South Africa


Buthelezi’s death is about South Africa’s past — and its future

Buthelezi’s death is about South Africa’s past — and its future
Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi speaks to journalists on 20 June 2019 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

While the death of IFP founder Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi has the potential to stir up a new cycle of divisive debates centred on our violent and unjust history, it is also likely to have an impact on our political future.

Although Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi was no longer the official leader of the IFP, he was still its major figure and often overshadowed its current leader, Velenkosini Hlabisa. He was the final one of the three big influential figures in KwaZulu-Natal to still wield power, at a time when elections there next year could stir powerful political passions.

Buthelezi played an active role in national and KZN politics for nearly 50 years (longer than any other person in recent times) and still had important political sway at the time of his death.

For many years, three people with their intertwined histories played a big role in KZN.

Now, former president Jacob Zuma has lost most of his political power, and the two long-term towering traditional figures of the Zulu nation, King Goodwill Zwelithini and Buthelezi, are gone.

At the same time, the leadership of the KZN ANC is relatively inexperienced, while the premier of the province, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, is not the leader of the party there.

Meanwhile, Hlabisa is yet to get a grip on the party in the way that Buthelezi maintained for so long.

All of this is ahead of what will be a contentious election that could see the ANC losing power in the national government and in KZN. 

Dependable anchor

While there is much to criticise about Buthelezi’s role in the history of KZN, he did play the role of dependable anchor. It was he, more than any other, who ensured there was continuity in the Zulu monarchy and that King Misuzulu kaZwelithini was able to ascend to the throne.

It was clear that he was going to be crucial to defending this decision against attempts by other members of the Zulu Royal Household to remove the current king. Now that he has departed, there is no single figure who can play this role.

One of the key questions about Buthelezi’s death is whether it will reopen divisive debates about his role, which, in turn, reopen old wounds, many of which have not yet healed.

Certainly, in the past, he was accused of almost creating Zulu nationalism in the way in which it is currently understood (and portrayed in popular culture, through television shows such as Shaka iLembe).

Back in 1993, Dr Cassius Lubisi, who became the director-general of the Presidency, wrote: “Buthelezi’s present attempts to invest himself in the aura of a long disappeared Zulu kingdom are even more outrageous. The reinvention of history goes further than the attempt to transform a Native Reserve into a Kingdom.”

On Sunday, City Press editor Mondli Makhanya wrote a powerful reminder of the role violence played in Buthelezi’s history.

But for some, to question the role of Buthelezi now is to question the identity of the Zulu people themselves.

In the hours after his death, Azapo’s deputy secretary-general, Cikizwa Dabula, referred to the victims of the Boipatong massacre, before expressing her hope that the spirit of Buthelezi would rest in peace.

Underpinning this is perhaps the one fundamental difference between the IFP and the ANC and almost every other political party in our country.

While the ANC, the congress movement more generally, the EFF and even parties outside this tradition (such as the DA) proclaim they are for everyone and publicly embrace diversity, the IFP was always about a single group, the Zulu nation (despite the fact that Buthelezi first belonged to the ANC Youth League).

This is a gulf that is hard to bridge. 

However, there are many reasons for political leaders to avoid such a discussion — Buthelezi himself had said on numerous occasions that his wish was for a healing of the wounds between the IFP and the ANC before he left this Earth.

‘The matter of reconciliation’

On Saturday, Hlabisa said, “As the leaders who remain behind, we will pick up the spear of His Excellency, and raise the matter of reconciliation between the IFP and the ANC. They know the matter and it will be up to them to initiate.” 

President Cyril Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders (including Zuma) may well view this as a good moment to try to resolve some of these long-standing differences.

However, there is a tension between this dynamic and the fact that Hlabisa is expected to play a key role in the new Multi-Party Charter for South Africa. This formation has been created specifically to remove the ANC from power, and there are indications that Hlabisa could be its leader going into next year’s elections.

This could well interfere with any reconciliation process.

There are now important questions to ask about Hlabisa’s intentions. In the next few weeks he is likely to pledge his loyalty to Buthelezi’s legacy and to carry on in his tradition.

But Hlabisa will now have much more freedom to shape the party according to his ideas and ambitions, including becoming a much more assertive leader.

That said, the IFP now faces another test that other parties could face in the near future — can they survive without their founding leader?

This is a big question in our politics, as so many parties are built around a single personality, like the EFF, the UDM, ActionSA and Cope.

It’s my party and you’ll cry if I want you — Malema’s stranglehold on EFF bodes ill for its future

If Hlabisa fails and is unable to grow or even maintain Inkatha, then other parties should beware of a similar test for them in the future.

Additionally, should the IFP’s grip on KZN political power display signs of loosening, the situation in the province will become even more fractured.

There will be other consequences from Buthelezi’s death. In the Parliament of the democratic South Africa, despite his history, he at times played the role of elder statesman, and would appeal for calm in those terrible moments before the ANC Speaker called in people to forcibly remove EFF MPs. There will be no senior “neutral” figure to do this now.

Buthelezi’s death marks the end of an era. He was the last active political leader who had also played a major role during the apartheid era. This made him an important and controversial direct link to our difficult past.

That link has now gone, in a country where our politicians still insist on talking more about our divided past than our shared present and, hopefully, future. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Colin Braude says:

    At a time when the ANC is cracking down on neo-apartheid and EFF is chanting “Kill the Boer”, to state without questioning or qualification that they are “for everyone and publicly embrace diversity” makes one question the writer’s powers of observation.

    Aa question that is unanswered is the likely reaction of IFP breakaway, NFP this could be a good time for a rapprochement.

    As for the subject of the violence under Buthlezi’s leadership, the critics are silent about the violence from a party that included Gwala, Zuma, Madikazela and pioneered necklacings and civilian attacks then and supports hits and Putin’s bombings now. An ethos, along with cadre deployment, looting and mass uneducation that is currently harming the country.

    • Denise Smit says:

      your comment is 100% ANC/EFF are only for “their” African people. EFF want to kill white people and ANC want to slowly warm them to death, the only parties for all people is the DA and Action SA. Buthelezi had white people in his party as well and was in practice to party who strove to unite people. Denise Smit

  • Malcolm Mitchell says:

    Probably the greatest South African citizen after Mandela and way above any of our Presidents excluding Smuts about a century ago

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.8% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.2% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.2% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.2%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options