An insider's account of Mangosuthu Buthelezi's political career

John Kane-Berman writes on the late Mario Oriani-Ambrosini's book on the Inkatha leader

Way back when Mangosuthu Buthelezi was chief minister of KwaZulu, the Pretoria government sent an apparatchik to Ulundi as director general to control him and undermine his increasing popularity. However, the official, Stan Armstrong, soon underwent a "Damascene" conversion and pledged his loyalty to Prince Buthelezi, while pretending to Pretoria that he was carrying out its brief.

This is one of a number of fascinating bits of information in the memoirs of Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, who was a key adviser to Prince Buthelezi during the constitutional negotiations before the 1994 transition and afterwards when he was minister of home affairs for ten years in the governments of national unity led by Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The memoirs – The Prince and I: A South African Institutional Odyssey – are published this year by the estate of Dr Oriani-Ambrosini, who died in 2014.

The memoirs record how Prince Buthelezi called the bluff of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1992 when that organisation threatened to march on Ulundi. He said he would not ban the march, but would not be responsible for whatever reception the ANC might be given.

The march never happened.  

But the ANC did not forget how Buthelezi had "humiliated" it by calling its bluff. Indeed, in a bizarre sequel in 1994, President Mandela had asked Constand Viljoen, leader of the Freedom Front and former head of the army, whether the army could win a war against Buthelezi. Viljoen had been "shocked" at this idea, and told Mr Mandela that given the topography of the area, the army would get in but not out of the valley in which Ulundi is situated.

Dr Oriani-Ambrosini introduces a new concept into the analysis of the violence which plagued South Africa in the years preceding and immediately after the first all-race election, which took place 23 years ago this week. The ANC and the media portrayed the violence as a two-sided affair between the ANC on the one hand and the National Party (NP) government and its supposed surrogates in a "third force" on the other.

However, the memoirs argue, the conflict was essentially "triangular" in that the ANC was concerned not only to confront the NP, but also to eliminate black opposition. According to Dr Oriani-Ambrosini, neither the Truth and Reconciliation Commission nor the Goldstone Commission wanted to probe this aspect of the violence.  

Turning to the constitutional negotiations, the memoirs argue that FW de Klerk might have wanted to create an alliance with Prince Buthelezi, but that Roelf Meyer was determined on a deal with the ANC. The result was the "record of understanding" between the ANC and the NP signed on 26 September 1992 in which the NP had "sold its soul to the devil". Thereafter everyone else was railroaded into "staying with" the "process" orchestrated by Mr Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa, with the latter usually "outsmarting" the former.  

After coming to power in 1994, the ANC had sought a merger with the IFP to unify blacks.  Several key figures in the IFP favoured such a merger. Their argument was that "black people should set aside differences and pursue their common liberation agenda in an environment in which politics would forcibly be racially divided and polarised."

Prince Buthelezi, however, "relentlessly" resisted this argument as inimical to democracy and any kind of black-white partnership. Says Dr Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, "He doubted that black people could achieve more for themselves in separation from and with hostility towards white people." Experience had taught him that he could work with whites to achieve results that would benefit the poor in his "vast constituencies".

Among the book's concise 79 chapters are several dealing with Prince Buthelezi's tenure as minister of home affairs. His attempts to introduce a liberal immigration policy based on market principles and free of political control were undermined all along the way. Among other things the liberal policy entailed vesting control in an independent immigration service with a concomitant reduction in ministerial power. About this the Cabinet had had a "cadenza".

Written by an insider, this book is an important contribution to rectifying the one-sided view of South Africa's transition that is still so prevalent.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.