Highs and lows: Beleka Mbete has survived five challenging years as speaker of the National Assembly. (David Harrison)
‘I told you I’ll come. I kept my promise. I always keep my promises.”
Mangosuthu Buthelezi explains why he flew into Cape Town to be interviewed.
He was only expected in the city on Tuesday, where he would attend a Cape Town Press Club speaking engagement and make the case for voting for Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in the May 8 election.
Later that day, he was also expected to take his seat on the benches of the National Assembly where he has been an MP for the past 25 years, making him one of the longest-serving MPs. It is a seat he’ll vacate permanently after the elections.
Whether you call it name-dropping, or nostalgia, Buthelezi keeps referring to his political education, his expulsion from Fort Hare University in 1950, his friendships with global political leaders, and his role in the liberation struggle.
“It makes me feel nostalgic. It makes me think of the liberation struggle itself before 1994, and all the things we did to liberate this country. It makes me think of my comrades- in-arms. Some of the stalwarts like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe. People I grew up with in politics.”The leader of the fourth-largest party in Parliament, Buthelezi has a spacious office in the Marks Building. A heavy dark wood desk faces two three-seater sofas, two chairs and a conference table. Photographs adorn walls, desks and tables.
He picks up one of his prized pictures. “This is Pixley ka Isaka Seme, my uncle,” he says proudly. “He was my mentor. When I was in matric, he lost one of his eyes. And I used to do errands for him.”
Buthelezi describes how Seme, a founder and the fifth president of the ANC, influenced his formative political years.
“When I was rusticated from Fort Hare University as a member of the ANC Youth League, he wrote letters trying to intervene for me.”
Photos of Henry Kissinger, George HW Bush, Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher have a prominent place in Buthelezi’s office. A treasure trove for a man who still describes himself as a former prime minister of the KwaZulu Bantustan under the Zulu king during apartheid.
“This one is with my friend.” Buthelezi pauses as if he is about to become emotional. “With my leader, Nelson Mandela. Whose friendship was one of the things I thank God for … This was printed in the Sunday Tribune. And here [Mandela said] ‘Buthelezi is very troublesome, but you can’t govern this country without him.’ ”
Before we tear ourselves away from the photographs, Buthelezi will not be done before describing his photograph with the former British prime minister.
“My dear friend, Lady Thatcher. We had such a friendship [she] actually came to South Africa to visit me and I wasn’t even head of state. When she turned 80, she invited me. And when she died, I was invited by the family. I was the only black face present,” Buthelezi laughs.
Being 90 years old comes with its burdens. His Excellency, as his staff and IFP MPs call him, is hard of hearing. So you have to lean close to him and raise your voice.
Today he’s wearing formal black shoes. But you would regularly see him shuffling from his office to the National Assembly chamber in comfortable, black, slip-on leather slippers. So stylish, you would never notice.
He’s often assisted, walking arm in arm with some of the fifth Parliament’s youngest legislators, IFP MPs Mkhuleko Hlengwa and Liezl van der Merwe.
It is to these young politicians that he will entrust his party when he leaves the IFP caucus, and eventually the party’s leadership.
“The future belongs to these young people. It is their turn. And I thought there’s no use keeping it to my generation.”
He is proud of a caucus that punches above its weight.
Hlengwa is a rising star for the party — vocal, sharp and articulate in Parliament’s accounts watchdog, Scopa. Van Der Merwe helped to blow the whistle on the social grants debacle in the social development committee. And the party’s chief whip, Narend Singh, is a parliamentary procedures wonk in the chamber and parliamentary chief whips forum meetings. It’s because of this caucus diversity that Buthelezi rejects the notion that the IFP is a Zulu party.
But his participation in South Africa’s legislative democracy might not have happened. The party only confirmed its participation in the 1994 election five days before the official polls.
Special stickers were printed and pasted on ballot papers. The IFP nearly missed becoming the third-largest party in Parliament and the governing party through coalition in KwaZulu-Natal. Buthelezi was appointed South Africa’s home affairs minister, a position he held for 10 years.
He says history could have played out differently if the IFP had not participated in the first democratic elections.
“I have no doubt there would have been violence. That’s speculation, of course. I’m not saying that I was going to unleash violence.”
In the end, Buthelezi says he’s a lover and a fighter. He says he gave roses, bought from Cape Town’s Adderley Street flower sellers, to women MPs on Valentine’s Day in 2013.
For the record, he did it long before Cyril Ramaphosa delivered flowers to Parliamentin 2019.