Anthea Jeffery on Prince Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi (1928-2023) – “an exceptional South African”

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who passed away at 95, leaves a legacy as a remarkable South African leader. He defied apartheid’s grand scheme, rejecting ‘independence’ for KwaZulu, leading to negotiations for a ‘new’ South Africa. Advocating a non-racial, federal nation, he garnered massive support, even outshining the ANC. Amid the ANC’s violent ‘people’s war,’ he courageously spoke out against its atrocities. Although vilified by rivals, he stood for peace. His death marks the loss of a leader who could have steered South Africa toward a prosperous, multiparty democracy.

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Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi (1928-2023)

By Dr Anthea Jeffery

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who died in the early hours yesterday at the age of 95, was an exceptional South African.

One of his most important achievements was to break the National Party government’s grand apartheid scheme by steadfastly rejecting a spurious ‘independence’ for the KwaZulu homeland. This compelled the NP to keep looking for alternatives and, in the end, to embark on negotiations for a ‘new’ South Africa.

Prince Buthelezi was also a powerful proponent of a genuinely non-racial and federal South Africa and sought for many years to achieve this goal by peaceful means.

For decades, his principled stance on these issues gave him and the Inkatha movement he formed in 1975 (later the Inkatha Freedom Party or IFP) far more popular support than the ANC – whose key policies of armed struggle and economic sanctions were widely rejected.

In 1990, when the ANC was finally unbanned – thanks largely to Prince Buthelezi’s repeated demands for this – the IFP had a claimed membership of some 1.8 million. By contrast, ANC membership had peaked at 100 000 in the 1950s, before the organisation had turned to armed struggle.

The ANC was nevertheless determined to obtain hegemony over post-apartheid South Africa, so that it could in time propel the country to a socialist future – as its SACP ally demanded and its Moscow backers urged. In 1984 the ANC thus embarked on a people’s war aimed primarily at weakening or eliminating its black rivals for power. Of these, Inkatha was by far the most important.

The people’s war terrorised thousands of black civilians and brought about some 20 500 deaths between 1984 and 1994. As it intensified, Prince Buthelezi was one of the few people to speak out strongly against the great harm being done.

He condemned the school boycotts intrinsic to the people’s war, describing the ANC’s call for ‘Liberation Now, Education Later’ as ‘an insane slogan’ that would turn black youngsters into ‘a generation of illiterates’. He criticised the sanctions campaign, saying black South Africans had never mandated the ANC ‘to attempt to destroy the economy and create vast unemployment and under-employment’.

Read more: How world sees SA: Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s mixed legacy

‘Blacks who die’

He rejected accelerating bomb attacks by the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, saying, ‘Every time bombs explode it is blacks who die.’ He also condemned the ANC’s determination to make South Africa ‘ungovernable’, warning that ‘if we reduce the country to ungovernability now, it will remain ungovernable after liberation’.

In response, the ANC and its allies repeatedly stigmatized Prince Buthelezi as a puppet of Pretoria, an apartheid stooge. They also called him ‘a snake’ which was ‘poisoning the people of South Africa’ and which needed to be ‘hit on the head’.

Much of the violence of the people’s war was directed against the IFP, which might otherwise have won the first all-race election in April 1994. By the time this election took place, some 400 IFP leaders and office bearers had thus been killed, often in planned attacks.

Examples were legion: Joseph Khumalo, IFP chair in Diepmeadow (Soweto), ambushed and shot dead after being called to an urgent meeting in April 1991; Chief Dingizwe Ndlovu and his daughter, gunned down outside his Ixopo home soon afterwards; IFP official Thomas Gcabashe, shot dead in the driveway of his house in the Table Mountain area in December 1991; well-known IFP leader Winnington Sabelo, gunned down in his Umlazi shop in February 1992 by two men posing as customers; and induna Fana Nzimande, lined up with his wife and children against the wall of his Patheni (Richmond) homestead and shot dead as if by firing squad in August that year.

