Prof, Bheki Mngomezulu
The news about the passing of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi spread like wildfire in the early hours of Saturday, September 9, 2023. There were mixed reactions on how Buthelezi should be remembered as his legacy.
Intriguingly, even people who had never raised any concern about Buthelezi while he was still alive suddenly found their voices. They had more to say about the terrible things he did in the 1980s and 1990s.
It would be wrong to silence such voices, although their timing is questionable. Buthelezi was a human being, not a saint. Like other human beings, especially politicians, he was directly and indirectly involved in good and bad deeds. The truth is that Buthelezi has left a rich legacy. There are things which even his greatest enemies will find impossible to refute.
Buthelezi had many identities. After matriculating at Adams College, he enrolled at the University of Fort Hare with the intention of becoming a lawyer. This projects him as a scholar.
While at Fort Hare, in 1949 he joined the ANC Youth League and got involved in political activities which resulted in his expulsion. This portrays him as a political activist.
In 1953, he reluctantly assumed his position as the Chief of the Buthelezi clan after being persuaded by Inkosi Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, and his mother Princess Constance Magogo ka Dinuzulu. Therefore, he was a traditional leader. This tag was confirmed when King Cyprian appointed him as his traditional Prime Minister in 1954 – a position he continued to hold under King Goodwill Zwelithini and King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini.
Importantly, Buthelezi entrenched himself as a seasoned politician. His formation of Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe in 1975 with the blessings of the ANC set his political career on a new path. Having refused to accept the Bantustan “independence”, he still presided over the KwaZulu Government. This resulted in a schism between him and the ANC. The saturation point was the historic 1979 meeting in London where Buthelezi led a seventeen-member delegation to meet the ANC. It was the last time the two parties met until the 1990s.
The 1980s marked a critical moment. Following the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, the rift between the ANC/UDF and Buthelezi widened. The formation of the Self-Defence Units (SDUs) to protect the ANC/UDF and the Self-Protection Units (SPUs) to protect Inkatha resulted in bloodbath in the country. This continued until the eve of the first democratic election in April 1994.
From 1994, Buthelezi occupied different positions in the Government of National Unity (GNU) and beyond. No one has ever been Acting President of South Africa as many times as Buthelezi was. He continued to be an ordinary Member of Parliament (MP) until his death.
This synopsis points to the difficulty of piecing together a succinct legacy that Buthelezi is leaving behind. His life had many episodes.
Buthelezi’s expulsion from the University of Fort Hare due to his political activism means that he leaves behind a legacy of a struggle activist. This view is supported by his role in the formation of Inkatha to advance the cause of the ANC.
His decision to preside over the KwaZulu Government, to accept military and financial support from Pretoria, and to oppose economic sanction against the state means that his detractors will remember him as someone who colluded with the apartheid regime. Conversely, his defenders will argue that he always put the oppressed masses first and was the defender of the poor and downtrodden.
In the context of the IFP, some will remember Buthelezi as someone who wanted to cling on to power indefinitely. To buttress this view, they might argue that he remained the sole President of the party from 1975 until just recently when Inkosi Mzamo Buthelezi was elected to be his deputy and Velenkosini Hlabisa eventually ascended to the presidency.
A counterview could be that Buthelezi wanted to keep the IFP intact. Alternatively, those who believed in him wanted him to remain in office for much longer. The last-minute decision by the IFP to postpone its elective conference before the 2019 general election could be interpreted in this context.
Similarly, Buthelezi’s continuation to serve in the National Assembly until his passing might be interpreted by his detractors as someone who was power-hungry. His supporters would counter this view by arguing that it was through consensus in the IFP that Buthelezi should continue to serve in the National Assembly while Hlabisa consolidated the IFP’s support in KZN and spread to other provinces.
One undeniable fact is that Buthelezi has left indelible footprints beyond South Africa. The accolades and condolence messages attest to this view. As a human being, he was not perfect, but contributed immensely to South African and global politics. He has left a rich legacy!
*Professor Bheki Mngomezulu is director of the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University.
**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.