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Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi: The man who divided South Africa

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who has died aged 95, was a towering figure in South African politics, hailed as an “outstanding leader” by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

During apartheid, he was the chief minister of the KwaZulu Bantustan: a semi-independent territory allocated to the Zulu people by the country’s white supremacist government.

His administration was widely seen as a puppet regime: dependent on the South African state for power, intolerant of political opposition and dominated by Inkatha – the party he founded in 1975.

He found common cause with the African National Congress (ANC) in the struggle against apartheid and campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela.

But he opposed the ANC’s stance on armed action and international sanctions, arguing that they harmed black South Africans.

During the transition to multi-party democracy, Buthelezi feared the erosion of his power. He demanded a more federal system of government, with guarantees that the status of traditional Zulu leaders would be respected.

The ANC disagreed, and as many as 12,000 died in violent clashes between Inkatha and Nelson Mandela’s supporters in the early 1990s, which are widely believed to have been fuelled by the apartheid government.

Some feared the violence would lead to civil war, but Buthelezi eventually joined Mandela’s government of national unity in 1994. Despite continuing tensions, he served as minister for home affairs for a decade.

His Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) struggled to expand its political reach beyond its power base among Zulus, the country’s largest ethnic group, but Buthelezi survived attempts to remove him from its leadership.

He finally stood down as IFP president in 2019: one of the great survivors of South African politics, and one of the few leaders of the old semi-autonomous homelands who adapted to the post-apartheid era.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was born in what was then south-eastern Zululand on 27 August 1928.

His mother was Princess Magogo kaDinzulu, the sister of the Zulu king and a famous singer of traditional songs.

The king had arranged her marriage to Buthelezi’s father – the leader of a powerful clan – to heal a rift between their two families.

At the age of 14, he was told that his father had died.

He was taken to the family homestead. Following Zulu tradition, he stabbed the ground with a spear to show where the grave should be dug and loudly claimed his inheritance.

Buthelezi was educated at Adams College, a well-known missionary school near Durban, but in 1948 – as he began university in the Eastern Cape – the National Party was elected and began implementing apartheid.

He joined the ANC, campaigning against the new regime alongside Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

His political activism got him expelled from university, so he returned to KwaZulu-Natal to take up his duties as chief of his family clan.

He married Irene, a nursing student from Johannesburg. His father was said to have had around 40 wives, but – as a practising Anglican – the new chief resisted traditionalist Zulu pressure to take further brides.

In 1954, King Cyprian appointed him as his traditional prime minister. The post was a powerful one, usually occupied by a member of the Buthelezi family.

A decade later, he appeared opposite Michael Caine in the film Zulu. He played the role of his real-life great-grandfather, King Cetshwayo at the battle of Rorke’s Drift.

By now, the first Bantu authorities had been established and Buthelezi was chosen as KwaZulu’s Chief Executive. A new constitution invested all executive power in him, relegating the king to a largely ceremonial role.

He established his own power base with the creation of Inkatha, ostensibly to campaign for the inalienable rights of Zulus and mobilise against white domination.

But, with his new party’s backing, Buthelezi ruled with an “iron fist”.

Membership of the party was all but compulsory for those who did not want to lose their jobs.

The chief minister took personal charge of his nation’s finances and ultimate control of the police.

Throughout apartheid, Buthelezi refused to accept the – largely nominal – independence that the South African government offered the Bantustans.

“South Africa is one country,” he declared. “It has one destiny. Those who are attempting to divide the land of our birth are attempting to stem the tide of history.”

But some anti-apartheid campaigners were critical of his stance.

Steve Biko, the leading Black Consciousness campaigner who later died after being beaten by the South African security services, said Buthelezi was being exploited by the apartheid regime and not – as the Inkatha leader believed – working within the system to undermine it.

His relationship with the exiled ANC leadership deteriorated further in the late 1970s.

The ANC was in an alliance with the South African Communist Party, while Buthelezi was a vehement anti-communist. He thought the organisation was riddled with Marxists and refused to provide safe houses for members of its armed wing.

He lobbied for the lifting of economic sanctions against South Africa, insisting that his responsibility was to see black children fed and clothed.

Buthelezi was praised for his approach by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but one ANC activist described him as a South African “government lackey” who was “living in a fool’s paradise”.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu even had to ask him to leave a funeral because so many black mourners were throwing stones.

On the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela however, Buthelezi and the ANC found common cause.

The Inkatha leader was steadfast in his campaign to see the talismanic figure freed from incarceration on Robben Island – and later claimed sole credit for bringing about his release.

But clashes between supporters of the two organisations intensified in the run-up to the first free elections.

Until the end of his life, Buthelezi claimed it was the ANC that instigated most of the violence – but evidence later emerged that Inkatha received South African military assistance to finance hit squads.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – a body established to uncover the dirty secrets of the apartheid era and promote healing – accused him of complicity in gross human rights violations.

The allegations prompted an angry response.

Chief Buthelezi denied ever authorising or condoning human rights abuses and publication of the TRC’s final report in 2003 was delayed until a series of changes were made at his insistence.

A hate-figure for many ANC activists, he planned to boycott the historic 1994 elections – only to change his mind at the last minute. With ballot papers already printed, Buthelezi’s photograph had to be attached to each voting slip with a sticker.

South Africa’s new constitution required the victorious ANC to form a multi-party government, in a form of transitional power-sharing.

As a result, Buthelezi was appointed Minister of Home Affairs. From time to time, he even acted up as president when Nelson Mandela was abroad.

He retained his position after the 1999 elections, but relations with the ANC again began to fray.

A row over new immigration regulations ended with the bizarre spectacle of President Thabo Mbeki taking legal action against a member of his own government.

“I am not aware,” Chief Buthelezi said later, “of any world precedent in which a president not only sued his own minister but went so far as trying to get a cost order against him in his personal capacity.”

After the 2004 elections, Inkatha – rebranded as the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – returned to the opposition benches.

Five years later, the IFP lost electoral ground against the ANC’s new leader, Jacob Zuma, who was himself a Zulu.

The party’s youth movement in KwaZulu-Natal argued for a change of leadership and found itself expelled.

In 2019, Chief Buthelezi announced that he would not seek re-election to the IFP presidency. He stepped down after 45 years in the position.

He did, however, remain a member of the South African parliament and traditional prime minister in KwaZulu-Natal.

In his 90s, he was a pivotal figure in the Zulu royal family succession battle that followed the death of King Zwelithini in 2021.

Buthelezi’s candidate for kingship prevailed, but a dispute over the chairmanship of the Ingonyama Trust Board – which manages vast tracts of royal land – caused vicious infighting.

In 2023, King Misuzulu kaZwelithini had to dismiss stories that he had been poisoned. And tensions within the royal family led to reports that the king’s relations with his chief minister had almost broken down.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was a complex figure.

Proud, litigious, and capricious, he was famous for his interminable parliamentary speeches: one of which was 427 pages long and took more than two weeks to deliver.

An intimidating personality, he was said to be “capable of switching between unbridled charm and ruthless bellicosity”.

But it was his record during the apartheid years that still divides South Africa.

To his supporters, Chief Buthelezi did his best to protect his people, while working to undermine an evil regime.

But to his enemies, he will be remembered as having occupied a comfortable position of power – at a time when “real” campaigners were being imprisoned, exiled, beaten and shot.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi: The man who divided South Africa
Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi: The man who divided South Africa

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