violence.

“History attests to Buthelezi’s progressively strained relationship with the ANC, exacerbated by the hostile political climate of the apartheid era,” the ANC said on Saturday in a statement that acknowledged “horrific bloodshed” in the 1980s and 1990s.

“However, the ANC recognises his contribution to the liberation struggle and the post-apartheid political environment.”

Born in 1928 to a mother who was granddaughter of King Cetshwayo, who fought and lost against the British in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, Buthelezi was marked out to be a royal powerbroker.

As chief of the Buthelezi clan, he first took the role of royal prime minister in the 1950s to King Cyprian Bhekuzulu. He loomed large over the reign of Cyprian’s successor, Goodwill Zwelithini, until the king’s death in 2021.

Buthelezi formed early links with the ANC in opposing apartheid. But over the years he turned against the banned movement’s methods of armed struggle and pursuit of sanctions, in favour of seeking political concessions from within the system.

He agreed to head KwaZulu, one of the “bantustan” or “homeland” statelets created by the apartheid regime, though he refused to accept that it was independent, saying he opposed the “Balkanisation” of South Africa’s body politic.

Before his murder in 1977, the activist Steve Biko attacked Buthelezi’s decision to accept the homelands while still posing as a critic of the regime. “If you want to fight your enemy you do not accept from him the unloaded of his two guns and then challenge him to a duel,” Biko said. 

In 1978, Buthelezi was chased from the funeral of the anti-apartheid leader Robert Sobukwe, his contemporary, amid mounting tensions.

With the advent of democracy, Buthelezi served as home affairs minister in Mandela’s government after 1994. As acting president in 1998, he launched an invasion of Lesotho, the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, to crush a rebellion. It was bloodier than South Africa bargained for and it remains a controversial episode in the country’s regional hegemony.

As the not so grey eminence behind the Zulu kingdom’s reinvention for the democratic era, at apartheid’s end Buthelezi also secured the formation of the Ingonyama Trust, which now owns vast traditional lands in KwaZulu-Natal province, officially on behalf of the king.

In latter years the trust has been mired in corruption scandals and power battles. Buthelezi portrayed himself as an elder statesman but as he ailed in recent months, there were also reports of rifts between him and the new king.

The party he founded and officially stepped back from in 2019 has meanwhile sought to cultivate a multi-ethnic appeal. As the fourth-biggest party in South Africa’s national assembly, the IFP will be play an important role in potentially knife-edge elections next year, with the ANC’s long-held majority under threat.

“We are devastated by this unspeakable loss to the IFP, the Zulu Nation, our country, and the greater cause of justice and peace,” the party said on Saturday.

For Prince Buthelezi’s bio and timeline on the IFP website, click here.


By Mike Cohen and Gordon Bell of Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) — Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who founded South Africa’s opposition Inkatha Freedom Party and served for a decade as a cabinet minister after the country’s first multiracial elections, has died. He was 95.

Buthelezi passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning, the South African presidency said in a statement issued by text message. Plans are being made to mourn and honor him as “a formidable leader who has played a significant role in our country’s history for seven decades,” it said.

Buthelezi led Inkatha from 1975 to 2019, quashing several attempts by rivals to unseat him before finally retiring. He remained an influential figure within the party, retaining the title of its president emeritus and representing it in parliament.

He was derided by critics for collaborating with South Africa’s apartheid rulers and implicated in alleged human rights violations during a long-running conflict with the African National Congress, which won power in 1994. He partially redeemed his reputation by forging peace between Inkatha and the ANC, joining Nelson Mandela’s government.

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Guinness Record

Buthelezi earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for delivering the longest-ever political speech — a 400-page oratory that spanned five days — and played Zulu King Cetshwayo, his grandfather, in Zulu, a 1964 film starring Michael Caine.

A Zulu prince, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was born in Mahlabathini in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province on Aug. 27, 1928. After earning a college degree in 1950, he began preparing to be a lawyer before aborting his plan to become the chieftain of the Buthelezi clan.

He held several leadership positions in KwaZulu, a territory South Africa’s White regime established for the Zulus, the nation’s biggest ethnic group, and was its chief minister from 1976 to 1994.

In 1975, Buthelezi established the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement, which tried to advance the interests of South Africa’s Black majority. While he forged close ties with the ANC — he belonged to its youth wing as a student — relations deteriorated over the ANC’s decision to take up arms against the apartheid government and call for international sanctions.

Undeclared War

Political rivalry between Inkatha and the ANC escalated into an undeclared civil war that led to more than 12,000 deaths in the 1980s and early 1990s before it ended. The conflict was stoked by the White government, which wanted to create divisions among the country’s Black majority, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission, created in 1995 by the government to probe apartheid-era atrocities, found Inkatha responsible for human rights violations. Inkatha’s leadership, allied with the White security forces and planned violent attacks against ANC supporters, according to its 1998 report. Inkatha rejected the commission’s findings as biased and inaccurate.

In 1990, Buthelezi’s cultural movement transformed itself into the Inkatha Freedom Party, which championed federalism and a free-market economy.

Buthelezi threatened to boycott the 1994 elections in a bid to win greater political autonomy in Inkatha-controlled territory, relenting days before the vote. Inkatha won 10.5% of the national vote and control of KwaZulu-Natal.

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Acting President

He was appointed minister of home affairs in Mandela’s cabinet and named acting president 22 times when Mandela was out the country, a gesture aimed at defusing tensions between the ANC and Inkatha.

Buthelezi refused the ANC’s offer of the country’s deputy presidency in return for Inkatha relinquishing the KwaZulu-Natal premiership and in 2004 then-president, Thabo Mbeki, omitted him from the cabinet.

Inkatha’s political fortunes waned in 2009 after Jacob Zuma, also a Zulu, was appointed South Africa’s president, enabling the ANC to capture a large share of its traditional support base. Inkatha secured just 3.4% of the national vote in May 2019 elections, held three months after the ANC forced the scandal-tainted Zuma to step down as president and replaced him with its new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa.  

Inkatha’s fortunes subsequently picked up as it capitalized on public discontent over high levels of poverty, unemployment and graft, and it won control of a number of town councils in KwaZulu-Natal.

Buthelezi, who had eight children, is survived by two daughters and a son. His wife of almost 67 years, Irene, died in March 2019.

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