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Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi: SA bids farewell to a divisive leader whose resilience and contention helped forge a nation

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi: SA bids farewell to a divisive leader whose resilience and contention helped forge a nation
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the ceremonial handover of the certificate of recognition to Zulu King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on 29 October 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

Up to the last moments of his colourful public life, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi epitomised the ambiguity of his complex political career that polarised opinions and attitudes towards him locally and internationally in equal measure.

Received and feted by eminent statesmen of the West while intensified apartheid repression in his native country saw South Africa being condemned to a pariah state, many freedom fighters, exiled or fighting on the home front, dismissed Buthelezi as a puppet of the oppressors created by the despised Bantu homelands system.

Despite the derogatory labels at home, Buthelezi’s audience was sought by presidents of the United States of America Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; then US Secretary of State Dr Henry Kissinger; German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and British prime ministers John Major and Margaret Thatcher, a long-time ally and friend.


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Mangosuthu Buthelezi at a meeting of the then Progressive Federal Party, a forebear of the Democratic Alliance. (Photo by Wessel Oosthuizen/Gallo Images)

Similarly, across the African continent, he was received warmly by the Frontline States that supported the struggle for liberation in South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. He interacted directly with key leaders such as Tanzania’s president Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Dr Kenneth Kaunda and many others, despite efforts by the exiled African National Congress to undermine his projection as a genuine leader of the oppressed black people in South Africa. 

By then, his global influence extended beyond the political arena. His vehement opposition to the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa made him a darling of big business locally and internationally where he addressed chambers of commerce as a guest speaker. He was received by Pope Paul VI and Pope John II at the Vatican, among some of the influential global religious leaders. 

On the one hand, he proclaimed abhorrence of violence. Yet, many who perished in the bloodletting between his Inkatha and the United Democratic Front regarded him as the commander-in-chief of those marauding men of war and assassins. In the end, violence as a form of self defence became the excuse on both sides. 

Although Buthelezi expressed regret that his followers had been involved in the violence that resulted in so many deaths (as high as 20,000 by some accounts), he maintained that he had never instructed anybody to commit murder.

Military training

The highest echelons of the apartheid security machinery, including defence, military intelligence and the police were instrumental in providing clandestine, highly sophisticated military training to a group of 200 young men who had been identified by Inkatha leaders.

When they were unleashed on Inkatha’s enemies on their return, they left a trail of death throughout KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng and Mpumalanga, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was later to hear when the killers applied for amnesty, citing political motives for their crimes.


Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi speaks during the memorial service for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela at The Orlando Stadium in Soweto on 11 April 2018. (Photo by J Countess / Getty Images)

Although it was established that Buthelezi had been aware that the then South African government would provide Inkatha with “capacity” to defend itself, he maintained that he was not party to any decision to commit crime. Even when officials as senior as former Defence Minister Magnus Malan were tried for the murders allegedly committed by the trainees, Buthelezi did not join them in the dock.  The accused, including the trainees, were all acquitted.

Melchizedek Zakhele Khumalo

Among them was one Melchizedek Zakhele Khumalo, Buthelezi’s long-standing aide and former Inkatha administrative secretary. In court, it emerged that he had been the key link between the apartheid generals and the trainees. All the arrangements had been made through him, and in subsequent amnesty applications before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), various hitmen who pleaded for amnesty on the basis that they had a political motive as Inkatha members engaged in a war against its opponents, identified Khumalo as the enabler for their operations.

Investigations by the Independent Task Unit that was established by the democratic government revealed that the South African Police had supplied Inkatha with large quantities of weapons, providing further concrete proof that Inkatha had been in cahoots with the apartheid state.

Khumalo shouldered the blame, as he had done previously when a massive scandal blotted Buthelezi’s standing as a freedom fighter and which bolstered claims that he was an apartheid surrogate. The then Weekly Mail, in a major Inkathagate exposé, revealed that Inkatha had been funded by the feared apartheid security police.

buthelezi mandela de klerk

Then ANC leader and president of South Africa Nelson Mandela walks through the gardens of Genadendal in 1996 with former President and fellow Nobel laureate FW de Klerk (left) and leader of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. (Photo: Gallo Images / Oryx Media Archive)

To Buthelezi’s eternal embarrassment, the newspaper revealed that the massive launch of the United Workers Union of South Africa in Durban to counter the hugely popular Congress of South African Trade Unions, had been a project of the apartheid government. Thousands were transported by buses and trains to Durban to listen to Buthelezi denounce economic sanctions and the work of ANC-aligned trade unions. 

Inkatha would have the world believe that Khumalo had been solely responsible for an initiative of this proportion without appraising his leader of the origins of the slush funds. He apologised to Buthelezi and stepped down from his positions.  Many believed he had taken the fall for his leader.

If anything, what happened to Khumalo and his grim persistence with loyalty to Buthelezi, perhaps points to how the wily old Buthelezi managed to survive for so long while his many fellow travellers and detractors alike fell by the wayside.

Inkatha evolution

There can be no dispute about Buthelezi’s centrality in the formation and evolution of Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe in 1975 and throughout its current form as Inkatha Freedom Party.  

Inkatha was him and he was Inkatha. However, it would be untrue to say that he built the organisation alone. 

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President Jacob Zuma shares a joke at Tuynhuys, Cape Town, with IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi on the IFP leader’s 81st birthday. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Yunus Mohamed)

His strong personality was overwhelming, and many, like Khumalo, opted to withdraw quietly rather than risk a public showdown with him. 

Among the brains that could not last the distance were Dr Frank Mdlalose, Dr Sibusiso Bengu, Dr Ben Ngubane, Dr Sipo Mzimela, Dr Gavin Woods, Dr Ziba Jiyane and Rev Musa Zondi, among others.

Dislodging Buthelezi from leading Inkatha against his will in order to infuse new ideas and approaches would almost have been impossible. 

Although he professed to be a democrat, the reality was that Buthelezi was more in the mould of African leaders across the continent that he drew inspiration from. They would have looked askance at President Nelson Mandela’s decision to walk away after one term as South Africa’s first democratically elected head of state.  

buthelezi malema

EFF leader Julius Malema and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi during a media briefing in 2014 in Durban. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Witness / Ian Carbutt)

Of course, for many years Buthelezi would say he had been prevailed upon to continue as leader when he had wanted to give others a chance. When he eventually stepped down and became president emeritus, Mr Velenkosini Hlabisa who was elected in 2019 to succeed him was supposed to be the face of the party. But it was Buthelezi’s images that were plastered all over the IFP’s election material in the last local government elections. Even at 93 years of age, he was not about to sit back and enjoy the fruits of almost five decades of leading the party. 

The IFP’s resurgence as a major political force in KwaZulu-Natal following the dismal performance of the ANC in many municipalities, particularly those in the former KwaZulu territory where the IFP had been strong traditionally, would have been particularly pleasing to Buthelezi, given the acrimony over many decades. 

Wish for reconciliation

Towards the end of his days, Buthelezi repeatedly stated his wish for the ANC and the IFP to reconcile before he died.  

He often reminded people that the ANC was also his home as he had been a member from his student days at the University of Fort Hare, and that he still adhered to the principles espoused by its founding fathers.  

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Then ANC leader and president of South Africa Nelson Mandela and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi share a laugh at Genadendal, the official presidential residence in Cape Town. (Photo: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive)

He cherished his relationship with former ANC presidents Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo, dating back to the 1950s. 

He was proud of his role as a minister in the first democratic government under president Mandela, and was particularly pleased that on 22 occasions the reins of the country were left in his hands as acting head of state. 

He felt his contribution was similarly appreciated by the ANC when president Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Madiba, retained him in the Cabinet when there was no constitutional requirement to do so. 

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Nelson Mandela and Mangosuthu Buthelezi in 1991. (Photo by Gallo Images/Media24 Archives)

But the relationship with the provincial ANC had challenges, primarily because they were competing for the same constituency and the violent conflicts of the late 1980s and early 1990s had torn families apart along political allegiances. 

More specifically, when the ANC targeted rural communities for electoral support, it initially encountered fierce resistance from traditional leaders who had been a pillar in the foundation of Inkatha. With their allegiance to the late King Goodwill Zwelithini, whom the ANC accused Buthelezi of using to bolster support for Inkatha, there was bound to be tension. 

Prime minister dispute

The ANC also disputed Buthelezi’s claim that he was the legitimate prime minister to the Zulu nation. His fervent critic, Nobleman Nxumalo, published the seminal Gatsha Buthelezi – Chief With a Double Agenda under the pen name, Mzala. He argued that Buthelezi was usurping a princely Zulu title that he did not qualify for, as his father was not of royal blood. What irked Buthelezi further was the book’s claim that he was imposing himself as traditional prime minister to the Zulu monarch.

buthelezi book

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, MP with the book ‘Gatsha Buthelezi – Chief With a Double Agenda’ during his address to media at Durban Manor on 15 October 2021. (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

As many journalists would attest after writing about him (“poppycock” or “balderdash”, his favourite descriptions over the years),  he missed no opportunity to clear his name. He litigated across the globe to have the book removed from bookshelves as he regarded it as highly defamatory.

