South Africa


Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s multifaceted role in the evolution of modern South Africa

Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s multifaceted role in the evolution of modern South Africa
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi in Durban on 29 October 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart)

A major, often controversial figure in South African life has been stilled. He was a patriot, an ethno-nationalist and an advocate of culture to support the appreciation of South Africa’s history. We look back at some aspects of his impact.

After nearly a century of life and more than a half-century in the public eye, Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s ideas and actions can make him a challenging figure to embrace and understand in its totality. He had many roles — as an ethnic nationalist, as a sometimes reluctant, divisive participant in the national project of building a new South Africa, and as a supporter of culture praising aspects of the country’s difficult history.

I shall leave it to others to explore the deeper texture of his complex relationship with South Africa’s apartheid regime. Here, I want to offer some observations of how and where I came to encounter him.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Presidency, politicians and MPs offer condolences after death of political and cultural leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi

Given all that transpired after I arrived in South Africa in January 1975, it is easy to forget how thoroughly the government had worked to crush opposition — before the explosion that came 18 months later in Soweto. Treason and Rivonia Trialists and many of their supporters had long since been incarcerated, had fled abroad, or had gone so deep underground as to have become virtually invisible to almost everyone else. 

Across the South African domestic landscape, despite much anger or deep disappointment on the part of many, the tribal homelands system was increasingly entrenched, in tandem with laws that dictated where and how a black person could live or work in the country’s cities.

Johannesburg’s long-running local control over Soweto had ended and, instead, it was now under the more brutish control of the national Department of Bantu Affairs. By then, all the elements of separate development were firmly in place. The media was, largely, thoroughly cowed and any waves of anti-apartheid fervour in literature and the arts barely reached most audiences.

As a young US diplomat, now in Johannesburg, one of my tasks was to become acquainted with as many different groups among South Africa’s dispossessed as possible to better understand their views, ideas, hopes and aspirations. To gain a richer sense of that landscape, we often met with groups like the ostensibly non-political but clearly anti-apartheid teachers organisations, associations of shopkeepers, social workers, and their leaders.

Some groups, like the Union of Black Journalists, were even established in our offices (our auditorium had been quietly made available to them so they could meet). While the ANC and PAC had been hammered down, the influences of the black consciousness movement were starting to take hold among students and teachers.

Sometimes we encountered a manifestation of those homeland governments in Johannesburg. One day, my colleagues and I were standing in the airport arrivals hall to receive a high-level Washington visitor. At the precise moment that our visitor came through the glass doors, the Transkei homeland leader, Kaiser Matanzima, also arrived, from a different flight.

He was welcomed by an ebullient crowd of praise singers, dancers and members of his establishment. Despite the idea that the homelands were not a legitimate political force, it was hard to ignore the impact of such a greeting party. This was true even if one knew from all other sources that homeland leaders were, generally speaking, less than enthusiastically appreciated on the Witwatersrand.

A captivating orator

However, one figure arising out of the homeland system who stood out from the rest was Prince Mangosuthu “Gatsha” Buthelezi, especially given the real sense of his connection with his fellow Zulus. There were many thousands of ethnic Zulus working throughout the Witwatersrand. Many of them lived in those shabby men’s, single-sex hostels, or in equally nasty dormitories that were part of the migrant labour system supporting the gold mines still operating in and around Johannesburg.

A few months after I had arrived in Johannesburg, I was asked by one of Buthelezi’s aides (previously a social worker, then a beverage salesman in his everyday life) if I wanted to attend a rally where Buthelezi would be the main speaker, part of the promotion of his recently launched “Zulu cultural organisation,” Inkatha.

It suddenly dawned on me that on that flight to Johannesburg from New York City in January — the Pan Am 707 flight that stopped at what seemed like every capital along the west coast of Africa before arriving at Jan Smuts Airport at midnight — that Buthelezi, the aide and I had been the last three passengers on the plane from New York. Once the passengers thinned out at Kinshasa, we had been sitting on the same row in economy class. We could have had hours of uninterrupted conversation, had I only known who he was, as we were flying over the vast spaces of Angola and Namibia en route to Johannesburg.

Afterwards, I learnt his aide had previously been a visitor to the US as part of a social worker in-service training grant. For Buthelezi, this trip had apparently been an early one in which he was attempting to stake a claim internationally that he could speak on behalf of South Africa’s dispossessed millions, and hoping to forge ties with politically influential Americans.

This was an opportunity for him since the ANC, PAC and others were effectively absent domestically. Back in his early adulthood, he had been a member of the ANC Youth League as a Fort Hare University student, along with Nelson Mandela. By contrast, through Inkatha, he had a visible following and a growing organisation not being squeezed out of existence. Still, Inkatha could also be read as a kind of ethno-nationalism that would loom increasingly large for him in future.

