/ 15 September 2023

Buthelezi fought for 50 years to control how his story was told

Safrica Buthelezi
Party leader: Mangosuthu Buthelezi arrives at the Jabulani stadium in Soweto to address supporters during the Inkatha Freedom Party’s campaign launch in Gauteng ahead of the1999 elections. Photo: Odd Andersen/Getty Images
(John McCann/M&G)

From the beginning of his political career until the time of his death last Saturday,Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) founder and president emeritus Mangosuthu Buthelezi lived with one great fear.

This was that he would be regarded as an apartheid collaborator who weaponised Zulu tradition and its monarchy in defence of white minority rule — and his own appetite for power.

Buthelezi sought to control the narrative about himself and his actions from the 1970s onwards, taking his fight to newspaper editorial pages, media regulatory bodies and the courts to enforce his interpretation of his role in history.

Presenting himself and Inkatha as a peaceful alternative to the ANC and its internal allies, while using amabutho, the KwaZulu Police and state-funded hit squads against them in the streets was central to Buthelezi’s strategy ahead of the transition to democracy.

In the years thereafter, Buthelezi’s focus shifted to defending his actions in the build-up to and during the transition, to ensure that he and Inkatha were portrayed as the victims of aggression, rather than the perpetrators.

A man of the written and spoken word, Buthelezi spent nearly five decades in a complicated, often antagonistic relationship with the media, courting favourable coverage and responding to negative reports with a flurry of personalised, detailed letters and threats of legal action.

Buthelezi, who founded Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe, the forerunner of the IFP, in 1975, became the KwaZulu chief minister in 1977.

He had already been appointed as inkosi of the Buthelezi clan at Mahlabathini — and uNdunankulu kaZulu (traditional prime minister) to King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu — and had been elected as chief executive of the Zululand Territorial Authority in 1970.

KwaZulu was established as a “self-governing territory” or homeland, with its own legislature, constitution and, later, police force, in line with apartheid’s separate development policy, but Buthelezi argued that it did not accept the “full independence” bestowed on the other homelands such as Transkei and Ciskei.

The decision by Buthelezi to accept quasi independence was among those that placed him on a collision course with the ANC, with whose blessings he had formed Inkatha, but one which he defended, arguing that he was fighting the system while working within it.

Buthelezi’s stance found favour with the National Party government and the white Natal establishment, which resulted in positive coverage of him and his party in the local English press.

By the early 1980s Buthelezi had set up a formidable propaganda machine under the department of the chief minister, ensuring positive coverage of KwaZulu and Inkatha in local and international media and producing its own publications.

Prime minister: Mangosuthu Buthelezi (right) and King Goodwill Zwelithini (left) arrive at the KwaDukuza (previously Stanger) burial site of King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation, in 1996. Photo: Yves Gellie/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Both major English language daily newspapers — The Natal Mercury and the Daily News — stationed staff in Ulundi to provide daily coverage of the legislative assembly sittings and Inkatha activities, along with Ilanga lase Natal, the biweekly Zulu newspaper.

So did the SABC, whose Zulu radio service broadcast from the legislative assembly and which set up studio facilities in Ulundi’s oldest section, Unit A, for its English and Zulu television channels.

Buthelezi’s often lengthy policy speeches as chief minister — and as minister of police and economic affairs — were reported in detail, as were the “debates”, in which members of the legislative assembly, all Inkatha members, honed in on aspects of the leader’s initial input.

In 1993, he delivered what is still the Guinness World Record for a legislative speech, an 11-day epic, alternating between English and isiZulu, which began on 12 March and ended on 29 March.

Shenge spoke for an average of two and a half hours a day, with translations for the Hansard record taking up the rest of the 11 working days out of 18 days over which he spoke.

Legislature openings were high-profile events attended by diplomats from Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, as were Inkatha conferences, at which Buthelezi also built his profile as a non-violent, anti-communist alternative to the ANC.

The debates gave Buthelezi a platform to respond to any negative newspaper coverage of his speeches in the legislative assembly, which he did regularly, with members being given copies of newspaper reports on the proceedings.

Offending articles were read out at the beginning of the day’s sitting — often with the author seated in the media gallery — along with a response correcting them, which would also be sent to the newspaper in question with a demand for right of reply.

As part of the battle of ideas, legislative assembly members were regularly given photocopied versions of banned ANC publications, including Sechaba, Dawn and the African Communist, in which its leaders had attacked Buthelezi over his participation in the system.

They were intended to build Buthelezi’s victimhood in the eyes of assembly members, who would otherwise have had no access to the content of the ANC’s attacks on the KwaZulu chief minister.

At least one was briefly detained and beaten by security police and the South African Defence Force after being found with banned ANC literature in the Ingwavuma area in 1987. 