Thousands of actual or deemed IFP supporters were also killed: 23 mown down in six minutes of withering AK-47 fire near Richmond in March 1991; some 30 executed in the same area thereafter for their earlier ‘collaboration’ with the IFP; 18 shot dead at the Tokoza stadium in September 1991; 13 killed in an RPG-7 rocket attack in Soweto a week later; 23 hacked and stabbed to death in two attacks near Katlehong in April 1992; 22 shot dead at Folweni south of Durban in October that year; seven taken from a taxi and shot in the back of the head at Wadeville in July 1993; eight gunned down by ANC security guards in the Shell House massacre on 27 March 1994; and more than 40 killed in other attacks on Zulu loyalists that same day.

Read more: Anthea Jeffery: A reply to Dr Msimang – Revealing the ANC’s socialist ambiguity

Atmosphere of violence

Yet when Prince Buthelezi withdrew from the multiparty negotiations and the April 1994 poll – saying no credible constitution could be drafted and no free and fair election could be held in the atmosphere of violence the ANC had fostered – he was widely condemned as a ‘spoiler’. Cyril Ramaphosa, then secretary general of the ANC, accused him of ‘wanting to drown democracy in a sea of blood’.

When IFP supporters retaliated – as they most notably did in the Boipatong massacre of June 1992, in which 45 people were killed – Prince Buthelezi condemned the massacre as ‘vicious and inhuman’. He believed that IFP supporters had the right to defend themselves against attack, but he never called for violence against the ANC.

Unlike the ANC, moreover, the IFP gained no political benefit from the violence – for Inkatha’s visible revenge raids were always widely condemned, whereas the ANC’s targeted killings of IFP leaders and supporters passed largely unremarked.

A week before the April 1994 election, Prince Buthelezi agreed that the IFP should participate in the poll after all. He changed his mind after an old friend, Professor Washington Okumu, warned him that the ANC would seek to obliterate the IFP after the election if the party continued to resist the new dispensation. ‘They are going to get you. They mean it,’ Professor Okumu is reported to have said.

Under Prince Buthelezi’s leadership – and despite major shortages of ballot papers and IFP stickers in areas where IFP support had for many years been strong – the party won 51% of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal and 10.5% in the country as a whole.

Most commentators continued to ignore the violence to which the IFP had been subjected and its likely impact on the fairness of the election. But a report in the London Sunday Telegraph was accurate in commenting, in the run-up to the poll: ‘South Africa is likely to become the first country outside the former USSR to elect a communist government by supposedly “democratic” means, even though this might involve thousands of deaths… What is happening is the end-game of a sinister process that has been unfolding since 1984, when the ANC and its ally, the SACP, launched a deliberate campaign to eliminate by terrorism all their black rivals, particularly Inkatha’.

Perhaps the most telling tribute to Prince Buthelezi comes from a confidential ANC document, reported to have been drawn up in February 1992. The document identified him as the ANC’s most formidable opponent and the only real obstacle to a socialist South Africa. Important progress had been made in ‘successfully discrediting Buthelezi and his warriors’, the document went on. However, the IFP president still remained ‘a festering sore which could develop into a dangerous growth if not destroyed immediately’.

Read more: Anthea Jeffery on the Multiparty Charter: Uniting for growth, challenging socialist legacy

Power base

Buthelezi’s power base was significant, the document added. He also had important leadership qualities and could play a vital role in forging an alternative to ANC rule. ‘Without him, by contrast, many bantustan leaders and other organisations would find themselves in a political vacuum – which would suit our purposes.’

The document went on: ‘Our strategy should be to place him under unbearable pressure and to continually seek ways and means to discredit him locally and internationally. In this, our media have [already] played a useful role… No effort should be spared to associate his name with violence and murder. Not even the National Party must consider him a potential ally. Isolated and in the political wilderness, time and the [ANC] movement, as government, will finally take care of this curse on the South African map’.

Some 30 years after this document was drawn up, South Africans can see how high a price the country has paid for the ANC’s success in discrediting Prince Buthelezi and incrementally eroding his support base.  His death earlier today signals the country’s final loss of an exceptionally important leader who could have led the transition from apartheid to a genuine multiparty democracy – and a successful free market economy geared to growth and prosperity for all.

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Dr Anthea Jeffery holds law degrees from Wits, Cambridge and London universities, and is the Head of Policy Research at the IRR.

This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission