The announcement was greeted with mixed reaction by political analysts.
However, Professor Mcebisi Ndletyana said the latest development could mark the beginning of the end for the IFP, as the party was modelled around Buthelezi.
Buthelezi, who is credited for reviving the party after it lost several key municipalities in the 2011 local government elections, announced that he will step down from the party’s leadership at its next elective conference expected to be held in December.
The 88-year-old leader has led the party since its inception in 1975. He made the announcement at the IFP’s extended national council meeting in Durban.
“The extended national council has agreed that we are nominating Velenkosini Hlabisa to stand for the leadership of the IFP at the upcoming national elective conference,” he said.
In last year’s local government elections, the IFP made a stunning comeback and improved on its 2011 results.
It gained back lost ground particularly in the Zululand area and the voters’ response was largely attributed to the campaign run by Buthelezi, who campaigned across the province and nationally.
At the IFP’s last elective conference in December 2012, the party amended its constitution to create a position of deputy president, as part of its succession plan. Inkosi Mzamo Buthelezi was elected unopposed as the IFP’s second-in-line to succeed Buthelezi.
Asked about the succession plan, Buthelezi said the party had decided that “we need a more experienced leader, he (Inkosi Mzamo) remains our deputy”.
Buthelezi further described Hlabisa, who is currently a mayor of KwaHlabisa as a leader of integrity, who has served the IFP with distinction.
“He has broad support from our structures and a proposal that he stands for leadership emanated from across the party.”
Hlabisa said he accepted the nomination to replace Buthelezi.
“I accept trusting that I will be able to propel the party and our nation forward, I will avail myself to be elected,” he said.
Buthelezi said he would not impose himself once out of the leadership, instead he would share his experience with the elected leader.
“This of course does not prevent anyone from throwing their name in the ring when we gather at the elective conference.
“Our constitution allows for names to be received from the floor even on the day of the election,” Buthelezi explained.
Political analysts were divided on future prospects of the IFP under a new leader.
Bheki Mngomezulu said it was better that a new leader takes over while Buthelezi is still alive because he can tap the elderly statesman’s experience.
“It will ensure a smooth transition and avoid factionalism because in instances where there is a leadership vacuum everyone wants to grab that space.”
Mngomezulu said while Buthelezi will step aside officially he would likely continue to influence the direction of the party.
By electing Hlabisa, a relatively younger leader, the IFP stands a better chance of attracting younger members, Mngomezulu added.
Ndletyana said the IFP was built around tradition and it was a party of Zulu tradition.
“It is an outward projection of Zulu tradition and it was also built around the personality of Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
“For most of the followers their following of Inkatha was really an obedience to the chief.
“So if the new leader does not share the same profile as Buthelezi it is quite unlikely that he will sustain the support.”
Professor Somadoda Fikeni said it would not be easy for the IFP to survive after Buthelezi, but it will stay on for a while thanks to the electoral system, which guarantees that even the smallest parties survive.
“The IFP has come to be associated with Buthelezi because he had the charisma and the history.
“At the same time the ANC divisions give an opportunity for parties like the IFP to recover.”
Fikeni believes that Buthelezi handing over the baton to a new leader would ensure a smooth transition similar to that experienced in the ANC when Nelson Mandela handed over the reins to Thabo Mbeki. “Right now he (Buthelezi) can still call them and say this is not how you do it.”