Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) founder and president emeritus Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, who served as traditional prime minister to a succession of Zulu kings, has died.
Buthelezi, 95, died early on Saturday morning, after a lengthy spell in hospital.
His death was announced by president Cyril Ramaphosa, who said he was “saddened” by Buthelezi’s passing in hospital after being admitted for routine treatment at the beginning of August.
Ramaphosa described Buthelezi as an “outstanding” leader who had played a role throughout South Africa’s contemporary history.
Buthelezi was one of South Africa’s longest serving — and controversial — politicians, whose remarkable career spanned five decades and traversed both the apartheid regime and the post-1994 democratic dispensation.
An accomplished orator, historian and custodian of Zulu tradition and culture, Buthelezi was perhaps one of the most contradictory figures in South African politics, claiming to be part of the national liberation movement, while also participating in the apartheid system.
It was this policy of “loyal resistance” to the apartheid regime which placed him on a collision course with the liberation movement he claimed to be part of — and at the centre of the bloody conflict of the 1980s and 1990s.
Buthelezi was born at Mahlabathini in Zululand in 1928 to Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, sister of the then king, Solomon kaDinuzulu, and Matohole Buthelezi, the chief of the Buthelezi clan.
After completing his school education, Buthelezi attended the University of Fort Hare, where he joined the ANC Youth League and was expelled for participating in protests in 1950.
Shenge, the honorific clan name by which he was known, completed his bachelor of arts degree at the University of Natal, working briefly as an administration clerk for the department of native affairs.
In 1953, after a succession battle for the leadership of the Buthelezi clan with his elder half brother, Mceleli, who was arrested by security police and later banished, he became inkosi.
The following year, King Cyprian kaSolomon appointed him as his traditional prime minister, a role that Buthelezi was to leverage to build — and sustain — Inkatha and which he has occupied until today.
In 1970, as part of its “homelands” policy, the apartheid government declared the Zululand Territorial Authority, which became KwaZulu in 1972.
In terms of the policy, black South Africans were stripped of their citizenship and given that of the “independent” bantustans, a move which was rejected by the ANC and other liberation movements.
Buthelezi, who was elected as the territorial authority’s chief executive, became the chief executive councillor of KwaZulu, a title that was changed to chief minister in 1977.
Buthelezi founded Inkatha Yenkululeko we Sizwe — the forerunner of the IFP — in 1975 and served as its president for 44 years until 2019, when he declined nomination, allowing Velenkosini Hlabisa to take the helm of the party.
Shenge consolidated his power as KwaZulu chief minister, minister of police and minister of economic affairs, with only Inkatha contesting seats in the KwaZulu legislative assembly, situated in Ulundi.
Buthelezi maintained a policy of participating within the apartheid system, while calling for the release of jailed ANC leader Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, positioning Inkatha as a part of the broader liberation movement.
But relations with the ANC soured over, among other issues, the acceptance of bantustan citizenship by Buthelezi and his opposition to the exiled liberation movement’s policy of armed struggle and sanctions.
A plan to incorporate townships around Durban, including Chesterville and Lamontville, into the bantustan in the early 1980s was fiercely rejected by their residents, who successfully opposed the attempt to force them to accept KwaZulu government rule.
These tensions escalated with the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF), an internal ally of the ANC, in 1983, sparking a decade of state-sponsored violence that continued into the early days of democracy.
More than 20 000 people were killed in the low intensity civil war that was fought in KwaZulu and parts of the Transvaal, and in which both the KwaZulu Police and Inkatha militants trained by the South African Defence Force played a key role.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) found that the trainees were responsible for assassinations of ANC and UDF activists as part of Operation Marion, planned by Pretoria and Buthelezi’s administration.
Buthelezi steadfastly maintained his innocence of any role in planning or authorising the killings, and consistently presented Inkatha as a victim, not an aggressor, and as an opponent of apartheid, using the approach of “loyal resistance” rather than a collaborator with the system.
When the negotiations process between the ANC and the former regime began in 1990, Buthelezi rebranded Inkatha as the IFP and lobbied for a federalist dispensation, allying the party with right-wing ones in a bid for greater self-determination.
It was during this time that KwaZulu passed laws creating the Ingonyama Trust, which today administers nearly three million hectares of traditionally controlled land on behalf of the Zulu monarch.
The IFP pulled out of the talks on several occasions, boycotting the ratification of the 1983 interim constitution and threatening to boycott the 1994 elections, in which it finally participated.
In 1994, Buthelezi became an MP in the national assembly, and served as minister of home affairs in the government of national unity under Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president.
During this time Buthelezi acted as president of the country on several occasions in the absence of Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, infamously authorising the month-long military intervention in neighbouring Lesotho during one such absence in September 1998.
Buthelezi was appointed to Mbeki’s cabinet in 1999, again serving as home affairs minister, but clashed with the president towards the end of the term over immigration regulations introduced on his watch.
In 2004, Mbeki did not invite Buthelezi to join his cabinet and the IFP leader retained his position as a MP on the opposition benches in the national assembly, which he occupied until his death.
During this time Buthelezi became the chairperson of the national house of traditional leaders, a job that allowed him to maintain his links with amakhosi in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the pillars of his consolidation of power from the 1970s.
After the transition to democracy Buthelezi’s relationship with King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu waned, as did his influence over the monarchy, which was funded and supported by the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government.
In 2021, when Zwelithini died, Buthelezi, as traditional prime minister, was central to the process of naming and installing his successor, King Misuzulu kaZwelithini, backing him in the succession battle with his siblings.
But, in early 2023, the relationship between Buthelezi and the new king deteriorated after the monarch fired Ingonyama Trust Board chairperson Jerome Ngwenya and replaced him with Thandyuise Mzimela.
Buthelezi had threatened to withdraw his affidavit supporting the king’s defence of a claim against his assuming the throne and had mobilised amakhosi against the decision — and the monarchy he had served most of his life.
Throughout his career, Buthelezi ran Inkatha, and later the IFP, with an iron fist, countenancing no challengers to his authority.
Its founding secretary general, Sibusiso Bhengu, was forced to leave the party in 1978 and go into exile after clashing with Buthelezi over the party’s direction.
In 2004, Ziba Jiyane, another rising star and modernising force in the party, beat Buthelezi’s favourite for the post of national chairperson, Lionel Mtshali, but also had to leave the party the following year.
A similar fate befell IFP national chairperson Zanele Magwaza-Msibi in January 2011, whose expulsion — along with her supporters — resulted in the creation of the National Freedom Party) later that year.
The IFP remained without a leadership succession plan for nearly a decade, until Buthelezi stepped aside as president in August 2019, allowing Hlabisa to be elected unopposed.
Throughout his political life, Buthelezi went to great lengths to position the IFP as an opponent of the apartheid system and a victim of the ANC’s aggression in the conflict of the 1980s and 1990s.
In 2002, he went to court to oppose the release of the TRC’s final report, which found that the IFP, under Buthelezi, was a “primary non-state perpetrator of violence” and was “responsible for approximately 33% of all violations reported to the commission”.