In the same year Inkatha-owned Mandla Matla Publishing, run by its then secretary general, Oscar Dhlomo, bought Illanga from the Argus group.

Ilanga journalists were only informed about the deal the day it went through and walked out, with many moving to the Catholic Church-owned Umafrika.

The buy-out provided Inkatha with control over the country’s largest vernacular newspaper and ended Ilanga’s critical coverage of Inkatha’s role in the escalating conflict with supporters of the ANC’s internal ally, the United Democratic Front.

The party also set up the Inkatha Institute, an “independent” body responsible for conducting and disseminating research on its behalf, which was funded by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

But the Inkatha Institute was closed down in 1995 after its role in channelling funds from the apartheid state to Inkatha for covert operations was exposed in the Mail & Guardian’s reporting of the Inkathagate scandal.

Buthelezi was combative, but extremely formal, in his personal dealings with the media.

Press conferences at Inkatha conferences were an intimidating affair, held at the party’s eMandleni Matleng training camp at Ulundi in front of its entire national council, who growled down difficult questions and applauded every time Buthelezi drove a point home against a hapless questioner.

Buthelezi did not hesitate to turn to the courts in his fight to push back against attempts to associate him with the violence being meted out by his supporters.

In 1986 Buthelezi successfully sued Frontline magazine and its editor, Denis Beckett, for an article that said Buthelezi’s “claim to represent the sole nonviolent alternative to Marxist revolution is questionable to say the least”. 

Deal maker: Then president FW de Klerk, ANC leader Nelson Mandela (right) and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi after reaching an agreement on the establishment of the Ingonyama Trust days before the 1994 elections. Photo: Keith Schamotta/Getty Images

The article described Buthelezi’s “well-drilled impi regiments” as “among the most thuggish operators in South Africa”, sparking the successful defamation action and the award of R12 000 in damages and costs.

Beckett and Frontline took the matter to the supreme court of appeal in 1990, but failed, with the outcome sending a clear message to media houses over critical coverage of the Prince of kaPhindangene.

Buthelezi also effectively “banned” the book Gatsha Buthelezi, Chief with a Double Agenda, written by ANC activist and historian Mzala Nxumalo in 1988, preventing it from being sold in bookstores in the province through threats of violence.

He also set out to discredit Nxumalo and his research, because the book questioned Buthelezi’s claim to blood links to the Zulu royal family and his right to occupy the position of traditional prime minister to the king.

Buthelezi never accepted the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which placed personal responsibility for thousands of deaths on him over hit squad operations and massacres carried out by his supporters.

After several years of legal exchange with the TRC, in 2022 he went to court to try to interdict the release of its final report, which was scathing in its findings on his role in the decade of killings.

The report found Inkatha was the “primary non-state perpetrator” in the violence which claimed 20 000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s and that its leadership, including Buthelezi, conspired with the regime to run assassination squads.

The IFP’s legal team made submissions demanding that 37 paragraphs referring to Buthelezi and other Inkatha leaders over a variety of actions, including the delivery of six truckloads of weapons to its Mlaba Camp by apartheid hit squad operative Eugene de Kock on the eve of the 1994 elections.

Buthelezi reached an agreement with the TRC, which allowed the findings of the report — including those linking him to the Caprivi trainee hit squad programme — to stand, while allowing him to publish an annexure outlining his objections to its findings.

The IFP’s electoral decline — and the breakaway by former national chairperson Zanele Magwaza-Msibi and her supporters to form the National Freedom Party (NFP) in 2011 — saw Buthelezi head back to the courts in defence of his name.

In 2010, Buthelezi sued Business Day, its editor and political commentator Protas Madlala for R200 000 over a report quoting Madlala in which he claimed he was unfairly described as being willing to use violence against her supporters in the IFP.

Buthelezi lost this round with the media, with the high court awarding costs against the IFP president.

Age and the passing of time did not diminish Buthelezi’s desire to control the narrative about his history — and his legacy.

In 2017, he threatened to take legal action against City Press for its commentary on his role in the violence and challenged the publication to prove its claims

In 2018, Buthelezi brought a complaint before the press ombuds against the M&G for its coverage of the Ingonyama Trust, set up at his direction on the eve of his democracy.

Buthelezi lost the case, along with a subsequent appeal to the press council’s tribunal.

Last March, Buthelezi wrote to the M&G complaining about a comedic reference to his invasion of Lesotho in a column, describing the author as “an idiot” with “no content” and a habit of “returning to his old whipping boy, Mangosuthu Buthelezi” when there was nothing to write about.

In July this year, not long before he was admitted to hospital, Buthelezi again demanded right of reply from the newspaper over reports that his relationship with King Misuzulu kaZwelithini was on the rocks over the firing of Ingonyama Trust Board chairperson Jerome Ngwenya.

It was to be the final skirmish in a lifetime of battles fought by Buthelezi for control over how his story was told.