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Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s influence on South African and African politics

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Picture: Scanned from a negative/Philippe Wojazer/REUTERS – African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, left, shakes hand with Inkatha Freedom party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, right, as Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, third left, and then South African President FW de Klerk look on after the four met for a South Africa’s peace summit in this Eastern Transvaal bush camp in Skukuza, South Africa April 8, 1994.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi will go down in history as one of the most influential politicians in South Africa and across Africa in general. There are several reasons for this political stature.

Buthelezi wears different hats. He is the founder and the longest serving leader of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). He is the former leader of KwaZulu Government. He is the Traditional Leader of the Buthelezi clan. Buthelezi has served as the traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu nation under different kings – including the incumbent, His Majesty King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini Zulu. Aged 95, Buthelezi is the oldest Member of Parliament in South Africa.

These are but some of the positions that Buthelezi has held over the years. Through these positions, Buthelezi has been able to leave an indelible mark in the chronicles of history. Not even his greatest enemies would be able to erase such a rich history.

In the cricket language, Buthelezi can be described as the “all-rounder”. This is because in his long history of existence, he has been able to play different roles, which required a wide range of skills and was equal to the task in many respects.

In literature, Buthelezi could easily fall into the category of a “round character”, who has many identities. Such a description is premised on the fact that there are many instances where Buthelezi has been a source of inspiration, a pillar of strength, a strategist, a visionary, a shrewd politician and many such positive characteristics.

But Buthelezi has also been rightly or wrongly associated with wrongdoing.

When the apartheid government introduced the so-called “independent states” in the early 1970s under the Bantustan or Homeland system, Transkei welcomed this move and accepted “independence” on October 26, 1976. Conversely, Buthelezi accepted self-government on February 1, 1977 but refused to take full “independence” like his counterparts in other black homelands.

This made him to be viewed differently by politicians within South Africa and across the African continent. Part of the reason was that Buthelezi had been part of the ANC Youth League at the University of Fort Hare where he was a student. It was here where he met other African leaders such as the late President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Other African leaders who studied at Fort Hare include Botswana’s Sir Seretse Khama and Lesotho’s Ntsu Mokhehle.

Relations between Buthelezi and Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda were cordial. Kaunda hosted the ANC following its ban in South Africa by the apartheid regime in April 1960. Buthelezi became the face of the ANC in South Africa, disguising by establishing Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe in 1975. This was after consultation with Oliver Tambo and the ANC leadership in exile. Several ANC members joined Inkatha on the understanding that they were indirectly joining the ANC.

Buthelezi earned respect among the Frontline States [those African states that supported the struggle for liberation across the African continent]. He used to visit the ANC’s Headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia to brief the ANC leadership or to give reports. This continued until 1979 when Buthelezi led a 17-member Inkatha delegation to London to meet the ANC.

This trip was occasioned by suspicions that some ANC leaders had about Buthelezi. Although Tambo had constantly defended continued relations with Buthelezi and promised him that they would meet again after the London meeting, this never happened. Therefore, the London meeting was the last one between the two parties. It was not until the early 1990s when the country was entering a new phase in its beleaguered history – moving towards a new political dispensation that the two parties met again to map the way forward.

During the negotiations for a new political order, Buthelezi became a force to be reckoned with. The nine provinces that South Africa has today owe their existence to Buthelezi. During the negotiations, general consensus was that South Africa should be a unitary state. Buthelezi held a different view and wanted the country to be a federal state.

To address this impasse, a compromise was reached whereby it was agreed that the country would have six provinces. Later, this number was increased to the nine that we have today. This was after the Cape Province was divided into three provinces (Eastern, Western and Northern) and Mpumalanga and Limpopo became two separate provinces.

Another contribution made by Buthelezi was to push for an agreement on the establishment of Ingonyama Trust. When this issue could not be resolved, and when the position of the Zulu King could not be guaranteed, Buthelezi decided to keep his party (the IFP) out of the election.

This prompted Kenyan scholar, Professor Washington Okumu to visit South Africa to reason with Buthelezi. It was after these discussions that Buthelezi agreed to participate in the first democratic election in 1994. As a result of this incident, the IFP and Buthelezi’s name had to be pasted on the ballot paper. This made Buthelezi the talk of the town. In the same vein, Okumu had his name elevated for having saved South Africa from a potential bloodbath.

In the democratic Parliament, Buthelezi’s name has reverberated for various reasons. Firstly, he served as the Minister of Home Affairs – both in Mandela and Mbeki’s Cabinets. On several occasions, he was the acting President of the Republic of South Africa. Importantly, Buthelezi’s name found its way into the Guinness Book of Records for having presented the longest speech in Parliament while not being the President of the country. This is a record which will remain a dream to many politicians.

When the EFF joined the National Assembly in 2014, things changed significantly. One of the changes was lack of respect among Members of Parliament. The DA refused to be outdone by the EFF and also made its presence felt. As these things were happening, Buthelezi proved beyond doubt that he was a senior stateman. He constantly called for calm and pleaded with his fellow parliamentarians to respect one another and to respect the Office of the President. For that, Buthelezi is revered by many politicians across the political divide. History will judge him favourably for this political maturity.

But no human being is perfect. Buthelezi cannot be insulated from this fact. Across Africa, and within South Africa, there are those who see Buthelezi as someone who was against liberation movements. To buttress their assertion, they cite Buthelezi’s resentment to economic sanctions as being tantamount to protecting and colluding with the apartheid regime. In his defence, Buthelezi advanced the argument that these sanctions were actually negatively affecting the very same people whose liberation they were meant to accelerate.

There are also those who cite the clandestine activities of the Zulu Police (ZP) who operated under KwaZulu Government as one of their reasons for frowning upon Buthelezi. They blame him for having allowed these ZPs to engage in illegal activities in order to deal with the IFP’s political opponents. They accuse the ZP of having colluded with a group of white law enforcement agents who were known as Kitskonstabels. This is a notorious group that was implicated in many senseless and gruesome killings in the Natal Midlands and other parts of present-day KwaZulu-Natal.

Secondly, they cite the operations of the Self-Protection Unit (SPU), which was associated with the IFP as having received Buthelezi’s blessings. Surely, the context and history of this unit link it directly to the Self-Defence Unit (SDU), which was associated with the UDF/ANC.

They also argue that the KwaZulu Government weakened King Goodwill Zwelithini by making him toe the line since his budget was controlled by that government.

Those who do not understand the bloodbath that engulfed KZN and Gauteng simplify what they call “black-on-black violence” as a political feud between the IFP and the ANC and place Buthelezi at the centre of this violence. The reality is that this was the work of the apartheid regime which pitted the IFP and the ANC against each other by spreading lies and propaganda. In other instances, they killed people on both sides and rushed to the media to claim that the two parties were having a go at each other.

Given these different sides of Prince Buthelezi, it is irrefutable that he has influenced African and South African politics. The many gifts that he received from leaders across the African continent and within South Africa, attest to his positive legacy and influence. Conversely, those who focus on his negative influence dwell on the examples that sustain their narrative. Some are factual, while others are perceptions.

Therefore, it is true that Buthelezi has left indelible footprints in the politics of South Africa as a country and Africa as a continent. Like Mandela once said about himself, Buthelezi is not a saint. As a human being, he may have made mistakes – wittingly or unwittingly. However, that does not nullify that Buthelezi has influenced the politics of this Continent. Young leaders have a lot to learn from him.

Prof Bheki Mngomezulu is Director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University

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