/ 19 January 2023

It’s now time to reprint Mzala’s ‘Chief With a Double Agenda’

Essential reading: Jabulani ‘Mzala’ Nxumalo (left), the author of ‘Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief With a Double Agenda’, is the worthy subject of Mandla J Rabebe’s book, ‘The Lost Prince of the ANC’.

Arriving at the University of Durban-Westville in the early 1990s with an interest in the left, I was immediately plugged into a heady environment that continued through much of the decade. 

Figures such as Phyllis Naidoo and John Daniel from the radical side of the ANC tradition were around, along with Strini Moodley from the Black Consciousness tradition and David Hemson from the independent left. Radical scholars like Adam Habib were there too.

All of these people had much to teach young intellectuals and did so with warmth and passion. I had the good fortune of having learned firsthand from Daniel’s scholarly guidance, activist imperatives and his defiant example. 

There were many texts that it was simply assumed that a young person should have read, such as works by Samir Amin, Walter Rodney and CLR James. There were a few important texts from the ANC tradition that were required reading. One of these was Joe Slovo’s Has Socialism Failed? and Pallo Jordan’s rejoinder The Crisis of Confidence in the SACP

Another was Albie Sachs’ Preparing Ourselves for Freedom: Culture and the ANC Constitutional Guidelines. But the text from the ANC tradition that was read most avidly in tatty photocopies was Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief With A Double Agenda published in London in 1988 and written by a mysterious writer named only as Mzala — Jabulani Nobleman “Mzala” Nxumalo — the subject of a recent biography by Mandla J Radebe. 

These were the years immediately after the war between Inkatha and the United Democratic Front and so we read Mzala’s brilliant book with great enthusiasm. In 1991 Buthelezi had pressured the University of Natal to remove the book from its libraries and the university had, despite principled resistance from librarian Christopher Merrett, shamefully given in to Buthelezi. This only made us more determined to read the book.

We didn’t know much about the author other than that he was a communist, had worked with the always very modest intellectual heavyweight and devoted educator, John Daniel, in Swaziland and London, and had coined the phrase “cook the rice in the pot”, meaning that the exiled ANC needed to root its struggle within the struggle happening at home in South Africa. 

A few years ago, a Mzala Nxumalo Centre was set up at the University of KwaZulu-Natal but it petered out and today very few young people know of Mzala. Radebe’s new book, The Lost Prince of the ANC: The Life and Times of Jabulani Nobleman ‘Mzala’ Nxumalo, will change that.

Percy Ngonyama, who was a key part of the left intellectual scene in Durban in the early 2000s, was, in association with the Mzala Nxumalo Centre, working on a biography of Mzala when he died in 2019.

Radebe, a professor at the University of Johannesburg, picked up the baton from Ngonyama. Radebe’s book is part of a flood of political biographies that have been written in the post-apartheid period. Some of these have been rushed, such as Sisonke Msimang’s book on Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, while others, like Beverley Naidoo’s biography of Neil Aggett, have been superb. 

Radebe’s contribution is up there with the very best. He is a gifted writer, and his account of Mzala’s life and times is masterful. This is a deeply researched book that is full of interesting details.

We get a rich history of Mzala as a precocious young intellectual always willing to speak truth to power and constantly engaged in passionate debate. Mzala emerges as a charismatic figure who made a deep and lasting impression on everyone he worked with. He also emerges as a rigorous scholar who, like many others, moved from a political awakening in Black Consciousness into Marxism and nonracialism. 

Radebe is clear that for Mzala a politics of elite nationalism could never be adequate to the challenges faced by South Africa and that class had to be a central factor in a real project of liberation. 

In a direct challenge to the elites in the national struggle, Mzala argued that socialists must teach “the working class that their enemies are the bourgeoisie, including their own national bourgeoisie”. He argued that the people should be armed, and that Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) should integrate itself with the United Democratic Front project of building organs of people’s power. 

As Radebe’s book follows Mzala’s life it also presents an interesting and insightful window into the history of the ANC and MK. In popular discourse, MK tends to be romanticised rather than discussed as a historical reality. Thula Simpson’s recent book on MK is full of useful detail but is hard going for readers. 

Radebe’s book is a much more accessible entry into MK history, an account that shows the courage of MK soldiers and the internal challenges faced by “the people’s army”. One saddening aspect of this part of Radebe’s book is that it becomes clear that, as a young man, Jacob Zuma was a committed activist whose sincerity was never in doubt. His degeneration into a venal kleptocrat is tragic and mirrors the degeneration of the ANC.

In an otherwise richly detailed book, there is also, arguably, a minor oversight. Radebe notes that Chief With A Double Agenda received a “scathing” review in the now defunct magazine Frontline, but neglects to note that the magazine had been funded by the United States.

I only have one criticism of this otherwise excellent book. Radebe is open about the contradictions and failures of the ANC and MK, including the revolts by MK soldiers. The most famous, led by Chris Hani in 1969, was prophetic. The first line of the memorandum issued by the rebels declared that: “We, as genuine revolutionaries, are moved by the frightening depths reached by the rot in the ANC.”

I am not so sure, though, that Radebe deals fully with Mzala’s position on Aids. Hein Marais, an important left scholar, has shown that Thabo Mbeki’s conspiratorial approach to Aids, which fingered the CIA, was not new, and that Mzala had entertained a similar argument years earlier. Marais notes that in 1988 Mzala had suggested that HIV had been fabricated in the “laboratories of the military-industrial complex of the USA”. 

When liberalism glosses over the devastating and well-documented role that the CIA has played in undermining liberation movements and progressive governments all over the world, it becomes complicit with Western imperialism. 

But when radical politics, including radical nationalism, sees the hand of the CIA everywhere it degenerates into paranoia. Mzala, like Mbeki later, made a huge blunder in entertaining the idea that HIV was some sort of conspiracy and perhaps this should have been engaged in more depth in Radebe’s book. 

After all, as Radebe notes, Mzala insisted on the need for “openness — bringing everything into the open, hiding nothing, no matter how painful, so as to overcome inertia and stimulate the extraordinary potential of the people to renovate their organisation and life”. 

Now that we have an excellent biography of Mzala it is certainly time for Mzala’s own book, Chief With A Double Agenda, to be reprinted and finally made available in our bookshops

Dr Imraan Buccus is a postdoctoral fellow at the Durban University of Technology and a senior research associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.