Mangosuthu Buthelezi: the towering Zulu Prince

04 August 1974 - Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi: “It would not be right to use Blacks simply to replace a shortage of White soldiers. Let Blacks know they have something to die for. Give them something to defend. Men need a reason to lay down their lives.”Picture: Independent Archives; African News Agency

04 August 1974 - Dr Mangosuthu Buthelezi: “It would not be right to use Blacks simply to replace a shortage of White soldiers. Let Blacks know they have something to die for. Give them something to defend. Men need a reason to lay down their lives.”Picture: Independent Archives; African News Agency

Published Sep 9, 2023


Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the politically towering Zulu prince, unyielding tribal chief and forever combative South African politician who established the IFP, an enduring Zulu nationalist formation and moulded it into a formidable political force, all the while being its eternal public avatar, has passed away.

His sad passing away was confirmed by his political party and family - both said he died peacefully at his home aged 95.

It was no secret that at his advanced age, the leader who frowned at being called by his second name, Gatsha, battled a litany of health issues - although he still cut a subdued figure while continuing with his dual political roles as the traditional prime of the Zulu monarch and avatar of the IFP.

Buthelezi, who had remarkable longevity in all aspects, leaves behind a bitterly complicated but still astounding political legacy, with some seeing him as a "Zulu warlord and zealot" and a "dictator" who was allergic to dissenting voices of any form.

Despite his many accomplishments during his legion of years in power, clearly so, he was a divisive figure who was loved and loathed in an equal drove of passion - and there is still plenty of bitterness surrounding his role on the black on black violence issue.

This was all the while in his rural Zululand, where he had a god-like status, was revered by his folks and kinsmen as a man who had their best interest at heart.

For the folks, he brought development like establishing teacher's colleges, hostels for migrant workers in white apartheid managed cities and massive factories which they claim were later "destroyed by the ANC government."

Those who labelled him a "warlord" claimed that he instigated the black on black violence of the 80s and 90s that pitted the IFP and the ANC aligned UDF, leaving over 10 000 people dead, some homeless and orphaned in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.

Saddled by these lifelong accusations, he used to defend himself by claiming that IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) members were acting in self-defence. Yet, it would later emerge that the apartheid government used it as a proxy to keep the ANC which was fighting for a majority black rule at bay.

As a gesture of honour, or lifelong dominance in the KwaZulu-Natal landscape, as some of his critics often claimed, his name is up to this moment carried by streets, township roads, highways, schools, buildings, a university, an airport in Ulundi and some townships.

Buthelezi was first despised by the guardians of the political order of the apartheid era and the early years of democracy as a "sellout" but was later recognized and respected as an elderly statesman.

Some in the media space believed he was "a difficult character" to deal with as he used to retort during interviews instead of answering questions in a decent manner.

Buthelezi who never battled any corruption scandal during his lifetime, was frequently undermined by his unguarded temper. He once publicly scuffled with the late Prince Sifiso Zulu (live on TV) and threatened to sjambok former MEC, Mike Mabuyakhulu in front of dignitaries, accusing of trying to wipe out his traditional prime minister role.

He and the IFP, the political brand he led for 44 uninterrupted years, were inseparable. He formed the party at a time when the political arena was being narrowed by the apartheid government. Being the only legal political entity in the years of Bantustan governments, he moulded the party to be the biggest one in the then homeland of KwaZulu.

When the country was ushered into democracy in 1994, the party was the second biggest one after the ANC, and the now-defunct National Party, the architects and enforcers of dehumanising apartheid laws was the third biggest party.

However, the IFP brand would later fade, nearly being relegated to oblivion in 2011 when its former national chairperson, the late Zanele KaMagwaza Msibi broke away to form the NFP. Undeterred, the IFP pinned its fortunes on Buthelezi as it started a painstaking rebuilding process.

Even after he retired in 2019 by handing the party baton to Velenkosini Hlabisa, Buthelezi was still the face of the IFP, helping it to regain its official opposition status in KwaZulu-Natal - among other achievements.

Two years later after that period of despair and uncertainty for the party's loyalists, the ageing Buthelezi was the face of his party when it took part in the local government elections where it surprisingly drubbed the ANC in most KwaZulu-Natal municipalities, giving it a shock of a lifetime.

Buthelezi was born on 27 August 1928 in Mahlabathini (near Ulundi) to a local Buthelezi tribal chief, Inkosi Mathole Buthelezi who had 20 wives and senior Zulu princess (who was the 10th wife), Magogo Ka Dinuzulu. He despised being called "Chief" as he said the name was used by his ANC detractors to humiliate him and by colonisers to degrade the traditional leadership where the King was once called the "Paramount Chief" in a futile bid to reserve the title of "King" for the colonising and unwelcome British royalty.

From birth, he was destined to be a prominent traditional leader and that was due to the fact that her mother was of Zulu royal ancestry. As a result, after matriculating he was sent to the historic Fort Hare University in the then Cape Colony where he studied.

In 1948, while studying there he joined the ANC youth league together with the likes of Robert Mugabe and Kenneth Kaunda, among other liberation southern African leaders. Before he could finish his studies, he was expelled for taking part in outlawed political activities of the time.

He then furthered his studies through the then University of Natal. On the advice of Inkosi Albert Luthuli whom he respected so much as his mentor, he responded to the call of the Buthelezi clan's elders and returned to Mahlabathini in 1953 to take up his hereditary position as Inkosi (tribal chief).

When the apartheid government started its grand scheme to create Bantustans for blacks within white-ruled South Africa, Buthelezi, on the basis of him being the traditional prime minister of the Zulu nation, was earmarked to lead the KwaZulu one which was for Zulus only.

