The political life and times of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s legacy remains a subject of debate. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo /ANA

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s legacy remains a subject of debate. Picture: Doctor Ngcobo /ANA

Published Sep 18, 2023


OPINION: It remains to be seen if Buthelezi’s legacy will stand the test of time, but what is in no doubt is his huge influence over his people, writes Prof. B. Dikela Majuqwana.

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his role in the political life of South Africa is regarded by many as controversial. It is so prominent that it is hard to ignore especially in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. His prominence arose as a result of the role he played in the service of the Zulu people under their kingdom.

The Zulu kingdom itself originated from Shaka Zulu, the son of Senzangakhona, who ascended to power in 1816, a year after the conclusion of the Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon when Great Britain emerged victorious. Before 1816, there was no Zulu kingdom but a small chiefdom under Senzangakhona.

The rise of Shaka is said to have been due to Dingiswayo (Godongwana), son of Jobe, of the Mthethwa (Xesibe) kingdom descended from Ntozabantu. Shaka served as a warrior under Dingiswayo who died in battle against Zwide of the Ndwandwe people. Shaka rose to assume the status of a Zulu king after conquering the Ndwandwe and several other neighbouring tribes, large and small.

It is said that Shaka was already familiar with English colonists and travellers from the Cape of Good Hope long before the landing of 5,000 British Settlers in Cape Town in 1820. Shaka died in September 1828 in kwaDukuza, some 195 years ago (close to eight generations).

By then he had fashioned his kingdom into a powerful force but there is no record of him engaging in a fight against the British colonists even though it is thought he knew about their wars against the Xhosa people in the Cape. Shaka was killed by his half brothers, Dingane and Mhlangana. Dingane succeeded Shaka and he in turn was succeeded by Mpande kaSenzangakhona.

Both Shaka and Dingane did not have sons to succeed them. Thus the present legacy of the Zulu kingdom descends from Mpande who begot Cetshwayo who begot Dinuzulu, the maternal grandfather to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. In 1954, Buthelezi was selected as the traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu kingdom by king Bhekuzulu, son of king Solonon and uncle to Prince Mangosuthu.

At this point it is important to recognise that by the time of the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879 against the British led by Cetshwayo, South Africa was on course to be consolidated as a fully fledged British colony. British colonial settlement was accelerating in response to population pressures of the industrial revolution in Great Britain. Diamonds had been discovered in Kimberley in 1867 followed by gold in the Transvaal in 1886. The period from 1880 to 1940, saw colonial consolidation which became irreversible especially after the Anglo-Boer War (1899 - 1902) and the founding of the Union of South Africa in 1910.

The ANC was founded in 1912 during the period of colonial consolidation to try to appeal for consideration of native interests in the new state. Instead, the colonists responded by launching the 1913 Native Land Act and a violent campaign of land dispossession against the natives. It was during this time that large swathes of land were taken away from the Zulu people and converted into sugar plantations and farms that we find in present day KwaZulu-Natal.

It is also during this period of colonial consolidation that Prince Buthelezi began his schooling and became part of the generation who received missionary Christian education that prepared him for his political career.

He registered first at Fort Hare University College, founded by the Scottish missionaries, but was withdrawn and admitted at the University of Natal where he graduated with BA in History and Bantu Administration. From there he joined the apartheid Department of Native Affairs and later became the Chief Minister of the kwaZulu homeland with a capital in Ulundi.

Under the apartheid system, the homelands served as a means to supply cheap migrant labour to the white mines which had by then grown into an enormous industry.

As head of a homeland, Buthelezi sought to improve conditions for his Zulu people who served as migrant labourers to the Transvaal but never sought to violently oppose the apartheid regime. In 1975 he founded the Inkatha yeSizwe Cultural Movement as a means to control and represent political aspirations of the Zulu people.

Inkatha developed into a most feared organisation in the Transvaal and in parts of Natal during the 1980s and the early 1990s as a result of the conflict between its members and supporters of the ANC.

Buthelezi was always eager to claim that he stood against apartheid oppression and was fighting for freedom. His critics in the ANC always pointed out that he was an apartheid collaborator because he was never seen fighting the apartheid regime but was actively armed by the same regime to fight his own people.

The ANC adopted the philosophy of national liberation in the Struggle against apartheid in South Africa and rejected the idea that liberation can be parcelled to different tribes under the control of the apartheid regime. Buthelezi differed, instead believing that Zulus can have their own freedom separately from the rest of the oppressed in South Africa.

This view was fundamentally against the founding principle of the ANC which sought to unite all the oppressed against one common colonial enemy. There were also entrenched land owning British interests in Natal.

These no doubt were deeply invested in causing and maintaining division and separating the Zulu kingdom from the ANC which had become a militant organisation engaged in the struggle for the violent overthrow of the apartheid government.

When Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in apartheid prison, he sought to bring together all those who opposed apartheid but Buthelezi held out until after the post-apartheid government was set up in 1994. Mandela tried to persuade Buthelezi to make peace with the ANC in Gauteng and in KwaZulu-Natal where the conflict was most devastating to rural communities.

Mandela’s ANC and Buthelezi’s Inkatha had a tense relationship which they managed very well but this was never resolved. The political economy of colonisation and apartheid was a factor that shaped the outlooks of personalities such as Buthelezi.

From 1994, the South African state began to represent the interests of all the people of South Africa within the framework of democratic constitution. Buthelezi demonstrated great flexibility and adaptability to became a prominent member of parliament but never developed a truly national political outlook beyond his Zululand.

He played a critical role in the selection of the present Zulu King, Misuzulu kaZwelithini, even though they appear to have fallen out because of a dispute over the Ingonyama Trust that holds land for rural communities. It is likely that there are powerful forces with an interest in land held by Ingonyama Trust. It remains to be seen if Buthelezi’s legacy in Zululand will stand the test of time but what is not in doubt is his huge influence over the Zulu people and their kingdom.

*Prof B Dikela Majuqwana is a founding member of the National Unions of Scientists and Angineers

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL