Mangosuthu Buthelezi's abiding integrity

John Kane-Berman says the former IFP President was betrayed both by the ANC and NP

Earlier this month, Mangosuthu Buthelezi reminded me of an article in the New York Times Magazine in 1991 in which I was quoted as having said, "Buthelezi has been written off so many times that he ought to be a black hole… Whether you like the guy or not, he's got the ability to survive in an incredibly tough market-place." Earlier this year, he retired from the presidency of the Inkatha Freedom Party (although not from Parliament), so this is an appropriate moment to reflect on what he has done in that tough market-place, based in part on personal recollections.  

One of my earliest meetings with Chief Buthelezi (as he was then known) was in February 1975 in Nongoma, then his capital in northern KwaZulu. He had just returned from the Jabulani Stadium in Soweto, where he had reported back to a mass meeting on his discussions the previous month in Pretoria with the prime minister, John Vorster.

The press habitually attacked his speeches on these occasions as being too long, but it was clear to me whenever I attended these and other meetings that his supporters expected full report backs on whatever discussions he had with the government or anyone else.    

At the time of my trip to Nongoma 45 years ago to interview Prince Buthelezi I was working on the Financial Mail. The transcript of our interview covered two pages. Unemployment was already a serious problem, and he hoped that the mining industry would succeed in recruiting many more black South Africans, although he described the compound system as "barbaric" and destructive of family life. Another major problem was having to look after people forcibly removed into KwaZulu.

He told me that he had returned from his meeting with the prime minister "terribly depressed" because Mr Vorster had "told us frankly we would not go to Parliament as long as the National Party (NP) was in power". However, Prince Buthelezi said, nothing short of representation in Parliament would be acceptable to black South Africans. The only possible compromise he himself would make was a federal solution, because no black leader could stand on a public platform and talk about a qualified franchise.

Moreover, the destiny of the Zulu people was not separable from that of other ethnic groups. Nor did he have any doubt about his right to speak for urban people, which was why he went to Soweto to report to them.

I mention this last point because even today some journalists perpetuate the falsehood that Prince Buthelezi was seeking special deals for Zulus or that he somehow saw their destiny as different from that of anyone else. The truth is that he never wavered from the view that South Africa was a single country, that there was no political difference between urban and rural people, and that the previous government's policy of cajoling the homelands into accepting constitutional separation from the rest of South Africa was completely and utterly unacceptable.

Four of the ten homelands did agree to become constitutionally separate from the rest of South Africa. Had KwaZulu followed the same course, all the others would have done so too, and the previous government's dream of a South Africa without any black citizens would have been achieved. Having reported on it at the time, I well remember the consternation that gripped citizens of the Transkei and other supposedly independent homelands when they were told that they were now aliens in the land of their birth.

I also remember that Chief Buthelezi, as he then was, once publicly warned a senior cabinet minister that despite his lifelong commitment to non-violence he would be forced to consider taking up arms if the then government attempted to excise KwaZulu from the rest of South Africa. In the end, that choice was not forced upon him, since he was able to use his strategic position as chief minister and president of Inkatha YeNkululeko YeSizwe (later renamed the Inkatha Freedom Party) to erect an insuperable stumbling-block which foiled the plans to purge South Africa of all its black citizens, forcing PW Botha's government to abandon that policy several years before FW de Klerk came to power.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi did not only thwart the NP's ultimate grand apartheid objective. He launched at least two important constitutional initiatives of his own. The first of these was the Buthelezi Commission which was established in 1980. Two years later this group of some four dozen academics, politicians, lawyers, educationists, and religious and business leaders reported in favour of uniting KwaZulu and Natal in a power-sharing democracy with minority protections. Predictably, the NP government dismissed the proposals out of hand.

Equally predictably, Prince Buthelezi tried again. In the mid-1980s the KwaZulu-Natal Indaba was launched. This was a regional constitutional conference in which representatives of some three dozen organisations participated. It produced a constitution for a united democratic province as a component of a wider South African federation. Even though the proposed provincial constitution provided protection for minorities based on language and culture rather than race, the government rejected this initiative as well. By this time Mr Botha's government was involved in secret talks with Nelson Mandela.

Although the NP in the end did a bilateral deal with the African National Congress (ANC) which led to the 1994 election, its initial idea seemed to be to seek some sort of bilateral deal with Prince Buthelezi instead. But he thwarted that as well. I knew from talking to him that the NP was anxious to draw him into some sort of constitutional negotiations at national level, but he had been demanding the release of Mr Mandela and imprisoned leaders of the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) since 1975 if not earlier and he made it clear that he would never join any constitutional negotiations at national level unless they were given the same opportunity. It took 15 years before that condition was fulfilled.

Prince Buthelezi in fact demanded the release of Mr Mandela and others long before it became fashionable to do so. He was instrumental both in preventing grand apartheid from coming to fruition and in ensuring that when constitutional negotiations did take place at national level, the ANC and the PAC could participate. This speaks of a man not only politically realistic, but one also consistent, honourable, and principled.

Unfortunately, however, these virtues were neither rewarded nor reciprocated. It is one of the bitter ironies of South African political history that Prince Buthelezi, having throughout his political career insisted on all-inclusive multi-party negotiations, was betrayed by both the NP and the ANC.

When the multi-party Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) met at the World Trade Centre, the ANC found itself in a minority on a number of vital constitutional issues, notably its opposition to federalism. Its remedy was to walk out of the talks in May 1992 and refuse to return until Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa had reached their infamous "record of understanding", as they called it, in September 1992. This bilateral deal turned the multi-party constitutional conference into a rubber-stamp.

