Andrew Kenny on Mangosuthu Buthelezi: A complex legacy in the struggle against apartheid

Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, a pivotal figure in South Africa’s history, refused to accept the illusion of apartheid’s “independence” for KwaZulu Bantustan, challenging the National Party government. The 1976 Soweto uprisings marked another turning point. Despite media portrayals, Buthelezi’s legacy is complex. His principled stand against apartheid’s Grand Apartheid and advocacy for negotiations, even in the face of ANC opposition, made him a key player in ending apartheid. Amidst his imperfections, Buthelezi’s contributions to freedom and democracy in South Africa are undeniable, highlighting the intricate nature of history’s memory.

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The man who stopped Grand Apartheid

By Andrew Kenny*

Two events sounded the death knell of apartheid. The first was the refusal of Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi to accept “independence” for the KwaZulu Bantustan in the 1970s. The second was the 1976 Soweto uprisings.

After that the National Party government stopped fooling itself that apartheid could ever work, and began its clumsy, fitful, doomed attempt to end it while retaining some white power. The ANC had nothing to do with either event. The uprisings were led by the Black Consciousness movement, by the PAC and figures such as Steven Biko. Far from opposing apartheid, the ANC through its broader family was happy to accept independence for the showpiece of Grand Apartheid, the Transkei.

Buthelezi died this week at the age of 95. He has left behind him deserved acclaim, some critical appraisal and a lot of false accusation. The prevailing judgement in the mass media is that he was more sinning than sinned against, and caused tremendous bloodshed and harm, but we must not talk ill of the dead and therefore just commemorate him with some grace. This is false. It is a prime example of what the US historian, Gary Gallagher, an expert on the US Civil War, calls “the difference between memory and history”. The history of Buthelezi and how he is remembered by the media are two different things.

Gallagher cites the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, which is remembered as the turning point in the Civil War. It was no such thing. It was the bloodiest battle of the war and a resounding defeat for the South, but it had almost no effect on the course of the war. A year later, in 1864, the South came the closest it ever did to victory (which meant retaining its secession) and plunged Lincoln into near despair. There are two reasons for false memory: to believe what you want to believe and to believe in a simple, satisfying, fictional conclusion rather than the complicated mess of reality. In the complicated mess of South Africa, Buthelezi, for all his faults, emerges as a great and good man, a man of high and consistent principles, who did great service for South Africa and the cause of freedom and democracy.

Apartheid was nothing other than an attempt to preserve white power while giving an illusion of moral justification for it. That illusion was Grand Apartheid, the dividing of South Africa into archipelagoes of territory in which each nation or tribe could have its own Bantustan or homeland. where it could develop separately. In Natal, the National Party government devised KwaZulu, a patchwork of territories it proclaimed to be the homeland of the Zulus. Its leader was Buthelezi. To the fury of the National Party government, Buthelezi refused to accept “independence” for KwaZulu, thereby putting a long nail in the coffin of Grand Apartheid. At the time, General van den Bergh, head of the dreaded BOSS (Bureau of State Security), was so enraged he wanted to oust Buthelezi. In the Bantustan of the Transkei in the Eastern Province it was quite different.

Greatest victory

In 1976 Chief Kaiser Matanzima accepted full independence for the Transkei, giving Grand Apartheid its greatest victory. Matanzima had close links with the ANC through its royal family. At his funeral in 2003, President Mbeki gave him fulsome praise. Stella Sigcau, who had been a prime minister in the Transkei, was eagerly received into the ANC government in 1994 and became its Minister of Public Enterprises. Bantu Holomisa, who had also been a prime minister of the Transkei, became a deputy minister in the ANC government in 1994. In short, Buthelezi, “the stooge of apartheid”, defied apartheid at its highest level, while the ANC liberation warriors were happy to comply with it.

The ANC, while banned and in exile, asked Buthelezi, who had belonged to the ANC Youth League, to form a separate organisation to represent it in South Africa. He agreed and formed Inkatha in 1975. But then he fell out with the ANC over strategy: the ANC believed in communism, and wanted armed struggle against the apartheid regime and sanctions against South Africa; Buthelezi believed in free enterprise, rejected armed struggle against apartheid and believed sanctions would harm poor black people and do nothing to weaken hardline apartheid supporters.

He has been proved right in every respect. He wanted to argue for negotiations to end apartheid and pave the way for democracy. He refused to take part in any such negotiations unless the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. If the National Party had agreed on these terms then, South Africa would now be a much better place.

The 1976 Soweto uprisings horrified the ANC. It realised it had lost all control over the black masses. It knew it would have lost heavily if a free election had been held at the time. It changed its strategy completely and, taking advice from the communists in Vietnam, it embarked on a concerted war on two fronts: brutal terror in the townships and brilliant propaganda in South Africa and abroad. It fought for power not freedom. It fought not to end apartheid, which it saw was ending anyhow, but to stop anybody else ending it. It fought almost entirely against other black groupings. Most of them caved in before its onslaught. One did not. One defended itself. One fought back. This was Inkatha under Buthelezi.

The ANC’s propaganda succeeded because it was very good, much better than that of the IFP or the National Party, and also because most of the media, here and abroad, wanted to believe it. They wanted to be taken in by it. The ANC’s central tactic was explained to me in a single sentence by Jill Wentzel of the SAIRR: “Strike, and then pose as a victim.” So the ANC would launch a bloody attack on an Inkatha hostel, and then journalists and TV cameras would rush to the scene when Inkatha fought back. The ANC would claim that they were helpless victims, and the media would be eager to believe them. The outstanding example was Boipatong.

