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Mzala Nxumalo — the spectre that haunts Mangosuthu Buthelezi and won’t go away

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Mandla J Radebe is an associate professor in the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Strategic Communication, and currently writing a biography of Mzala Nxumalo. He is the author of ‘Constructing Hegemony: The SA Commercial Media and the (Mis)Representation of Nationalisation’ (UKZN Press).

Written in 1988, the late Mzala Nxumalo’s book, ‘Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda’, continues to haunt the Inkatha Freedom Party’s founder and former leader. As recently as 5 May 2021, Buthelezi called the book a ‘bible of propaganda’. But it is in fact a carefully researched, cogent analysis of the times, and of the man.

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi has cunningly appropriated a solemn occasion facing the Zulu kingdom to reassert his preferred version of history. Clearly seeking sympathy to portray a legacy of a peacemaker on the right side of history, he uses Mzala Nxumalo as a “propagandist” who sought to denigrate his good name.

The media has provided him with unfettered and unsuspecting access. Among many interviews, he told SABC’s Simphiwe Makhanya that his Zulu royal detractors were basing their allegations on Mzala’s book, Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda. He repeated this allegation on Aldrin Sampear’s SAFM show.

He was also quoted in an article on IOL by Sihle Mavuso saying, “I know that people like Princess Thembi and others… were trained by the ANC’s external mission using the writings of one of their stalwarts called Nobleman Nxumalo who also called himself Mzala who wrote the book titled Gatsha: A chief with double agenda. That is the bible of propaganda for all these lies.”

Notwithstanding this revisionism and media complicity, this is not the primary purpose of this article. This article seeks to correct misconceptions about Mzala that Buthelezi has been repeating ad nauseam for well over three decades even when Mzala is not around to defend himself. Even the old Greek expression, “do not speak ill of the dead”, has not deterred Buthelezi from abusing Mzala.

Many historians have previously exposed Buthelezi’s duplicity and his uncanny knack of revising history that serves his political agenda. While on the other hand, numerous media scholars such as Karen Callaghan and Frauke Schnell have pointed out that some actors, by virtue of their perceived influence, expertise and positioning easily attract media attention that allows them to put forth their desired issue frames. Their views, like Buthelezi’s, flow unedited to the public.

Just like the racist apartheid regime that portrayed freedom fighters as terrorists who must be destroyed at all costs, Buthelezi borrows their language in besmirching Mzala. Responding to my questions, while doing research for Mzala’s biography, Buthelezi describes Mzala as a “paid Communist propagandist”. Signs of “rooi gevaar” right there.

But why is Buthelezi unrelenting in his attacks on Mzala?

Perhaps the answer lies with Mzala himself. Affectionately known as Comrade Mzala within the liberation movement, Jabulani Nobleman Nxumalo was a combatant in uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and an intellectual of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and African National Congress (ANC). He died prematurely in London in 1991 at 35, having achieved what many nonagenarians can only dream of. He is mostly remembered for his uncompromising analysis as reflected in his 1988 book Gatsha Buthelezi: Chief with a Double Agenda. This is the spectre that haunts Buthelezi to this day.

In this book, Mzala dissected Buthelezi’s rise to power, his role in the South African political landscape and his collaborative politics with the apartheid regime. He took issue with Buthelezi’s use of the title “prince” as there are many in the Zulu royal family that have not claimed the title. According to Mzala, there is no practice that enjoins Zulu kings to choose a Buthelezi as a prime minister. “Chief Buthelezi,” argues Mzala “has on numerous occasions claimed that his present leadership position in KwaZulu is a hereditary traditional right; that it was not one created by the bantustan constitution.” He continues, “Buthelezi’s direct monarchical descent, and hence the claim that he should be referred to as Mntwana or ‘Prince’ is wrong.”

To his credit, in recent interviews, Buthelezi concedes that his prime minister role is not hereditary.

