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Obituary: Mangosuthu Buthelezi, Zulu prince who roiled South African politics, dead at 95

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Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a veteran South African politician, Zulu prince and controversial figure during the apartheid liberation struggle, has died, the presidency said on Saturday. He was 95.

The founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party served two terms as Minister of Home Affairs in the post-apartheid government after burying the hatchet with the governing African National Congress party in 1994.

“I am deeply saddened to announce the passing of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Prince of KwaPhindangene, Traditional Prime Minister to the Zulu Monarch and Nation, and the Founder and President Emeritus of the Inkatha Freedom Party,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement.
Buthelezi had a procedure for back pain in July and was later readmitted to hospital when the pain did not subside, according to local news website News24.

He founded the IFP in 1975 as a national cultural movement that became a political force in what is now KwaZulu-Natal province, and his party was embroiled in bloody conflicts with the ANC in the 1980s and 1990s.

His last-minute decision to participate in the first post-apartheid election in 1994 brought peace between the two parties. The vote brought the ANC and its leader, the late Nelson Mandela, to power.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation said Buthelezi’s life intersected at multiple points with Mandela’s and that his legacy was an “imposing and complex one”.

“In many ways, the two leaders came to embody an understanding of a reconciliation which had no need of forgiveness, nor forgetting of the past, nor even of learning to like one another – it was simply about determining to get on together,” the foundation said in a statement.
South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party described Buthelezi as a “great leader”.

“Prince Buthelezi was a giant on South Africa’s political landscape,” DA leader John Steenhuisen said.

RIVALRY WITH THE ANC

Buthelezi was a champion of his people and a prominent figure in the struggle against apartheid but his rivalry with the ANC led to fraught days and much bloodshed before South Africa was able to elect its first Black leader.
Critics dubbed Buthelezi a war lord but to his legion of followers in the rural Zulu heartland, he was a visionary.

For a decade before the end of white rule in 1994, Buthelezi – dressed in leopard skins and waving a short silver-topped stick – was a familiar sight at rallies while Inkatha was embroiled in conflict with the ANC.

Read also: South Africa and the unpaid debt of the anti-Apartheid struggle

About 20,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands forced from their homes as fighting raged in KwaZulu and in men’s hostels built to house migrant labourers who toiled in mines near Johannesburg.

The price for peace was Buthelezi’s participation in a government of national unity as Minister of Home Affairs – a ministry that became a byword for graft and incompetence under his watch.

“It’s not pleasant, it’s not easy for me. Neither is it easy for President Thabo Mbeki (Mandela’s successor) to have me and my colleagues in the cabinet. We did it to end a low intensity civil war,” Buthelezi told Reuters in an interview in July 2003.

He was also cast in other roles away from politics.

Buthelezi played his own great-grandfather King Cetshwayo in the 1964 film “Zulu”, which immortalised the 1879 defence of Rorke’s Drift by British troops against thousands of Zulu fighters but also spread the image of the Zulus beyond South Africa as a mighty warrior race.

BANTUSTAN AND BALANCING ACT

Longevity marked his political career. He only stepped down as the IFP’s leader in 2019, aged 90.

Long-winded speeches were a Buthelezi trademark. Delivered in Zulu or English, they could go on for hours.

Attending the Black University of Fort Hare from 1948 to 1950, Buthelezi joined the ANC Youth League and rubbed shoulders in lecture halls with many of the movement’s future leaders. He was expelled for his political activity there.

His political clout would be forged in the KwaZulu “Bantustan” one of the so-called self-governing homelands based on tribal affiliation – islands of rural poverty where most Black South Africans were literally confined under apartheid.

A Zulu chief, Buthelezi became KwaZulu’s chief minister in the 1970s, where he tried a delicate balancing act: refusing outright independence and criticising Pretoria’s racial policies while still playing a role in the homeland farce.

It was too much for the ANC, whose leaders in exile tried to court him throughout the 1970s before giving up in the face of rank-and-file opposition to what was seen as Buthelezi’s collaboration with the apartheid regime.

In the early 1990s, the violence in KwaZulu-Natal and in the townships around Johannesburg looked as if it might wreck the prospect of a relatively peaceful transition to democracy.

Read also: Nigeria’s recovery might be a better bet than South Africa’s

As IFP leader, Buthelezi threatened to boycott the 1994 election, but after mediation led by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former British Foreign Secretary Peter Carrington and with just weeks to polling day, he relented.

As a minister in the subsequent government of national unity, Buthelezi stood in as acting president on occasion, notably sending troops into neighboring Lesotho in a controversial bid to quell a mutiny in the mountain kingdom.

But the ANC, using the power of the purse at its disposal, would eventually cut into the IFP’s voting base through an ambitious roll-out of infrastructure such as tarred roads, power and piped water to neglected rural Zulus.

Ashpenaz Nathan Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was born on Aug. 27, 1928, in Mahlabathini, the son and heir of Chief Matoli Buthelezi and Princess Constance Magago Dinuzulu.

Buthelezi grew up in a traditional household, spending his early years as a herdboy. In 1953 he was installed as acting chief of the prominent Buthelezi clan and four years later was confirmed as chief.

He was married to Irene Mzila, a nurse, eschewing the polygamy followed by many Zulu chiefs. They had three sons and four daughters.