Defend Truth


We cannot compare the vastly different legacies of Buthelezi and Biko 


Zukiswa Pikoli is Daily Maverick's Managing Editor for Gauteng news and Maverick Citizen where she was previously a journalist and founding member of the civil society focused platform. Prior to this she worked in civil society as a communications and advocacy officer and has also worked in the publishing industry as an online editor.

An honest account of history will not be kind to one of these men, and it will show we owe our freedom to the other.

This year marks the 46th anniversary of the death of Steve Bantu Biko, and it seems he is fast fading from the country’s memory.

I have often written of the importance of history and memory, not only as a marker of our evolution, but also as a means of learning, accountability and informing a future we can all aspire to.

This has never been more urgent than in the wake of the death of IFP president emeritus Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi and how he is being remembered.

It seems to me that the commemoration of Biko’s death has been traded in for a revisionist and dishonest posturing of commemorating Buthelezi. For those who do not know, have forgotten or choose to forget, it is necessary that we examine these separate but intersecting legacies.

Being born in the early 1980s means I am acutely aware of the events that unfolded in the 1970s through first-hand accounts, and even more so in the 1990s as lived experiences, and I will never tire of speaking of them.

Biko founded the black consciousness movement and understood that part of the colonial and apartheid project’s endeavour was to psychologically inculcate a sense of black inferiority to whiteness and conversely white superiority to blackness.

As Biko said: “At the heart of this thinking is the realisation by the blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

He therefore sought to liberate black people from this. It was because of this ideology, which threatened to derail the apartheid system, that in August 1977 he was arrested and the following month died in police detention. His heroic ideology lived on through the struggle to liberate South Africa and usher in a democratic system not based on oppression.

Brutal slaughter of thousands

In the early 1990s, as South Africa’s oppressive system was on the brink of defeat by liberation movement efforts, a counterforce in the form of the IFP, led by Buthelezi, collaborated with the apartheid government in the brutal slaughter of thousands of black people. This was in part driven by Zulu nationalism and Buthelezi’s determination to continue to enjoy the spoils of being a Bantustan leader installed by the government.

My memory of that time is that of hearing about people being butchered with pangas on trains, having nowhere to run, with some resorting to jumping off to their deaths. I remember the fear that gripped the East Rand township of Boipatong as people were burnt and massacred by IFP supporters. People were displaced and families remain broken as a result of Buthelezi’s legacy.

Whereas Biko never lived to see his 31st birthday, Buthelezi lived to the ripe old age of 95, with the blood of thousands on his hands. He lived long enough to refashion himself as a supporter of democracy and a seemingly sage elder statesman.

Today, people’s memory of Biko and his real contribution fades while Buthelezi has been hailed as a “nation builder” and a “complex” leader, whatever that means to the families of those who were butchered.

An honest account of history will not be kind to Buthelezi, but an honest account of history will show that we owe Biko our freedom. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 6 September 2023.


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  • Ben Harper says:

    Actually no, liberation movements had nothing to do with the end of apartheid, the collapse of the USSR and the subsequent end of the cold war was the deciding factor, had that not happened the west would have maintained their support to keep the cape sea route free

    • Annemarie Hendrikz says:

      ‘…liberation movements had nothing to do with the end of apartheid…’ really Ben Harper??
      Zukiswa Pikoli thanks for important observations.

      • Ben Harper says:

        Yes really. Know the real history. In the 70’s and into the 80’s the Suez Canal was a volatile area, the world was dependent on this vital sea route for East-West trade. The west’s concern was that if the Suez closed for an extended period, the critical sea trade routes would be compromised, the only alternative was around the Cape. It is well know the USSR wanted control of this so they could strangle east-west trade at will so it was critical to the West that the USSR never got control. The USSR courted and supported the so-called liberation movements with the aim of seizing control of the critical sea route as well as the natural resources- The USSR didn’t care about the people of Africa, they just wanted control, just look at the history of conflict in the Southern Africa arena, the main protagonists in the Angola Border war wasn’t liberation movements or freedom fighters, it was the Russians and Cubans. The West kept the apartheid government in place to keep the Russians from gaining a foothold. Once the USSR collapsed and the Cold War ended there was no longer any need to keep the Nats in power and the West then supported the end of Apartheid.
        Thats the REAL history