Worried about taking the position, he consulted with ANC leaders like Luthuli and he was allowed to take the position - but with some conditions like not abandoning the struggle for majority black rule.

However, he was advised to leave the ANC and revive Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe which was tasked with mobilizing along cultural lines as it was done by his uncle and late Zulu King, Solomon Dinuzulu.

He agreed to the proposal and served as a chief minister between 1976 and 1994, but a bitter fallout between him and the ANC, would later follow immediately after taking over as the head of the KwaZulu Bantustan.

Tired of peaceful resistance, the ANC wanted confrontations with the apartheid government and intended to co-opt the IFP in this regard.

Buthelezi would have none of it when it was put to him for implementation.

After a tense meeting with Tambo and other ANC leaders in London in 1979, the meeting ended in a bitter and defining stalemate, Buthelezi came back to SA deeply embittered.

“The 1979 London meeting would prove to be a pivotal point in the relationship between Inkatha and the ANC. It became the basis for ANC anti-Inkatha propaganda. In all his discussions with the ANC Mission in Exile Prince Buthelezi was adamant that Inkatha should remain Inkatha and that it should remain committed to the Black popular will which expressed itself in Inkatha's massive membership, which had doubled in 1977 and again doubled in 1978.

“Inkatha rightly interpreted this massive increase of membership as a rejection by Black South Africans of the armed struggle. After the London meeting, for the first time in his career Mr. Tambo began criticising Buthelezi and Inkatha publicly.

“He had sided with those in his ranks who saw Inkatha as a threat and who wanted no evidence that black democratic opposition and black non-violent tactics and strategies were powerful forces for bringing about change,” IFP official archives recounted the meeting like this.

Buthelezi and the ANC took separate ways and the hostilities between the ANC and IFP began. Apartheid strategists saw an opportunity to ferment a full-blown conflict and ignited what later became to be known as the black on black violence.

Buthelezi over the years, tried to highlight what led to the divorce. To prove that the IFP was formed with the blessing of past ANC leaders, he repeatedly said the it used ANC colours because it was aligned with the ruling party.

In August 2019, while putting down some luggage by leaving his long time IFP leadership position, he delivered a long speech at a conference held in the historic Zulu town of Ulundi in northern KwaZulu-Natal.

He tearfully - and once more - recalled the bitter and fatal fallout between the IFP and the ANC.

Towards the end of that part of the swan song speech, choking with emotions, he took a deep breath and the marquee went dead silent such that you could hear a pin drop. He said he would die happy if there would be reconciliation between the ANC and IFP during his lifetime.

"It is something that must be achieved, to normalise the political relationship between our organisations. This work now lies in the future.

“This is not (just) because I am stepping down, but because in a few days’ time I will turn 91. Common sense tells me that my time is short. There is so much I will not get to see," he tearfully said.

As a perceived former "political skunk" who would later become a respected statesman, Buthelezi brought stability when the EFF harassed former President Jacob Zuma in parliament. He calmed both parties and peace would often prevail.

Over and over, Buthelezi said he was proud of his achievements although his political "enemies" wanted to erase his legacy by any means necessary - including assassinations.

He was also an HIV/AIDS activist of note as he opposed the government of former President Thabo Mbeki when it was reluctant to roll out life-saving ARVs.

When one of his children, Princess Mandisa Buthelezi, contracted the virus at a time when it was taboo to talk about, Buthelezi, in an effort to deal with the stigma, he openly told the world that the disease claimed the life of his daughter.

He also publicly revealed in 2004 that his late son, Prince Nelisuzulu Benedict Buthelezi succumbed to HIV/AIDS as well.

By doing so, he was followed by former President Nelson Mandela whom a year later publicly revealed that his first born son, Makgatho, succumbed to the then deadly disease.

Among his high profile friends, Buthelezi counted a host of celebrities and politicians like the late Margaret Thatcher, the combative former British Prime Minister who was hated for her austerity measures, brutality and cold heart leadership.

Attending her funeral in 2013, British media mistook him for a "dapper-looking Ray Charles" - turning him into the butt of a joke.

Locally, he counted the Oppenheimers among his friends. It was this wealthy Jewish family that he said donated the largesse which saw the establishment of the globally acclaimed Mangosuthu University of Technology in Umlazi, south of Durban.

Buthelezi held the Guinness World Records honour of having delivered the longest legislative speech. The speech lasted for two days.

It started on March 29, 1993 when he addressed the KwaZulu bantustan legislature in Ulundi. Being a long speech, he finished it the following day.

The departed Buthelezi was the longest-serving traditional prime minister of the Zulu monarch and nation.

He first took the position in 1954 when the late King Cyprian Bhekuzulu appointed him to take over the role which was held by his father, Mathole Buthelezi.

He held the position even under the late King Goodwill Zwelithini and his successor, King Misuzulu.

Moreover, Buthelezi was instrumental in the installation of King Goodwill Zwelithini his successor and King Misuzulu (through being combative and always determined to get his ways by any means necessary) who both faced opposition from some members of the royal family until he stood firm and led their installation - even under protest.

For the late King Goodwill Zwelithini, Buthelezi played even a more significant role during his burial in March 2021 as he led the process with military precision at a time when the so-called Zulu royal rebels were already causing ructions in the royal court.

His wife, Thandekile Irene Mzila from Johannesburg and whom he met while on a trip to the city of gold with one of his royal uncles, passed away in March 2019.

He is survived by several children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren many of them still live in rural Mahlabathini near Ulundi where they own houses within the big compound.

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