Velenkosini Hlabisa may have served as a municipal councillor for 24 years, but the newly elected head of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) still carries the air of a school principal about him, despite his move out of the classroom into local — and now national — politics.
Impeccably dressed in a light-blue suit, checked tie and highly polished brogues, Hlabisa, 54, clearly hasn’t lost that sense of order, protocol and discipline through five terms in local government and a move to the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature earlier this year.
Hlabisa, a former IFP Youth Brigade secretary who joined the party at the age of 13 in 1978, only left his principal’s post in 2016 to become mayor of the Big Five Hlabisa municipality.
Until then, Hlabisa, who served as IFP KwaZulu-Natal chairperson from 2011 before he became secretary general in 2018, had continued to teach while serving as a councillor at the Hlabisa municipality and in the Umkhanyakude district municipality.
He was in Johannesburg this week on a media charm-offensive after his election to succeed the IFP founder and president for four decades, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, on August 24.
Buthelezi announced his retirement as party leader ahead of the May 8 general elections, paving the way for Hlabisa, who he favoured, to be elected unopposed as president. Tensions around the party’s internal succession battle saw the conference postponed several times since 2012. Hlabisa emerging as Buthelezi’s successor after months of talks to resolve disputes over the legitimacy of party branches.
A last-minute challenge for the presidency by former IFP secretary general Ziba Jiyane — who left but returned to the party — never materialised in the face of backing for Hlabisa and a consensus leadership from its national executive.
Part of Hlabisa’s mission this week was to convince the media — and the rest of South Africa — that there is life for the IFP after Buthelezi, who served as its president for 44 years since it was founded as Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe in 1975.
Hlabisa believes that an improved showing in the 2019 general elections and the fact that the leadership elected with him are all veterans whose political thinking was shaped by Buthelezi will both keep the party alive and grow it. A keen Buthelezi loyalist, he is unlikely to deviate from the positions developed under the leadership of his predecessor and has been quick to publicly reinforce this.
He said the results of the May poll showed that the IFP’s decline since 2004 had been halted.
The breakaway by IFP national chairperson Zanele Magwaza-Msibi and her supporters to form the National Freedom Party saw the IFP lose significant ground in 2009 and 2011.
The party lost a number of key municipalities in the province — coming close to being relegated to operating north of the Tugela River — and its status as the official opposition to the ANC in the province.
But it regained ground in 2016, taking control of 13 municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal and re-established itself as the official opposition in the province in May this year.
The ANC’s majority in the 81-seat legislature is now a mere four seats, a margin Hlabisa believes the IFP can cut even further in 2024.
“The rise of the IFP in 2019 wasn’t an occurrence by itself. We started winning wards off the ANC in 2015. We concentrated on these municipalities in 2016. In 2019, we ensured that we consolidated our base in KwaZulu-Natal and that worked for us. Our next target is 2021, coupled with 2024, starting early this time to work for both elections,” he said.
The party will also work on expanding its footprint beyond KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, having received votes in all nine provinces in May.
It has identified the voting districts in the other provinces where it took votes and plans to do the groundwork necessary to build on this for 2021.
“We will zoom in on all those areas, village to village, where people voted for us. We can’t shoot in the dark,” he said.
“In 2021 we want to see IFP councillors in wards beyond KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. In 2024 we want to have MPs beyond KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. That is our programme,” Hlabisa said.
Hlabisa said that although the delay in the IFP’s succession process meant it kicked off its 2019 campaign late, it was necessary to ensure that the elective conference did not deliver a disputed or divisive result.
“We went into the conference united, able to speak with one voice, and were able to come up with a unanimous outcome,” he said.
Born at Empembeni village in a very poor home, Hlabisa attended school at Mtubatuba. The first born of 10 children, Hlabisa’s experience as a child propelled him towards politics.
“I come from a poor family. As I went to school I came to understand that not all children in our country are in the same environment. Every time I left home for school I used to say I will change this. Bad as it is, it will not be forever, I will change this,” he said.
While in his third year of studies at the University of Zululand, Hlabisa’s father died. Despite the additional hardship this brought, he finished his studies and started working as a teacher in 1992. In 2000 he was appointed as principal of Ngebeza High School, where he remained until he left teaching.
Now the leader of the official opposition in KwaZulu-Natal, Hlabisa describes his election as “a new chapter” for the IFP.
“There is a base and a foundation for a new chapter for the IFP under a new leadership. The critical test that the IFP has to pass is to deliver good results under this leadership having taken the baton from the founder of the party,” he said.
Hlabisa makes it clear, however, that Buthelezi, who was given president emeritus status when he retired, would continue to play a role in the party and in promoting social cohesion.
“Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi is a very valuable human resource,” Hlabisa said. “He has seen it all. He is a resource that should not be thrown away by this country.”