What he could not erase from the history books was the origin of his name Mangosuthu (the lies of Usuthu). 

When his mother, Princess Magogo, of Zulu royalty, was dispatched to marry his father Mathole, there were already whispers that he was infertile. Indeed, for three years there was no offspring, to the extent that when Buthelezi was eventually born in August 1928, Mathole himself expressed surprise and stated that the news could be the usual lies of the Usuthu clan of his wife.

The significance of this is that Buthelezi later assumed the chieftainship although his mother was only a tenth wife, while Mathole had other older sons who should have succeeded him, argued Mzala.

Buthelezi contended that he was the rightful heir because his mother was of Zulu royalty and had thus become the senior wife who would produce the heir.

Royal succession

This background is critical in the context of the subsequent battles between Buthelezi and some members of the royal family who resented his role in the affairs of the kingdom, as was evident after King Zwelithini’s passing last year and the succession dispute.

His relationship with King Goodwill was often difficult, particularly when he was chief minister of the erstwhile KwaZulu government.  Travel restrictions were imposed on the King, and he could not be interviewed by the media without authorisation by the Inkatha government.

Buthelezi also clashed with the King when the apartheid government’s agents instigated the formation of other political parties to challenge Inkatha, which was running a one-party government with Buthelezi at the helm.

buthelezi misuzulu

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the ceremonial handover of the certificate of recognition to Zulu King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban on 29 October 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

When the ban on the ANC was lifted, it targeted the IFP’s rural strongholds. Naturally, they had to win the King over, and he duly fell into the warm embrace of Madiba.

The issue of the status of the King further soured relations between the ANC-led KwaZulu-Natal government and Buthelezi, who continued as traditional prime minister to the Zulu nation even while he was estranged from the King.

Up to the last days of his life, Buthelezi was still integral to Zulu royal family matters and had been taken to court by a faction of the family that disputed the King’s will which identified Queen Matfombi as the heir.

The queen, who also died shortly after her husband, had identified her son, Prince Misuzulu, to succeed her.

Buthelezi wasted no time in saluting the prince and introducing him to the nation as the new king – with or without the endorsement of the ANC and the courts. 

He was wrapping up what he had initiated. 

For, in reality, the current Zulu constitutional monarchy is Buthelezi’s creation, notwithstanding all the difficulties between him and members of the royal family over many decades.

Even in the twilight of his long, colourful and often complex life, Buthelezi was providing leadership when the monarchy was once again crumbling – this time not at the hands of the British invaders or Afrikaner Voortrekkers who had conquered his forefathers, but his own blood relatives.

Some decried his “meddling”, others admired his political dexterity in a moment of crisis.

Walking a tightrope had, after all, seen him through many battles in his political life.

He simply could not be wished away. DM


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  • William Stucke says:

    An amazing man.

  • Shaun Slayer says:

    Wow, what a derogatory piece. The one thing you left out of that hateful story of yours is the way the ANC used to attack and burn down his townships, eg: Greytown township where I was stationed the night the attack happened. Back when SA still had an army we used to patrol townships to keep the peace as the ANC was very intent on taking over as many townships as it could by burning down IFP houses. That man bought my father a small black and white tv which he exchanged for a goat, so we, as kids could have something to watch at night. But then again as the saying goes, only the good die young and he was always young at heart. Respect Prince. RIP.

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    He was probably the greatest modern South African apart from Mandela.

  • Klaus Wiswedel says:

    Chief Buthelezi’s decision not to engage in the “armed struggle” but try to change the regime from within, brought him the scorn of the ANC.
    We are still now suffering from the “armed struggle” which taught the youth of those days that through violence you can achieve anything. Remember the slogan ” liberation before education” ? All these ANC slogans led to a largely poorly educated population which is prone to violence and crime and has no interest in education. Pair that with cadre deployment and nepotism and you have the disaster we experience now.
    Chief Buthelezi , given a chance, would have walked a different path.
    I honour the man, having known him personally.
    RIP Chief

  • David Muller says:

    Wonder how these two ‘powerful’ men are doing now amongst the gods, Ackerman and Buthelezi? No more toxic profits or mafia-styled politics on their minds.

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