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Buthelezi leaves IFP and SA at a fork in the road

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Picture: REUTERS Mangosuthu Buthelezi, founding leader of the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) speaks to supporters in Richards Bay before the national elections, in 2009. With the resurgence of right-wing ideas that essentialise ethnic identities, will the IFP leadership shake off provincialist and ethno-nationalist ideas to embrace a unifying South African nationhood or not, asks the writer.

By Trevor Ngwane

The passing of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, may his soul rest in peace, represents a crossroads in South African politics. His political career, which spanned a veritable three-quarters of a century, provides many lessons about the past but, more importantly, raises important questions about the future of our democratic Republic.

Will the authority of elected public representatives prevail over that of traditional leaders, especially in the former Bantustans? Will a unified national identity triumph over provincial ethnic identities? Will republicanism ultimately triumph over autocracy? Will continuities of apartheid oppressions and exploitation be finally eradicated? South Africa is not the only country facing these types of questions.

The rise of right-wing leaders such as Donald Trump in the US, Narendra Modi in India and Viktor Orbán in Hungary is raising important questions about the future of liberal democracy and its cherished freedoms in the context of the global crisis of neoliberal capitalism. The crisis of neoliberalism was apparent in the 2008 economic meltdown when corporations such as Lehman Brothers, AIG and Goldman Sachs went bankrupt because of reckless trading, excessive speculation, and the absence of strong financial regulation.

The suffering that the crisis unleashed on the masses fertilised the ground for the rise of populist right-wing politics as trade unions and leftist political organisations failed to provide a way forward. What followed was a retreat from democratic ideals and economic practices associated with neoliberal globalisation whose essence was the free movement of goods, people and capital across the global village. Calls were made for economic protectionism and anti-immigrant policies.

Cosmopolitanism and the embracing of different cultures, genders and races were replaced by ethnic and racial chauvinism and a rejection of “outsiders” and “other” people in favour of taking care of one’s own. The integrated global economy was fractured by parochial ethnic-nationalist interests, concerns and identities. Trump built his wall against Mexican migrants. Modi organised pogroms against Muslims. Orban clamped down on universities.

Buthelezi built his political career and carved out a national role in South African politics by mobilising Zulu identities several decades before the 2008 depression. Despite the twists and turns in his political strategies necessitated by changes spanning a long political career, what is arguably constant in his politics is the politicisation of ethnic identities and the promotion of Zulu nationalism. Nicknamed Gatsha (branch) by his grandmother, reputably because she believed he would restore the Zulu nation to its former glory, his political outlook was limited by its local or, at best, regional grounding in a context where the liberation movement defined itself in national terms.

An important component in mobilising the amaZulu was the need to safeguard the monarchy as an essential aspect of Zulu political culture and identity. The defeat of the Zulu nation by colonialism involved targeting and undermining Zulu kings as leaders and symbols of the Zulu state, independence and pride.

Buthelezi worked hard to revitalise the Zulu monarchy, including bringing it in line with his broader political agenda and personal ambitions. He capitalised on his blood ties to the Zulu royal family and the role of his great-grandfather, Mnyamana, as a chief adviser to King Cetshwayo to lay claim to his preordained role as “prime minister” to Zulu kings. A fatal flaw in his strategy, which at first appeared to pay dividends, was his decision to participate in apartheid structures, becoming the chief minister of the Zululand Bantustan, purportedly to fight apartheid from within.

Despite successfully using this position to build his power base and defiantly refusing to accept full independence for his homeland, this played into the hands of his apartheid masters whose grand strategy was locking black people in ethnic political identities to keep them divided and to deny them their political rights in “white” South Africa. The strategy condemned him to the role of provincial leader and earned him the unedifying title of “sell-out” from his detractors.

Another strategic error was his self-projection as a supporter of capitalism, which led him to oppose the call for economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. While this endeared him to liberals, capitalists and Western leaders such as Ronald Reagan in the US and the UK’s Margaret Thatcher, it pitted Buthelezi against the ANC’s disinvestment campaign and ignored a fundamental characteristic of South African racial capitalism: cheap black labour and white ownership of the wealth.

In the struggle between labour and capital, it located Buthelezi firmly on the side of the capitalist exploiter. The capitalist class in South Africa, as in other colonial contexts, became adept at making itself invisible and operating under cover of racist white governments, which its liberal ideologues denounced as “irrational” and “backward” while benefiting handsomely from racialised economic exploitation and political suppression of black labour.

The greatest beneficiary of the migrant labour system, the single-sex compounds and the dompas, was mining capital. What is often overlooked is that tribalism and its traditional system of authority articulated with capitalism and racialism, facilitated profit-making. Buthelezi’s mission to shore up the Zulu monarchy, traditional institutions and cultural practices, including his quest to empower chiefs, indunas and headmen, even though informed by an anti-colonial, pro-liberation sensibility, served and protected racial capitalism, in reality.

As the anti-apartheid struggle climaxed in the 1980s, ushering in the prospect of the demise of apartheid with its racialist and tribalist appurtenances, the Zulu elite, led by Buthelezi, made a daring bid to mobilise all amaZulu on the basis of their linguistic and cultural identities, to support a national political project informed by a vision of a free South Africa.

Ultimately, Buthelezi failed in realising his destiny of returning the Zulu nation to its former glory. Yes, he managed to wrest concessions out of the ANC government, such as the recognition of the Zulu monarchy and its control of large tracts of land through the Ingonyama Trust. Yes, he won recognition of traditional leaders and their political control over people living in the former Bantustan (KwaZulu). But these victories are based on a contradiction, namely, the continuation of apartheid-era oppressive, patriarchal and undemocratic practices that are at odds with a democratic republic.

We live in the era of post-neoliberal capitalism characterised by the resurgence of right-wing ideas that essentialise ethnic identities, promote ultranationalist chauvinism and reject immigrants. Will the IFP leadership that takes over after the passing of Buthelezi take advantage of these conditions and continue with the mobilisation and weaponisation of ethnic identities that gave us the killing fields of the Natal Midlands? Or will it shake off provincialist and ethno-nationalist ideas to embrace a unifying South African nationhood? Only time will tell.

Trevor Ngwane is Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice, University of Johannesburg