By this stage, of course, both the NP and Inkatha had been demonised in a global campaign of disinformation. By the time of the 1994 election some 20 000 people, the vast majority of them black, and some of them unlawfully executed by security forces, had been killed in ten years of political violence dating back to the launch by the ANC of its "people's war" after its visit to Vietnam in 1978. This was aimed partly at making the country ungovernable, but mainly at eliminating political rivals, among them Inkatha, the PAC, and the Azanian People's Organisation, for the simple reason that the ANC saw itself as the "sole authentic representative" of black South Africans.  

Its strategy – described in my colleague Anthea Jeffery's books on the people's war –   involved the use of violence as both a physical and as a propaganda weapon. Despite the fact that the pattern of violence around the country closely followed prescripts laid down by the ANC, that organisation and its allies in the media were enormously successful in casting all the blame on to the NP and Inkatha. Prince Buthelezi's supporters were undoubtedly involved in violence, but this was essentially retaliatory and defensive, though sometimes murderously so.

The closest analogy is that between Israel and certain Palestinian organisations, in which Israel is usually depicted as the aggressor when it is more often than not responding to violent attack. In South Africa neither the Truth Commission nor the Goldstone Commission paid much attention to the people's war. In fact they consigned it to a "memory hole" which George Orwell would have instantly recognised.

This year, 2019, is the 40th anniversary of a fateful meeting in London between Inkatha and the ANC in 1979. Designed to explore opportunities for co-operation, it ended in conflict. The ANC wanted Inkatha both to endorse economic sanctions and to embrace the armed struggle. Prince Buthelezi refused to do either, probably forfeiting a Nobel Peace Prize in the process.

He also earned the enmity not only of the ANC, but also of the press corps and others who had persuaded themselves that only violence would get rid of apartheid. Sanctions and violence had by then become the default options for many. It took both integrity and political and moral courage for Prince Buthelezi to stand his ground instead of courting easy popularity at the United Nations and elsewhere.  

He also stood his ground in response to the campaign launched by the ANC for "liberation before education". This involved not only calling on children to abandon their classrooms but also to burn down their schools as part of the ungovernability strategy. But while schools were burning elsewhere, the KwaZulu administration was building them with pitifully few resources. It built altogether 6 000 classrooms and ten teacher training colleges. Children fleeing disruption of education in other parts of the country flooded into schools in KwaZulu.

Said Inkatha: "We would not allow young black South Africans to become cannon fodder. Nor would we ask them to give up their future." At the time many middle-class adults, and no doubt others, spoke admiringly of "young lions" with "iron in their souls". Others, horrified at the mayhem in the townships, preferred to keep silent rather than be branded as apologists for "Bantu Education".

This period of "people's war" and "liberation before education" lasted from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. A hefty section of South Africa's liberal intelligentsia, embracing academia, the media, and the churches, seemed to have taken leave of their senses. Not Prince Buthelezi. They excoriated him. But he spoke the truth, fearlessly as always.

He did so on matters personal as well as political. In 2004 he disclosed that his son Nelisuzulu had died of AIDS. Shortly after that, he disclosed that the disease had also claimed his daughter Mandisi. He was widely praised for having had the courage to speak in public on these personal tragedies at a time when very few people were willing to break the silence about AIDS because of the stigma attached to it. He went even further, disclosing that his daughter had been in "denial" and had started taking antiretroviral medication only when it was too late.

And he explained, "We were going through what millions of South Africans are experiencing... I felt I had a responsibility as a leader of my people to speak out against the stigma and silence which are the main causes of the prolific spread of this deadly disease."

Even before these tragedies struck his family, Prince Buthelezi, by then minister of home affairs in the Mbeki government, had called for political leadership in combating AIDS. When the IFP held the premiership of KwaZulu-Natal after the implementation of the new constitution, it pioneered the provision of anti-retrovirals to all clinics in the province to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This initiative later helped persuade the Constitutional Court to reject arguments by the central government that national provision of this medication was not feasible. The court said that KwaZulu-Natal had shown that the medication could be made available much more rapidly "provided the requisite political will" was present.

Five other observations may be made. The first is that as long ago as the 1970s Inkatha repealed customary laws which made married women perpetual minors under the custody of their husbands. This happened in KwaZulu before it happened in the rest of the country. The second is that Inkatha ran a clean administration. There was none of the corruption that is so pervasive throughout South Africa today.

The third is that he was an early supporter of the revitalised black trade union movement at the time of the Durban strikes in 1973. This makes it all the more tragic and unnecessary that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) later declared war on the IFP at the behest of the ANC and its allies.

The fourth is that the Prince Buthelezi played a major role in game and nature conservation in KwaZulu, while his administration also grappled with the formidable challenges of agricultural and economic development even as it struggled to finance housing and clinics and much else from meagre resources. One of the reasons he opposed economic sanctions is that he knew that they would hit the poorest of the poor the hardest.      

The fifth is that during his tenure as home affairs minister in ANC-led governments, Prince Buthelezi tried to introduce a liberal immigration policy based on market principles and free of political control. According to Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, his key adviser at the time, his efforts produced a cabinet "cadenza" and were thwarted time and again. South Africa is still paying the price.        

During his long political career Prince Buthelezi had by his side his wife Irene, who died earlier this year after 67 years of marriage. He described her as "my closest friend, my adviser, my prayer warrior, and the love of my life". Although they both suffered from diabetes, he said that "the Lord has blessed us with strong constitutions".

For good reasons, many people are extremely cynical about politicians. The Christian gentleman who is Mangosuthu Buthelezi reminds us that that view is sometimes fundamentally mistaken. He has served South Africa selflessly, and with honesty, perspicacity, wisdom, integrity, and courage second to none.    

* This article is based on the keynote address by John Kane-Berman at the recent launch in Durban of the Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Harry Oppenheimer Trust. Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.