Henry Bantjez (M Psych.)
A WhatsApp message at 8.13am, September 9, 2023, shook me. It read: “Shenge passed away, in the early hours of this morning.”
I am devastated. South Africa had gone into an instantaneous state of collective mourning. He was a family man. A statesman. A politician. A traditional leader. A humanitarian. A man of faith. A man of principles. A hopeless romantic. He was Prince Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, also known as Shenge, who on August 27, 1928, in Mahlabatini, was born into the Zulu royal family.
His mother Princess Magogo ka Dinuzulu was the daughter of King Dinuzulu. Buthelezi was the founder of the IFP and served two terms as minister of Home Affairs in the post-apartheid regime. He acted as the traditional prime minister to the Zulu royal family from 1954 until his death.
But to look at him without a political lens, one needs to speak to his son, Prince Zuzifa Buthelezi, who is quick to tell you that at home his father enjoyed drinking amasi, eating dumplings, singing, listening to an enormous CD collection, and Shenge reminiscing about the days when his mother used to ring a bell for the family to gather and sing hymns.
Shenge especially loved listening to the songs of his mother, a world-renowned composer. Her melancholic yet captivating voice carried orchestras like a feather. Proud songs. Zulu songs.
Prince Zuzifa jokingly told me: “When my grandmother got married, her family teasingly said: Don’t hold it against her – she can’t stop singing. And in Shenge’s earlier days, watching Clint Eastwood movies with his late wife Princess Irene MaMzila was as special as a rose in a garden full of weeds.
A great sadness covered Buthelezi like a dark blanket. The death of a child breaks you. It creates lifelong changes in you. Every step feels like crossing a busy street in a rainstorm. It hardens you. Depression. It causes immense personal distress, and it interferes with your everyday functioning like an unwelcome guest. He suffered the loss of four children.
Yet, as His Holiness, the Dalai Lama wrote in his condolence letter: He lived a meaningful life. Great people have one thing in common. They have been selfless in their service to others. That was Shenge’s intention all along: to serve others, to help them overcome obstacles.
When you ask philosophers what the meaning of life is, they give a simple answer: The meaning of life is to be happy and useful. This means happiness is not just about you. Happiness is also achieved through helping others. This is what Shenge was about.
The steadfast values Shenge upheld as a political leader, shaped our thinking as a nation. But he was a leader at home as well. “A family is a microcosm of the bigger picture of whatever you become in life. If you are not that at the family level, you are misleading someone somewhere. Leadership starts at home.
“The values that he inculcated in us were not to sit down and lecture us. Children look at what their parents do not what they say. He had a very turbulent life but when he was home, he played his role as a father and as a husband to the fullest. Our mother was just so fond of him.”
One of her favourite one-liners was: My husband – I still would have loved him if he were sweeping the streets. Prince Zuzifa goes on to say: “His honesty rubbed off on me. His dependability. His ability to forgive. His huge capability of forgiveness may have been a weakness. So often people embraced and stabbed him in the back at the same time.”
Shenge’s mother was very religious and played a major role in his upbringing which he entrenched in all his children. It played a major role in shaping them. Packed into a car “Let’s go to church,” his jovial voice echoing in their memories. Shenge was a strict father. At times when we were very naughty, things were escalated to the sjambok. He did not suffer fools gladly.
“There was only one person who could shout at him and that was my grandmother, and we loved it. Because he was so strict.” A defining moment for Shenge at age 14 was when his father passed away. His mother raised him as a single mother and moulded him to become an internationally respected politician.
“My father was so humble. He taught me that people must not confuse being humble with being weak. He also said that you can be proud but not arrogant. You know, when someone important makes you feel big in their company – that is another way of describing and remembering my father.
“It is not important to be important. I loved the way he respected my mother, and I try the same with my wife, Princess Michelle. He was so romantic. He always bought my mother flowers. If she had kept them all she would have had a sea of flowers running for kilometres. I remember one Valentine’s Day he bought all the female MPs flowers.”
Some described him as a joker, although he was serious. He will be remembered for his humour in Parliament. He jokingly addressed noisy honourable members by saying: “You must know you can always sing together but you can’t talk together at the same time.”
“The country not going in the right direction saddened my father deeply. What happened politically as a country. Corruption depressed him. He hated it so much. Nepotism as well. He was very strict about that,” says Prince Zuzifa. He goes on to talk about his transitioning journey with Shenge.
“When he asked me for the first time: What do you think, I had to look behind me. Was he talking to me? That defining moment when I realised, he trusted me. He was my confidant. My soulmate. I miss my father so much. There are difficult days. Triggers. But we do need space for grieving. I have allowed the tears,” he says with a smile that masks his sadness.
“I decided many years ago that politics was not for me. It was because we suffered so much as a family, because of it. It was volatile. Collateral damage. At university, I would be informed that I would be butchered in my bed at night. My father would send me a car at 1am. Knowing with certainty I would be killed; I turned my back on politics.
“Shortly before he died.When he was battling, we were in a hotel in Durban. He was suffering from great pain. I was holding his hand when he said: There has never been a time nor will there ever be a time that will be more important than you being here with me now. At that moment I wished I could have told him, in the years when he was still vibrant, to spend more time with my mother before she passed away. He died at the age of 95 but he was still working.
A big tree has fallen. And as Shenge now sings with his mother in heaven, Uyingcwele, Uyingcwele, Uyingcwele, oh holy, we will continue for generations to give thanks to and uphold his legacy. Siyabonga Shenge. Phumula ngoxolo. Rest in peace.
Henry Bantjez is a behavioural life coach and therapist to high-touch individuals and consults multinational companies on Talent Management.