Propaganda tract

Buthelezi’s response to this book that unravels his chequered past and described as “objective and balanced” by numerous respected scholars, has been to resort to apartheid’s tactics. He tells me that it “was never a mere academic dissertation.” He argues, “Mzala was employed by the ANC as a researcher” and “his instruction was to write a propaganda tract that could destroy Buthelezi and Inkatha.”

Contrary to Buthelezi’s views, Chantelle Wyley and Christopher Merrett have demonstrated that the book was in fact a “scholarly work of historical interpretation” whose “claims are presented in the academic tradition and are supported by evidence gleaned from historical, documentary and oral sources”.

Still, Buthelezi is unrelenting. When Dr Blade Nzimande launched a centre in honour of Mzala in 2013, Buthelezi issued a media statement launching yet another vitriolic attack on Mzala. “For decades,” reads the statement “detractors have used the tools of propaganda in a desperate attempt to vilify the IFP. The book was one of these tools. It had only one aim; to discredit the IFP and its president.” The statement claims Mzala’s assertions “have long been refuted and exposed as lies by objective academics like Dr Anthea Jeffrey of the South African Institute of Race Relations.”

When I reminded Buthelezi about Wyley and Merrett’s article, he quickly locates their argument to the propaganda of the past: “One cannot discount anything that has been revealed in the past 29 years and take Wyley and Merrett’s paper as a final authority.” 

Intolerance towards criticism

Even in recent media interviews, Buthelezi displays extraordinary intolerance to criticism. Unsurprisingly, he made numerous attempts to remove the book from the shelves. He is still deadly opposed to having it reprinted. Newspapers that reviewed it in 1989 like Frontline magazine were summonsed and instructed to publish Buthelezi’s letter. “Our client considers the book… to be defamatory of him and he has instructed us to institute legal action immediately if the book is distributed in South Africa,” read the letter from his lawyers. Acolytes in Ulundi were unleashed, writing letters to the publication accusing the journalist of reviewing a “Marxist twaddle”.

When the book hit the South African shelves, Buthelezi lived up to his threats, issuing legal letters to university libraries that, “if you do not remove the book from your shelf and/or if you distribute the book and/or lend it to others, you will be sued for damages.”

I asked Buthelezi if he still thinks the legal actions were necessary considering academic freedom. He remains resolute. “With the benefit of history and all the facts, it is impossible to view Mzala’s book as anything other than what it is: a propaganda tract.” He believes that he was correct to “take legal actions” against this book which painted him as “nothing more than a puppet of the apartheid regime”.

Wyley and Merrett presented a solid scholarly argument posing key questions on Buthelezi’s complaints. “Is it one word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter that is causing offence? And if it is causing offence, is it untrue? Even if it is untrue, is it not in the public interest that it be made known?”

Buthelezi dismisses this notion. “I am quite flummoxed by the question they pose,” he says. “How can it possibly be in the public interest for lies to be widely disseminated?”

When probed on the parts of the book he finds defamatory, Buthelezi states that “it would take an enormous amount of ink to identify every lie in this book and counter it with facts. It denigrates my entire family, from my great-grandfather down. My character, lineage, actions and motives are ripped to shreds by lie after lie after lie.”

An emerging intellectual 

It is implausible to locate Mzala’s work in the realm of propaganda. As early as 1978, Mzala was presenting a cogent analysis on Buthelezi as reflected in his African Communist article “The Compromising Role of Inkatha”. In it, Mzala states that Inkatha was founded to safeguard and perpetuate the Bantustan policy and entrench Buthelezi’s position in KwaZulu. Ronnie Kasrils believes “Mzala was the first member of the ANC to publicly raise huge doubts about Buthelezi’s true intentions. He came under some fire over this, but as they say, history vindicated the young man.”

Even OR Tambo inadvertently conceded to the correctness of Mzala’s analysis in his political report to the national consultative conference in Kabwe, Zambia in 1985. Admitting that they had kept in contact with Buthelezi with the hope that “this former member of the ANC Youth League” will use “the legal opportunities provided by the Bantustan programme to participate in the mass mobilisation” to “focus on the struggle for a united and non-racial South Africa”.