Terrible massacre

Boipatong was a township near Vanderbijlpark in the Vaal Triangle. On 17 June 1992, a group of armed men fell upon it and the nearby squatter camp of Slovo Park. There was a terrible massacre, a ghastly, horrible massacre. 49 men, women and children were slaughtered in the most gruesome ways. The attackers were Zulus associated with Inkatha. That much was hard fact. Little of what followed was anything of the kind. There was confusion, fabrication, and fantasy. There was the Waddington Report and the Goldstone Commission, and then a TRC hearing on it. The ANC, led by Mandela, took brilliant opportunist advantage of it, claiming it was all part of a plot by the National Party government to derail negotiations. President F W de Klerk, who was desperate for negotiations to succeed, understanding better than anybody else the catastrophe likely to happen if they failed, was bewildered, caught completely off-guard and seemed willing to surrender even more to the ANC. By far the best account of the Boipatong tragedy was written by Rian Malan, South Africa’s finest writer, in a detailed, comprehensive report, which took him over seven years to compile, after going through “a crate of documents”. If you want to understand Boipatong, you must read Rian’s report.

What nobody mentions now, certainly nobody in all the current memories I’ve read after Buthelezi’s death, is that before Boipatong there had been a series of murderous attacks by the ANC on Inkatha in the vicinity of Boipatong. There had been attacks at Xonkesizwe and Crossroads. Nearly 30 people had been killed at the latter. The Zulus had been constantly taunted, threatened and massacred. It seems they fell into a frenzy of hatred and rage and stormed Boipatong in vengeful fury.

The overwhelming evidence, collected over the years, examined before learned judges, suggests that was all there was. The stories of white policemen with blackened faces directing the slaughter and of armoured cars escorting the impis to it are all complete nonsense. Witnesses to this conspiracy were easily shown to be lying or with hysterical false memories. There were white policemen nearby but they were obviously taken by surprise and too incompetent or cowardly to intervene. They did nothing. Yet at the hearings of the TRC on Boipatong, the TRC believed every word of the discredited witnesses who claimed it was all engineered by the masters of apartheid. Wikipedia, the world’s woke thought leader, believes the same thing. No doubt so does the BBC, The GuardianThe New York Times, and so on.

In the vast majority of cases, the ANC attacked Inkatha first. In some of them, not all, Inkatha retaliated. It did so in the most brutal way. The Inkatha impis were ferocious and could be bloodthirsty. The best description I have ever read of the chaotic brutality of both sides comes from War in Peace, a book by Nick Howard, an Englishman, who was a policeman in the East Rand Riot Unit from 1986 to 1995. It is a detailed account of bloody attack and bloody counterattack in a place and time of confusion and horror. South Africa is a violent country and has a violent history among all of its people, the Zulus not the least. The most important and violent soldier in South African history was King Shaka, a Zulu.

Any proof

If any proof were needed that the ANC was fighting not to end apartheid but to stop anybody else ending it, that proof came when apartheid actually did end in 1990 when President de Klerk unbanned the ANC and the SACP, released Mandela, proceeded to scrap all the worst apartheid laws and to ask for a negotiated settlement. Then, an innocent person might have thought, the violence would die down. It did the opposite. Political violence reached its highest levels in the years 1990 to 1994, when the ANC was trying to make sure that all other black parties were crushed. It could not crush the IFP. During the most violent years, the ANC fought the pangas of Inkatha with AK47 assault rifles given to it by the Soviet Union. The apartheid government gave weapons and training to Inkatha to fight back. This of course was used by the ANC and its followers as proof that Buthelezi was a puppet of apartheid. He never was.

Buthelezi had many faults. He spoke badly and for far too long, and refused any coaching on his speaking. His invasion of Lesotho in 1998 when he was acting president was reckless. He was prickly and easily offended. He took out a ridiculous defamation lawsuit against Denis Beckett, editor of Frontline, for publishing a playful attack on him by the English journalist Stephen Robinson. In it Robinson had said that Buthelezi’s impis were “thuggish operators”, which of course they were. Denis was upset by this since he respected Buthelezi and said so.

Buthelezi seemed jealously protective of his position in the Zulu royal family and his leadership of Inkatha, surely holding on to power for far too long. He supported the Ingonyama Trust, which relies on tribal feudalism. But these failings seem insignificant besides the failings of Oliver Tambo when he was leader of the ANC during the armed struggle. Tambo ordered the torture and execution of ANC cadres at Camp Quattro. He promoted the terror in the townships and consented to the necklacing of black people, including working class children who tried to attend local schools. He himself sent his own children to posh private schools in England, financing their education with the liberation funds given him by friendly donors in the West. Buthelezi did nothing as wicked. Alone in the ANC government, he condemned Mbeki’s mad and deadly nonsense on HIV/AIDS. He told the nation that two of his own children had died of HIV, thereby probably doing more than anybody else to open the eyes of South Africa to the truth and the danger of HIV.

“No man is all of a piece” said one of my favourite authors, William Somerset Maugham. Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi certainly was not. But he was a great man and did great service for South Africa. We owe him.

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*Andrew Kenny is a writer, an engineer and a classical liberal.

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