Mangosuthu Buthelezi, he of lanky, larger-than-life stature in person, looks dwarfish in the statue at the entrance of the Prince Mangosuthu Museum and Documentation Centre.
But when encountering the statue on entering, and then again when leaving, you begin to see that a precise, if accidental, poetry is at play here, with the statue expressing the brevity of facts contained within.
The centre itself, in the KwaZulu-Natal town of Ulundi, the seat of the Zululand district municipality and a one-time bastion of power for the soon to retire Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader, is somewhat forlorn, as if reluctant to come to terms with history.
At the public opening of the centre in August 2015, Buthelezi described it as the beginning of a “journey into the truth of what was, what happened, and how it shaped our country”.
As beginnings go, it was an inauspicious one, framed around politically expedient platitudes not dissimilar to the cacophony that rang out recently when bidding this controversial and compromised leader a political farewell.
But the truth is, the softening stance towards Buthelezi reveals more about the desperate state of South Africa’s current opposition politics than it does about political amnesia.
How else could the predominant image of Buthelezi, as remade by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ national chairperson Dali Mpofu at the opening in 2015, be that of a swamilike pacifist who has ceaseless “love for his people”?
If history serves us correctly, that love was selectively applied, especially in the latter days of apartheid when Inkatha openly collaborated with the apartheid apparatus to splash with blood and derail the road to South Africa’s democracy.
Save for the dramatic Greg Marinovich image of a lone, prone and lifeless IFP supporter, flanked by machine gun-toting South African Defence Force soldiers on the day of the Shell House massacre, the permanent exhibition pretends that, at least visually, the record of the thousands who died in the so-called “people’s war” does not exist.
Of course, this is solipsism of a grand order. The choice to use the Shell House massacre image to represent pre-election violence is a cheap shot and a ducking of culpability on the part of this former homeland leader and his curators, among them the Apartheid Museum’s Christopher Till.
The massacre of March 1994, in which scores of IFP supporters were gunned down as they marched through downtown Johannesburg, ostensibly in defence of their monarch and his then-sketchy place in the transitioning South Africa, is perfect in the creation of a sanctified image of Buthelezi, and by extension, the IFP.
An occasion of clear culpability on the part of the ANC (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that there was unwarranted use of violence) and wilful negligence on the part of the state (there were snipers and few preventative measures), the Shell House massacre would become the IFP’s battering ram in their tribalist pre-election antics and beyond.
The text on parts of the Shell House panel in the museum reveals a calculating hand. Some of it is used as a way for Buthelezi to issue a begrudging acknowledgment of the Ongoye massacre, which took place in 1983, after United Democratic Front-aligned (UDF) students prevented the staging of a King Cetshwayo commemorative rally.
Reflecting on the event that took the lives of five UDF students, the panel quotes Buthelezi, who seems to imply that it could have been prevented had the students refrained from shouting “Gatsha is a dog, Oliver Tambo is king”.
This is prefaced by a screed about how Inkatha leaders had become systematic targets of “the people’s war”, with more than 400 leaders killed and personal threats against him being commonplace.
One would assume that time to reflect would bestow on Buthelezi clarity as opposed to amnesia and an almost knee-jerk impulse to obfuscate. None of the IFP’s numerous episodes of wilful bloodletting make it into the record. Many were just as indelible and as irrefutable as Shell House, even if one seeks the soothing massages of aggrandising historiography.
Indeed, on examining the tone of the permanent display, be it the glass-encased artefacts or the text on the panels, there is little, at least politically, to echo the supposed courage of the man who sees himself as a statesman, philosopher, humanitarian and activist who exhibited “courage under fire”.
I was a Durbanite, not quite 13, when the Boipatong massacre took place in 1992. Sketched in song by Brenda Fassie, I would relive its systematic horror in full when I was a working journalist, poring through documents on the eve of its 20-year commemoration. Its sheer scale (involving about 300 people, some of them white men in blackface) and execution (unfolding over three systematic waves) was debilitating even to consider.
There could be a listicle, but there is neither time nor inclination for such histrionics. Inkatha’s grip on Natal as a complete project of social engineering along apartheid-striated lines, complete with a fearsome, rumoured-to-be-invincible bantustan police force, was perhaps more debilitating than the frequent outbursts of massacres.
The point here is not to consider what Buthelezi is doing with his version of history — which is a missed opportunity to rise above parochialism — but perhaps to consider why.
The entire exhibition, which at times reads like a vainglorious attempt to position Buthelezi as a diplomat in good standing and an acting president, both trusted and revered by democratic South Africa’s first two presidents, seems aimed at the tourism market rather than at any self-respecting South African.
It is through this lens that its kitsch — in the form of gratuitous snaps, totemic or irrelevant artefacts — is revealed. Take the blazer, chair and mug ensemble from Boston University in 1986, where Buthelezi gave a speech about “the plight of responsible black leaders in South Africa” and was conferred with an honorary degree while students protested his presence outside.
Take the countless snaps with Nelson Mandela. Pictures with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Declarations in defence of the Zulu monarchy. The stacks of Bibles. The display of his various identity documents. The real space that these symbols occupy is not a physical one in the form of glass cabinets and wall coverage. It is the meaningful, symbolic space in our minds where apologies and repentance should be.
Without this willingness to confront history, the Prince Mangosuthu Museum and Documentation Centre is merely a pet project, a dance with proximity to glory, a justification for having collaborated, and something for the tourists to see as they wander around helplessly, ushered by tour guides through the legend that is the Zulu kingdom.