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Straddling the divide: How Buthelezi sold the Zulu mystique to his white benefactors

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Bryan Rostron has lived and worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, New York and London. He has written for The New York Times, the London Sunday Times, The Guardian and The Spectator and was a correspondent for New Statesman. He is the author of the recently published ‘Lost on the Map: a memoir of colonial illusions’ (Bookstorm) and six previous books, including ‘Robert McBride: The Struggle Continues’ and the novels ‘My Shadow’ and ‘Black Petals’. He lives in Cape Town.

Mangosuthu Buthelezi was a master at recognising when to indulge a romantic notion of ‘Zuluness’ that could keep key international financiers and supporters enthralled. It was calculated and it worked.

One of the most formidable ploys of the late Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which helped him garner international support, was to indulge colonial-era fantasies about “Zuluness”.

The much-trumpeted legend of fearless Zulu warriors still glows with romantic glamour for many urban whites.

With Machiavellian guile, Buthelezi shamelessly pandered to paternalistic clichés of the proud “noble savage” – and in return won financial backing from English millionaires and political support from leaders like Margaret Thatcher.

It’s not just post-imperial nostalgics who swallow this guff. 

Following the Inkatha leader’s death, the head of intercultural relations at AfriForum described meeting him in 2021. Buthelezi, recalled Barend Uys in Business Day, “mentioned that during the hearings of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, he apologised on behalf of the Zulu nation for the murder of the Retief party at the command of King Dingane kaSenzangakhona.

“This struck me deeply — after all, we as Afrikaners do not expect the current generation to apologise for the actions of a generation that has long since passed away.

“But such was Buthelezi’s commitment to real reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.”

While Buthelezi may have apologised for the slaughter of Retief in 1838, he was notably uncooperative with the TRC on the much more recent murderous mayhem of the 1980s and ’90s, in which Inkatha was heavily implicated.

The TRC commissioners decided not to subpoena the Inkatha leader, fearful of provoking further violence from his supporters.

During those years of carnage, Buthelezi’s most prominent British financiers were John Aspinall, a maverick casino magnate and zoo owner, and the right-wing tycoon Sir James Goldsmith.

Fantasies indulged

The then KwaZulu Chief Minister, ever desperate for funds to build up his Inkatha power base, indulged their primitive Zulu fantasies.

Between them, his two British patrons donated more than one million pounds before the 1994 election. 

Aspinall and Goldsmith regularly flew to Durban by private jet and, for their entertainment, Buthelezi laid on tribal dancers in skins and spears. Aspinall was so smitten with his own Zulu whimsy that at a massed Inkatha political rally, he yelled, “I am a white Zulu!”

Much of this romanticism stems from 19th-century adventure novels, most famously King Solomon’s Mines (1885) by Rider Haggard.

John Aspinall admitted, “I stumbled across the Zulus when I read Rider Haggard. I took on board his heroic vision of that people. I like to keep it, but urbanisation has…  decultured them.”

In Rider Haggard’s sequel, Allan Quartermain, lamenting the tedium of polite English society, the hero confesses, “He begins to long – ah, how he longs! – for the keen breath of desert air; he dreams of the sigh of Zulu impis breaking on foes like surf upon the rocks, and his heart rises up in rebellion against the strict limits of the civilised life.”

Over many years Buthelezi indulged this schoolboy fantasy for Aspinall (Rugby School) and Goldsmith (Eton College), who in return bankrolled him even as the civil war between the ANC and Inkatha claimed 20,000 lives.

The most influential of Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s supporters was the South African-born writer, Sir Laurens van der Post (or Van der Poseur, to colleagues in London prior to achieving fame after WW2).

Van der Post used his connections to introduce the “Traditional Zulu Prime Minister” to Prince Charles. Most importantly, he brokered a friendship between Prime Minister Thatcher and the KwaZulu Chief Minister.

Van der Post’s biographer, JDF Jones, records: “Thatcher, thanks in part to Van der Post’s activities, had become Buthelezi’s most committed supporter overseas.

“At Commonwealth meetings in 1986 and 1987, Thatcher continued to insist that the ANC was a terrorist organisation and refused to recognise it. This was the period when Britain’s foreign office diplomats, famously disrespected by their prime minister, would work on her to shift her South African policy, and then watch with horror as Van der Post arrived in Downing Street to spend the afternoon telling her Zulu stories, after which British policy would change back.”

Buthelezi was highly skilled in mirroring what others wanted to hear. 

Literate and westernised Zulus were once known as AmaRespectables, so it is outlandish that the university-educated Inkatha leader, who wore tailored suits when not draped in leopard skins for ceremonial occasions, could weave such magic spells about the unspoiled Zulu “noble savage” for wealthy white folk.

Some of this British fixation can be traced to their infamous defeat at the battle of Isandlwana.

To account for that humiliating catastrophe in 1879, the Imperialists cultivated a narrative of the noble martial Zulu nation: in other words, worthy adversaries for a great colonial power.

Buthelezi knew exactly how to gratify this conceit.

Working on British newspapers before returning to South Africa, I regularly amused myself by examining the Buthelezi file, a compilation of articles about him.

Supplicant pilgrims

Like supplicant pilgrims, British politicians and editors would make their way to Ulundi for an audience with Buthelezi. Afterwards, almost without exception, the departing grandees quoted the Zulu leader, who had flattered them by extolling, “our two great warrior nations”.

Prior to the 1994 election, this mythology provided illusory comfort to conservative commentators and many whites fearful of an ANC victory. 

John Carlin, the South African correspondent for the London Independent, noted wryly, “They took comfort in the notion that the Zulu impis would perform a suicidally heroic re-run of their 19th century exploits against the British.”

In fact, after Isandlwana, partial British pride was recouped by the bloody defence of Rorke’s Drift. After 150 soldiers held off 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors, no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded. That epic is best remembered today by the 1964 film Zulu, starring a young Michael Caine. 

The role of King Cetshwayo was played by his great-grandson, Mangosuthu “Gatsha” Buthelezi.

In South Africa, however, the film was banned for “Bantu… and other persons between the ages of 4 and 12”. Thus, although 36 at the time, Buthelezi wasn’t permitted to view the movie himself.

Nevertheless, throughout his long life, he proved a versatile actor, skilled at straddling even the weirdest contradictions. DM

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