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An ode to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi

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There have been few people in world history more colourful than Prince Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, who died on 9th September 2023, at the age of 95, and was buried on 16th September, 2023, in Ulundi, in the province of Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. He was a Zulu prince, the son of Inkosi Mathole Buthelezi. His maternal grandfather was King Dinuzulu, who was a son of King Cetshwayo. In his lifetime, he was traditional prime minister to three successive Zulu kings.

Eminent people, some of whom were not best of friends with one another, attended his state funeral, to pay homage. They included Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, the sitting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and former President Olusegun Obasanjo from Nigeria.

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

Mangosuthu was an exceptionally fluent speaker, famous for long speeches. He held the Guinness World Record for the longest ever legislative speech, for his opening address to the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly in 1993. The speech lasted from 12th March to 29th March and was 427 pages long.

His language could be sharp and spiteful, too.

‘They’re blowing up dustbins’ he said dismissively of the guerrilla struggle being waged by the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe at the peak of the anti-apartheid struggle.

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There is a nugget of information that will not be found in the public obituaries published about him in South Africa. In his later years, Buthelezi was a staunch member of Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), founded and run by Pastor T.B. Joshua, and he was a visitor and sometime resident of the Church Headquarters in Egbe, Lagos.

The history of Buthelezi’s political involvement is as colourful and variable as the man himself. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, despite his privileged circumstances as a Zulu prince, he gravitated towards the resistance, becoming a member of ANC Youth League. However, as time went on, he began to define his image more by his Zulu identity. He formed the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement (INCLM) in 1975. Twenty years later, the name of the party would be changed to Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Buthelezi’s political transformation went full circle in those twenty years, from anti-apartheid activist to defender of the system, or at least an obstructive influence in the path of the liberation struggle.

Buthelezi’s relationship with the African National Congress gradually deteriorated. He focussed more on defending and extending Zulu prerogatives, and propagating a conservative agenda.

The IFP and its founder were regarded with grave suspicion by other black South Africans.

Buthelezi was made a leader of a Bantustan, one of the tribal enclaves created by the apartheid government as a political arrangement for segregating the black population from white South Africa. Buthelezi became a poster-boy for the possibilities of ‘homelands’.

By the 1980’s the relationship between the African National Congress and Inkatha was becoming increasingly tetchy. Violent clashes took place between members of the two parties as Inkatha sought to maintain its dominance in Kwazulu-Natal.

As the years moved on, it was becoming clear that neither the ‘homeland’ policy nor the political sleight-of-hand of a tricameral parliament that would give black and ‘coloured’ people the semblance of political participation, but no real power, was going to work. The different peoples and power centres of South Africa began to wrap their minds around the inevitability of a ‘united’ nation.

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As part of a deliberate strategy of divide and rule, the apartheid government worked hard to sow enmity between the Zulus and the rest of the black population. The Trades Unions, especially the black miners, were in the vanguard of the anti-apartheid struggle. To break their solidarity, Zulu miners living in single-sex hostels were covertly armed and regularly incited against their fellows. The hostels became no-go areas for law enforcement. They were used for breaking up strikes and preventing agitation against the government.

Inkatha not only opposed violence against government facilities, but it also opposed the sanctions imposed by the rest of the world against South Africa to get rid of apartheid. In 1984, Buthelezi travelled to the USA, clearly with the connivance of the South African government. He met President Ronald Reagan and argued against sanctions, claiming they were harming the black population more than the whites.

Buthelezi’s collaboration with the South African Defence Force led to Zulu militias receiving training from Special Forces. Inkatha members were involved in several massacres in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections. In 1993, the Inkatha Freedom Party signed a solidarity pact with the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) which stated that ‘Boer and Zulu would fight together for freedom and land should they be confronted by a common enemy’.

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

The expectation of many black people, and perhaps the hope of some Afrikaners who did not want a ‘rainbow’ nation, was that there would be a civil war between the Zulus and other indigenous nationalities to settle scores immediately a black government attained power.

Perhaps the greatest legacy Mandela bequeathed to his nation was achieved by moving swiftly to prevent this apocalypse, and to unite the black population, despite their age-old animosities. When he appointed Buthelezi as his Minister of Home Affairs, many eyebrows were raised, and many people were angry, including Winnie Mandela.

It proved a masterstroke. Those who were ready to label the Zulus as pariahs and destroy their awesome military might were silenced. A nation was born.

Buthelezi has struggled with dubious success to play the role of elder statesman in his declining years. Inkatha has gradually waned in influence on the national stage. Under pressure, Buthelezi relinquished his leadership a few years ago.

Perhaps he turned to God – the reason for his close discipleship with Pastor TB Joshua. Perhaps he saw true redemption in a soldier beating his sword into a ploughshare.

May his soul rest in peace.