Prof Saths Cooper
While many of us are sinners, there are few saints in our troubled world. All of us bear the marks of our origin in various ways. Sometimes noticed, often masked by a desire for acceptance and being part of that which is the current narrative.
Few of us remain resolute against reported views that insinuate themselves as irrefutable fact, and which have a way of becoming generally accepted. When we do stand for what we believe in, against those we believe go against the grain of whatever wisdom we adhere to, we can find ourselves on the outside looking in; forsaken, perhaps condemned. Throughout his public life, none of us can deny that Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi – Shenge (Sokwalisa, Mnyamana, Ngqengelele) – remained steadfast in what he believed in.
Despite the stated claim to wish to control the narrative, it is apparent that narratives are driven by powerful vested interests, especially in this digital and artificial intelligence era, when all sorts of self-proclaimed experts and influencers hold our attention, even if fleetingly. They often leave lasting impressions, that we tend to rely on when pushed to account for our views by the few who wish to be convinced by evidence and who rely on fact, not a factionalised version of it; no, not the prevailing political factions we’re divided by, but that which comprises part fact and part fiction. This version of ourselves is usually shaped by a creative dose of representing ourselves in the best possible light, hoping that nobody will find us out, and then wishing the fiction as fact.
As Buthelezi celebrates his 95th birthday on Sunday-for his parents having a son was too good to be true) Gatsha (the branch of the nation, fondly called by his late mother, Princess Magogo, sister of King Solomon kaDinizulu kaCetshwayo), it is appropriate for me to share my somewhat chequered experience of Shenge for more than 50 years.
In 1970, when the South African Students Organisation (Saso) was gaining traction in black university colleges, the Bantu Homelands Citizenship Act stripped Africans of their South African citizenship, giving impetus to the bantustanisation of our country. In the same year, the hereditary chief assumed leadership of the Nongoma-based Zululand Territorial Authority, which became a Legislative Assembly two years later, and in 1977 became KwaZulu. The seat of self-governance moved to Ulundi in 1980.
As Saso was a student organisation, the clamour grew among us for a political organisation to be formed that united black people and gave them hope for freedom from racist oppression and economic exploitation. The older generation of activists who had largely bought into the colonial narrative of four ethnic/race groups, were mildly to strenuously opposed to a black inclusive solidarity in word and deed of African, coloured, and Indian. Those who did acknowledge that the prevailing system, which lauded political and socio-economic dominance, required a destruction of the cultivated inferiorisation of all black people through a psychological process of imbuing ourselves with agency and self-efficacy, warned that we were inviting the wrath of the apartheid state machinery. We comprehended what we were up against, and had no option but to accept the challenge to organise all blacks, not a language or ethnic group.
On December 19 1971, the National Organisation Conference held in Soweto appointed an ad-hoc committee to convene a Black People’s Convention (BPC), which was inaugurated in Pietermaritzburg on July 9 1972.
AWG Champion attended, probably at the behest of Shenge. Earlier that year, after their meeting with Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, some Saso leaders met Shenge, who declared that he would not attack Black Consciousness (BC) which he also believed in, despite our publicly-articulated stance of anti-collaboration with apartheid structures.
Prior to the 5th anniversary commemoration of the death of Chief Albert Luthuli, at the behest of the ANC, the Saso leadership met Nokukhanya Luthuli, to assist with the commemoration. MaBhengu welcomed this, insisting that we engage Shenge, saying: “Bafana, you know, he was the chief’s right hand.” It was eventually left to Steve Biko to give a short address at the memorial ceremony in Groutville on a blazing hot day, with a panoply of speakers who had largely resigned themselves to work within the system.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), whose Durban leadership at the time resisted our vigorous arguments to adopt the same political anti-collaboration stance. The bannings of the Saso and BPC leadership began early in 1973, taking us out of the picture, with Shenge playing a key role in the Sacos inauguration.
He enjoyed the support of especially the Natal Indian merchant class as well as older intellectuals and professionals across the racial divide. This, unfortunately, did not translate then – neither has it now, when ethnicity has become entrenched in our fragile democracy – into better relations between the Zulu majority and the Indian minority. Shenge had the ear and support of the owners of capital, such as Anglo-American, Beacon Sweets, Tongaat Hulett and Western countries that defied sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and who are relentlessly pressuring our supine leadership to toe their geopolitical line.
The then-Argus Newspapers gifted Ilanga lase Natal to the IFP. Interestingly, Ilanga was co-founded by Langalibalele Dube in 1903, who went on to become the founding president of the South African Native National Congress, subsequently renamed the ANC. Shenge always attributed his involvement in bantustan politics to the imprimatur given to him by the ANC in exile, and blames them for putting him at risk when he was forced to testify in the trial of Dorothy Nyembe and others. It is in apposite to rehash here the IFP involvement with apartheid-sponsored black-on-black violence – a narrative that also always struck me as an ironic admission that violence was the preserve of whites – that erupted in the mid 1980s. Publicly maintaining an avowedly non-violent stance, Shenge and his controversial role in our sociopolitical life – variously recorded in the public sphere – will be held to account at the bar of history.
The renowned academic, Lawrence Schlemmer, told me in 1991 that he had never felt as small as he did whenever Shenge chided him during his stint as a director of the Inkatha Institute. In rare moments, King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu (Hlanga lomhlabathi) shared his thoughts about his uNdunankulu kaZulu. During incarceration on Robben Island, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would also show me the correspondence he received from Shenge.
After my release from Robben Island prison, I was approached in early 1983 by Rowley Arenstein, who was then serving his 30th year under banning orders, with an offer putatively from Shenge, to consider becoming the secretary of the IFP. When I raised serious questions, Rowley relied on the Russian example of participation within the Tsarist system, although he sided with China on the Sino-Soviet question. Rowley was persistent. I refused. I was intent on forming the National Forum, bringing together organisations that were left of centre, that did not work within the apartheid system. The UDF was formed thereafter.
Before the formal IFP takeover of Ilanga I was warned to “Watch it” in a banner headline for criticising participation in the bantustans and the other ethnic councils. This was also the time when I was falsely accused of spitting on Madiba, and I was put on an apartheid-inspired hitlist!
When I assumed the directorship of the Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, founded by the former IFP secretary general, Dr Oscar Dhlomo, after the fateful announcements by FW de Klerk in February 1990, it was my task to engage with all political entities. Dhlomo was agitated when he heard that I was meeting Shenge in Ulundi, blurting “He will eat you alive!” Yet, when I approached Shenge to suggest names for the early Sanlam BEE opportunity, he unhesitatingly suggested Dhlomo! In all my incidental and formal contact with Shenge, he was always charming and personable. Only once did I notice his irritation some 20 years ago, when he scolded his security detail for their inattentiveness.
A redoubtable personality, the very threat of the consequences of what may ensue made many wither away or comply. This was vividly exemplified by the high drama of the IFP withdrawal prior to the first democratic elections in 1994, and forcing the government to leave the University of Zululand and Mangosuthu University of Technology to remain intact, unaffected by the mergers and acquisitions in the higher education landscape. He rose in my esteem when he publicly-denounced the 100% Zulu sloganeering that plagued the ANC leading up to and after its Polokwane conference.
Happy 95th birthday, Shenge!
Porf. Saths Cooper is the President of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists
The views expressed do not necessarily the views of Independent Media or IOL