Eager for the opportunity to watch Buthelezi up close, I agreed to go to the rally. Together with one of our veteran South African staff members, we drove to the venue, the Jabulani Amphitheatre in Soweto. While I didn’t understand much of Buthelezi’s very long speech because it was delivered largely in isiZulu, it was impossible to ignore how his mostly male crowd clung on to every word and roared their assent throughout his speech. Avid photographer that I was then, I had brought my camera bag with all my lenses and eagerly took photographs of the crowd and speaker.

It turned out that some of my images of Buthelezi in full speech mode had a really vivid, dynamic look to them. There he was, wearing a beret and a military-style shirt, and even a scarf that echoed the ANC’s colour scheme. Not subtle, that, but there it was, Buthelezi and Inkatha, making a connection to a banned movement.

As it happened, Buthelezi’s aide came by my office for coffee a few weeks later and I showed him my pictures and offered him a choice of some of the images I had captured, now that they had been printed. I even offered him a negative, if he wanted to print more of them. Later on, Inkatha apparently used one of those photographs for the cover sleeve of a vinyl recording of their leader’s words, although the photographer had no credit line.

The only homeland leader taken seriously

Meanwhile, what was becoming increasingly clear in the 1970s was that in the South African media, Buthelezi was the only homeland leader whom journalists — and opposition party officials — took seriously. Sometimes there were big spreads in the Sunday papers about Buthelezi’s ideas for a future South Africa. Sometimes they would be accompanied by a map of the then Natal province, demonstrating how fragmented the Zulu homeland was, and how it might be restructured into a more continuous unit — with hints this might even become a model for South Africa as a whole. 

In the years ahead, one of Buthelezi’s top advisers and homeland officials, Oscar Dumisani Dhlomo, would head the Institute for Multiparty Democracy (IMD). That was a new think tank/advocacy body propounding ideas Buthelezi favoured for an evolution in South African politics, such as the “cantonisation” and devolution of political control down to smaller units as a way out of the country’s growing political turmoil.

Embassy officials and outside analysts began to consult with the IMD on their ideas about a way forward in South Africa’s growing turmoil. (Let us pause here to note that I will leave it to others to analyse the complex relationship Buthelezi had with the apartheid government, as well as a belief still held by many that parts of Inkatha had operated hand-in-hand with the government and a shadowy “third force” during the 1980s, in bloody, internecine fighting with an uprising inspired by a still-banned ANC.)

Read more in Daily Maverick: Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi: SA bids farewell to a divisive leader whose resilience and contention helped forge a nation

Years later, after Buthelezi had joined the Government of National Unity in 1994 to become the long-serving minister of home affairs, even as Inkatha’s sway over voters in Kwazulu-Natal had waned, I would encounter yet another manifestation of Buthelezi’s ideas. This time, it was to support a cultural demonstration of his family’s values and the ideas of what could be called ethno-nationalism.

In 2002, Mzilikazi Khumalo composed an opera to a libretto written by the Zulu poet Themba Msimang. The work depicted the life of Zulu Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu, a daughter of the Zulu King Dinuzulu, who had ruled his devastated kingdom in the years after its defeat in the British-Zulu War (and then the Bambatha Rebellion), and then in the formal, subsequent partitioning into numerous, discontinuous territories under apartheid. 

Magogo was a composer of traditional-style songs, and she had been given the charge by her father to use her music to help the Zulu nation remember its traditions and embrace its past glories. Oh, and just by the way, Magogo was Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s mother. The opera, first staged in Durban by the newly founded Opera Africa company, quickly became a major popular triumph — and national and overseas tours followed.

When we spoke with Opera Africa head Sandra de Villiers, she explained that she had consulted with Buthelezi about this project. He had given her his enthusiastic blessing to achieve a project that focused on and dramatised an aspect of Zulu (and South African) history. 

By then, Buthelezi had long since evolved into a respected elder statesman. When I encountered him at an embassy reception in Pretoria, the elder politician looked dapper in a grey suit — but sporting a pink/purple feather in his hair, just as a good royal should have. We talked for a bit and I spoke of Princess Magogo the opera and his role in it, and the very mention of the work drew a gracious smile and acknowledgement from him.

Buthelezi’s long life in the public eye is proof that if one lives long enough, one becomes that often overused word, an icon. On his death, Mangosuthu Buthelezi is now drawing praise from virtually every quarter in South Africa for the significant role he played in the evolution of the nation away from its apartheid past. DM


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