Durban - For more than six decades, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who died on Saturday, aged 95 has loved only one woman, his beloved Princess Irene.
On the 64th anniversary of their wedding, the Sunday Tribune interviewed the couple.
The story about his relationship with his wife and the incredible, sometimes heart-breaking, journey they have travelled together is republished by IOL today, to mark the political icon’s death.
Born into a family in which having many wives was the norm, Buthelezi chose to remain with one woman.
As with any true love tale, the IFP leader says he will never forget “that special day” in January 1949 when he met Irene Audrey Thandekile Mzila.
He was just 20 and had accompanied his uncle, Prince Mshiyeni ka Dinuzulu, to his son’s wedding in Randfontein.
“We stayed at the Wenela Compound in Eloff Street, run by Zachariah Mzila. There I met Mzila’s beautiful daughter. She was about to do a nursing course at St Aidan’s Hospital in Durban.
“I was mesmerised. She was full of life, intelligent and kind. She had a quiet sophistication that would have served her well in the diplomatic corps. It did not take me long to ask for her hand in marriage.”
Buthelezi’s father, Inkosi Mathole Buthelezi, the Zulu monarch’s prime minister, had 20 wives. His mother was Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu. Her brother, King Solomon kaDinuzulu, had 40 wives and died young, aged 40.
It was expected of Buthelezi that he, too, would marry more than one wife.
“After my father’s death, I was raised by Prince Mshiyeni, who became regent during the interregnum. He had one wife and I chose to follow his example.
“Over the years, I came under some pressure to take another wife, but I am a Christian and I believe in marriage to one woman.”
Buthelezi found himself often wondering how he would have coped with more than one wife, considering the demands on his time. But he has no regrets. “I never lacked anything having only one wife. Princess Irene has been my closest friend, my adviser, my prayer warrior and the love of my life.”
He says she is an exceptional mother and grandmother. “We’ve been blessed with eight children, five daughters and three sons. She loved them all generously. I am constantly amazed at her inner strength.
“Tragically, we have buried five of our children, and have thus taken over the care of many of our grandchildren. She is always available to them and deeply interested in everything they do,” said Buthelezi.
For the long-lasting couple, keeping their marriage alive has been easy. “We’ve kept the Lord at the centre of our marriage. He is our greatest cheerleader, and with backing like that it is hard not to believe in lasting love.
“I’ve also made a point of remembering special dates. Irene celebrated her 86th birthday on Friday. It certainly helps too, that we both have a sense of humour,” he said.
He said that when he was made an honorary member of the Chefs’ Association of South Africa in the 1990s “I proudly related this to my wife and showed her my certificate. She lowered her eyes and smiled.
“I asked why she was laughing at me and she said we had been married for more than 40 years and had never seen me cook a meal. I reminded her I could fry an egg and she burst out laughing,” he said.
As with any marriage, theirs has had its ups and downs. “The biggest challenge was maintaining hope in the midst of the people’s war of the 1980s and early 1990s. That war turned against the IFP because of my stand against sanctions and armed struggle.
“Many threats were made on my life and there was more than one assassination attempt. It was hard for Irene. She feared for my safety.
“It was particularly hard for her to understand the conflict between the ANC and Inkatha, for her father had been good friends with Mandela, and we became good friends too.”
“So it was hard for her to endure the propaganda against me, with jaundiced references, even today, in the media.
“Her skin is not as thick as mine. It hurts her to see me maligned, even now after I’ve spent more than six decades serving my country,” he said.
Though a busy man, Buthelezi believes it’s important to make time for family.
“My schedule and my responsibilities have always been demanding. For years, I was fortunate to have Princess Irene travel with me when I visited other countries.
“Now, of course, we are both octogenarians and I would not expect her to maintain the punishing schedule my work still demands of me.
“My staff know, however, how important it is to get me back home at the end of every week. My secretary is strict with people to ensure I regularly spend time with my family.”
As the couple grow old together, they’ve also maintained their vows “in sickness and in health”.
“For years, Princess Irene and I have suffered diabetes. At our age, it is unusual not to have health complaints. But the Lord has blessed us with strong constitutions.
“It’s remarkable that Irene has delivered eight children, endured decades of stress and battled diabetes, yet is still strong enough to sit up waiting for me when I come home late.
“I ensure she sees a doctor regularly, and I thank God there have not been any serious concerns,” said Buthelezi.
Buthelezi has a recipe for a happy marriage: “You can’t go into a marriage thinking how happy the other person is going to make you. A successful marriage is one in which both spouses are trying to outdo one another in filling up the love tank.
“You have to invest in your marriage constantly, understanding that it is your most important relationship. Invest today in the marriage you want to have in 30 or 40 years’ time.
“Deal with issues as they arise. You will be amazed at how God honours marriage, every time you refuse to give up, it just gets better.”
A personal view
Princess Irene wrote these comments when asked to reflect on the nearly seven decades she has spent at Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s side:
I was born and raised in the heart of Johannesburg, where I trained to be a nurse.
I was used to a lot of bustle and activity, but I fell in love with a man destined to become the traditional leader of his clan.
I knew that if we married, we would live in the countryside. For love, I gave up city life – and was surprised at the depth of happiness I found.
I always felt gratitude towards my late mother-in-law, Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, for she embraced me like a daughter.
She helped me understand the cultural nuances of my new life. I was now the wife of iNkosi Buthelezi. But much more lay ahead, for my husband would become a cabinet minister, the president of the second largest black political party and (for a short spell) the acting president of the republic. I am proud of him, and proud to stand by his side.