/ 9 September 2023

Buthelezi: A political career defined by apartheid ministers and Zulu nationalism

Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, Frederik Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela at a press conference to announce the entry of the IFP into the first democratic South African elections, April 1994. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

By the 1970s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, then chief minister of the fledgling KwaZulu homeland, gained a great deal of traction as a credible black leader in the eyes of many white people through favourable media coverage. Soon after the 1976 Soweto uprising, I asked the opinion of a black friend about him.  Her answer was dismissive: “Our leaders are out of the country”.  

Judging from the abysmally low voter turnout when homeland elections were held, her views were shared by most black people, while his credibility in the eyes of whites gained momentum.  His black support base was further eroded by the carnage of the 1980s and 1990s, with research carried out in what is now KwaZulu-Natal showing that support was overwhelmingly rural based.  The reasons that such an intelligent, charismatic leader never gained the type of political recognition he craved are rooted in his own core mission in life, which was to rule a reconstructed Zulu nation.  

Apartheid ministers and local and international business interests alike successfully wooed him, and he fell into their divide-and-rule trap, instead of adhering to the 1912 nation-building objectives of the  ANC he claimed to support.

The late Prince Clement Zulu, an uncle and trusted confidante of the late King Goodwill Zwelithini, spoke of Buthelezi’s childhood and how his impressive and extremely talented mother, Princess Magogo, sister of King Zwelithini’s grandfather, King Solomon, had impressed on her son that he was to restore the glory of the historic Zulu kingdom. She even cited a passage about kings in the Book of Revelation to drive this point home.  Despite his royal heritage, Buthelezi was not a member of the king’s lineage, which includes only those tracing descent through males. Being of his father’s clan, Buthelezi claimed the title of “chief induna” (prime minister) of the king, as his birthright, as his own grandfather had served King Solomon in that position. Animosity marked his relationship with most princes of King Zwelithini’s patrilineage.

In his youth, and as a student at Fort Hare, Buthelezi had been a member of the ANC Youth League and was also well regarded in progressive white religious and political circles.  One of his early, influential supporters was the late Peter Becker, author of popular books about Zulu kings, and anecdotal accounts of African life. Neither an anthropologist, nor an historian, Becker’s marketing skills may have assisted in publicity for Buthelezi. However, for the apartheid state, he needed close monitoring and control, so from the early 1970s, Bureau of State Security spies were among those deployed to work for the Zulu government.  

Influential advisors and speechwriters had close apartheid ties – including to its military. The cornerstone of the apartheid homeland system was a distorted definition of culture, not as something learned, but as innate – an idea rooted in discredited scientific racism. One of apartheid’s particularly influential deployees was Buthelezi’s key adviser and speech writer, the late Walter Felgate, whose own networks were alleged to extend beyond the South African military. He had studied anthropology, and his hand is evident in phrases about culture being inborn in some Buthelezi speeches.  These influential “advisors” were probably instrumental in the breakdown of his relationship  with the ANC following a meeting he had with exiled leader Oliver Tambo in London in 1979.  From that time Buthelezi was  being fed regular reports about anti-Buthelezi rhetoric by the ANC, including an alleged death plot.  A volume of these anti-Buthelezi utterances was compiled,  and copies were given to his political and business supporters.

Violence in South Africa
Zulu Impi (regiment) toyi-toying in Alexandra township and heading to Orlando Stadium to hear Buthelezi speak at an Inkatha Freedom Party rally. (Photo by Kevin Carter/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Buthelezi made much of his refusal to accept homeland independence but, as one Nationalist Party negotiator conceded, he had not been offered much.  KwaZulu was a group of disparate nineteenth century African reserve lands, and excluded the cities and economic heartlands, including the harbours, of Natal province.  As a homeland leader he was in a unique position as he was also being courted by white business interests and their political parties in a province known as the Last Outpost of the British Empire.  There was a long history of resentment at Natal’s incorporation into the Union of South Africa,  which a significant percentage of colonists had tried to resist. This relationship led to the establishment of the Buthelezi Commission in 1980 which not only gave him increased credibility, but also set in motion the search for a different, federal or confederal, solution for the province. The KwaNatal Indaba of 1986, revisited possibilities of alternative political dispensations for the province.  The expectations of his probably heading the government of such a political entity doubtless influenced his stance on negotiations from 1990-1994.

KwaZulu gave ideal platforms for the promotion of the Zulu identity which had started to take shape in the colonial politics of the twentieth century. Buthelezi re-established the historic (but short-lived) Inkatha kaZulu, doubtless supported by his coterie of apartheid advisors, in 1975. The priority of Zulu, over national, identity was hammered into school children by the noxious Ubuntu-botho education in schools.

However, all was not well with Buthelezi’s relationship with the young king Zwelithini, who was viewed as being too close to, and negatively influenced by, his paternal uncles, who might steer him in the direction of other new political parties, which – it was alleged – favoured homeland independence (which would have made very little difference). The king initially ignored summonses to appear before the KwaZulu legislature, and when he did finally do so, in July 1979, he was so humiliated that he fled the legislature.

That same year the KwaZulu government appointed a Select committee of five members, chaired by Justice Minister C J Mthethwa, to investigate who was creating friction between the King and the government. Significantly, its investigations included The side-lining of the Chief Minister at the king’s installation ceremony and why the king should be empowered to appoint the Chief Minister.

Despite conceding that it had experienced fear, opposition and to being interviewed by the committee, it produced a report that named Prince Clement, the king’s uncle, as the arch instigator against Buthelezi, who was allegedly plotting against him. Like Clement, the king’s second wife. maMathe, was believed to be exerting too much influence over the king. The legislature concluded that appropriate steps had to be taken to stop this undue influence on the king. So closely had the two become entwined, that any insult to Buthelezi was an insult to the whole nation. 

While there had been sporadic incidents of violence, especially against youth, it was after the formation of the UDF in 1983 that violence flared in earnest, especially in townships such as Lamontville and Chesterville which were resisting incorporation into KwaZulu, which would have cost them their rights to live and work in South Africa. However, this was interpreted as an attack on KwaZulu and Inkatha (the two were synonymous) and the vigilantes were unleashed. This violence was misleadingly portrayed as “black-on-black”, and instigated by the “communists”. The truth was that it was apartheid state sponsored, part of the Total Strategy employed by the military against what it described as a Total Onslaught. I.e. the liberation struggle.  Township residents knew that it was the military escorting vigilantes and, by 1987, KwaZulu had its own brutal, badly trained police who carried out atrocities of their own.  

These police were headed by a notorious security policeman who had reputedly been instrumental in setting up askaris, ANC supporters who had been turned to infiltrate the liberation movement (and there were many of them). Perhaps, given the identities of those surrounding him, Buthelezi had been led to accept the version favoured by most whites, that he and his homeland were under attack by radical forces. During the 1980s the king was conspicuous in his absence, including at Shaka Day celebrations, when it was Buthelezi who made provocative speeches in the volatile townships about threats to the “Zulu nation” posed by the United Democratic Front (UDF).

With the unbanning of the ANC, the king himself appeared on public platforms, making inflammatory speeches he would not have penned. The orchestrated violence escalated and spread, leading the ANC in the province to veto a proposed meeting between Nelson Mandela and Buthelezi. As negotiations got underway, Buthelezi tried, without success, to include the king as separate to KwaZulu and  what had become the Inkatha Freedom Party. This was the first example of obstacles placed in the negotiations path by the IFP, the fundamental reason being its demands, shared by its white conservative allies, for a federation type devolution of power, as opposed to the unitary state model agreed on by the ANC and Nationalist Party.  

Buthelezi’s position on devolution hardened with the arrival of two American consultants with legal backgrounds, and links to American and international conservative entities. One of them, Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, remained Buthelezi’s right hand man until he died in 2014. 

Under pressure from increasing violence, the Nationalists and the ANC made some concessions towards federalism, and the status of the Zulu king but, as the arranged election date drew near, Buthelezi steadfastly refused to participate in elections. One of his key advisors, Phillip Powell – an apartheid security policeman, reportedly with international right wing links – was training IFP recruits in guerrilla warfare near Mahlabatini, having taken delivery of six truckloads of weapons from Vlakplaas. These activities were stopped by an intervention by the Transitional Executive Committee.  

Days before the scheduled 27 April elections, Buthelezi announced that he and his cohorts had agreed to participate. The official reason was that an agreement had been reached that there would be international mediation on outstanding issues. 

Although he denied it, detailed research by American historian Hilary Lynd shows that secret pre-election negotiations led by a Nationalist government envoy had led to the passing of the Ingonyama Trust Act, days before the elections, placing what was essentially KwaZulu land (much of which had never been part of the historic Zulu kingdom) into a Trust headed by King Zwelithini, to be held on behalf of his subjects.  

The Nationalist envoy had singled out Ambrosini as the main negotiating obstacle. Yet again, it seems, Buthelezi was unduly influenced by those who encircled him.  Such was the power of his international supporters that a prominent British publisher, which had commissioned a biography of Buthelezi by journalist John Carlin in 1994, refused to publish it, fearing a massive defamation action by his British millionaire friends. 

As Buthelezi settled into the position of Minister of Home Affairs in the Government of National Unity, King Zwelithini, supported by his paternal uncles, announced that he wished to be above party politics, and distanced himself from his prime minister. This was a devastating blow to Buthelezi, and it took a few years before the rift was fully healed. 

In 1999,  President Thabo Mbeki  offered Buthelezi the position of Deputy President. He declined, apparently because of the demands for provincial leadership made by the KZN ANC.  Instead of playing a nation-building role in the national executive, he preferred to devote himself to leading his own regional party, which was a loss to South Africa. With his wealth of experience in governance, and political charisma, he would have made a good Deputy President.  Ironically, it was the ANC’s Jacob Zuma, who performed disastrously as Mbeki’s deputy, who fanned the flames of the dangerous and divisive fires of apartheid’s Zulu nationalism.  

Mary de Haas is an academic researcher and an activist for political and human rights, human dignity and social justice

Author’s note: Although as known I have monitored violence since the 1980s, please note that I have written this as an anthropologist who has written extensively, and published, on Zulu ethnic identity, the latest being a chapter in National Identity and State Formation in Africa published in 2021 called ‘Identity based conflict in KwaZulu-Natal : Future Prospects’

I also have a copy of the KwaZulu committee report on the troublesome royals given to me by, I think, Clement Zulu who was a good friend. There is a fuller report about these royal ructions at www.violencemonitor.com