Tambo reported that owing to understandable antipathy many comrades had towards working within the Bantustan system, “the task of reconstituting Inkatha, therefore, fell on Gatsha Buthelezi himself who then built Inkatha as a personal power base far removed from the kind of organisation we had visualised.”

Tambo said Buthelezi dressed Inkatha in ANC colours “because he knew that the masses to whom he was appealing were loyal to the ANC… later, when he thought he had sufficient of a base, he also used coercive methods against the people to force them to support Inkatha”.

Chief with a Double Agenda was carefully researched, including Buthelezi’s speeches. Undeniable facts are presented backed up by evidence including media material. Attacks such as the one by Mzimhlophe hostel-dwellers on Soweto residents, the 1983 University of Zululand and wave of attacks on United Democratic Front members are presented in a scholarly fashion.

Respected comrades in the movement remember Mzala’s inquiring mind and describe him as a promising intellectual. Pallo Jordan says he was a valued critical thinker who insisted on examining everything: “Death robbed the movement of a thinker with great potential.” Joel Netshitenzhe believes Mzala “would have helped in deepening our theorisation of the negotiations process, the strategic advances and the compromises; but also, critically, in understanding the implications and impact of the transition on the ANC and various components of the Alliance.” Essop Pahad described his death as having “deprived our movement of one of its most brilliant talents.”

These were not sorrow-induced words. Mzala’s track record as a prolific writer and a fearless MK combatant speaks for itself.

The book was not an impromptu work by an impressionable upstart. At this stage, Mzala had already distinguished himself through systemic analyses of wide-ranging topics. At the time of his death, he was finalising his PhD at the Open University in England and had been offered a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University to work on a political biography of Tambo.

In her motivation to Yale’s Prof Leonard Thompson on 3 November 1990, Prof Gail M Gerhart described Mzala as “intellectually gifted”. Of their first meeting, she says, “what I found was a charmingly candid, very undogmatic, extremely thoughtful and shrewd man, socially shy but intellectually self-confident, who speaks so knowledgeably and articulately about South African politics that one could publish his verbal commentaries virtually unedited and they would stand as substantial contributions to current debates and analyses.”

This does not fit a description of a propagandist. Thus, by 19 November 1990, Prof Thompson was writing to Mzala “cordially” inviting him to become a Fellow for the academic year 1991-92. Sadly, he died in London on 22 February 1991.

If we succumb to Buthelezi’s antics to censure what he deems unpalatable, we run a catastrophic risk of presenting a singular narrative of our history. Mzala’s contribution to our liberation is well documented and he deserves more than just an ANC region named after him.

Nonetheless, in death as in life, Mzala continues to speak his mind. DM

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  • This commentary reminds me of a parallel one in the Israel/Palestine one! The apartheid regime tried to tell South Africans who to regards as their leaders – e.g. yours truly, Matanzima, Alan Hendricks, Rajbansi et al. All appointed by the ruling junta. Just like the current Israeli (& their insurers/masters the US) want us to regard Abass as the Palestinian leader, & vilify Hamas as a ‘terrorist’ group. Did those same two states not do the same with the ANC then? Not that the current State Capture project does not reveal or disclose such an element. How else could one define it? This is the same element which plans to subvert the rule of law with political diatribe. That this should be exposed for what it is essential. It is striking (to me at least) how the segment that tried to infiltrate & break up (so to speak) the hegemony of the IFP in a region & succeeded in doing so, is now girding its loins to do the same to the ANC ! History repeating itself ? Or was it a Trojan horse? It’s going to be fascinating to see how a once ‘respected’ organisation deals with this prickly pear or should I call it a hand grenade. Revisionist history & narratives are here to stay! Hamas like Umkonto is not an ‘organisation’ in the traditional sense, but an ‘idea’ with a purpose or goal. The US and its partner in the state of Israel seem not to have realised this yet, despite numerous historical precedents. What is that saying about ‘history repeating itself’. Some never learn!

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