      • Ben Harper says:

        Just to add, none of the “liberation movements” fought any battle at any time in their history, they never had a singe engagement with any of the armed forces, they stuck to bombing churches, bars and shopping centers. One can also look at their torrid history in political murders in their training camps, the liberation movements murdered more of their own people than the apartheid security services in SA did, anyone who disagreed with the leaders in any way was branded a spy and killed

  • lizcomm says:

    Boipatong is not on the East Rand but is near Vanderbijlpark

  • david.cooper says:

    Thank you Ms Pokoli, a much needed and honest article in opposition to the flood of praise last week for Buthelezi!!

  • David Forbes says:

    Ben Harper posits the usual hogwash of whiteness. It’s exactly what Biko fought against – the lies that become “history”. The importance of oil and the fall of the USSR were but two factors in a very complex geopolitical and political-economic situation. There were others, US sanctions, divestment, protests and campaigns all over the world, the sports boycott, armed struggle, losing an unaffordable war in Angola, mass mobilisation within the townships, and the realisation by the apartheid government that if Mandela died in custody, they would have a real revolution on their hands. The regime’s brutality was just an indication of how successful the liberation movements were, not in military terms, but in terms of conscientising the populace and creating the support necessary that resulted in the UDF, the UDM and the mass uprisings that finally defeated apartheid. It is a crude lie to say that the USSR didn’t care about the people of Africa. I have personally interviewed the former KGB general who was in charge of the support effort the USSR gave the ANC, and I have also done extensive research on the aid that the USSR gave to other non-aligned nations and African states. They gave support on many levels, artistic, agriculture, engineering, building dams etc, as well as education, medical and military training. And ask any Koevoet veteran whom they killed? Not Russians and Cubans. No, it was Swapo guerrillas. Another lie is that no battles were fought. What happened in Wankie?

    • Ben Harper says:

      Hahahahahaha, shame, triggered much?

    • Ben Harper says:

      The fact you give any credence to what a Russian KGB agent says tells us everything we need to know. You’re also dreaming if you think they actually gave them any support in the fields you state, if they did where is the evidence of the benefit of this ? Let me answer that for you and save you the trouble – there is none.
      What does an explosion in a coal mine have to do with the liberation movements and battles? Name one combat contact any of the SA liberation movements ever took part in – just one (and no, not an explosion in a coal mine in North-West Zimbabwe), bet you can’t, there are however many accounts of their cowardly actions of bombing innocent civilians in churches, bars, restaurants and shopping centres

  • Beverley Roos-Muller says:

    As an author-historian, I’m as fascinated by Ben Harper’s constant, inaccurate and generally toxic posts as a biologist might study an insect species. How nice of him to mansplain his version of what he thinks is history. How much of himself he reveals – remind me again, what are your qualifications?
    He’s really going to hate my next book, Jonathan Ball publishing it next year, on the apartheid assassins’ murder of the Gugulethu Seven, and why they did it. Can’t wait to read his moans and finger-pointing.
    Also haven’t forgot his embarrassing cliche about the poor woman who took her children’s lives due to starvation…’if you can’t feed them, don’t breed them’. Oy, right up there with Socrates and David Hume. So…do inform us feeble minded women how white male privilege works; and also where the fathers were of those three children, seeing you claim to know everything, everywhere, all at once.

    • Ben Harper says:

      As am I fascinated by the inability of some people to respond to and challenge the topic but rather choosing to insult and try and belittle the writer. I’d say what is written by you is far more toxic than anything I have written.

      Pray tell, are you also writing a book on the torture, abuse and atrocities inflicted by these liberation movements on their own people in their camps in Angola and Tanzania? Camp Quatro? Or is just deep down guilt of your own being that drives your writing?

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