The contested legacy of Mangosuthu Buthelezi

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Mangosuthu Buthelezi (Source: eNCA via WikiMedia CC)


Inkosi Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was one of the most polarising political figures of the 20th century, and his hands dripped with blood.

I know this about Buthelezi because he literally lived in my house. He was my father’s friend and his political idol.

There are only two ways to describe the legacy of the late inkosi of the Buthelezi clan, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi: “complex and contested”. Since news of his demise broke on Saturday morning, songs that shaped and broke me have echoed. In the early ’80s in KwaZulu, we as primary school children learned Inkatha’s slogans and songs by heart. Each week at eHabeni Primary School, we gathered for an Inkatha hour under the guise of a political lesson called Ubutho Botho, which was allegedly anchored in the African philosophy of ubuntu.

The song ringing in my ears goes, “Abanye bona baya le baya le, siyaphambile, abanye bona baya le, baya le, siyaphambili. Ibambeni babutho eNkatha imbambeni siyaphambile.” Loosely, it translates to: “Some go this way, we are ahead; others go that way, we are ahead. The army of Inkatha holds the front.”

We also chanted a timeless, somewhat haunting slogan, “Ubani umntwana ongaphumuli? uShenge.” This loosely translates to: “Who is the child/prince who never rests? It’s Shenge.” It refers to Buthelezi’s role as a part-time traditional leader, chief minister of the Zulu Bantustan and self-professed Zulu traditional prime minister.

In 1986, I denounced Inkatha. During an Ubutho Botho class, I publicly told a teacher that I had no 50 cents membership fee to join a party that did nothing for my life while we were starving at home. I didn’t mention earlier that Ubutho Botho political classes were compulsory, as was Inkatha membership in all Zululand schools.

I know this about Buthelezi because he literally lived in my house. He was my father’s friend and his political idol. He praised “uShenge” for his “wisdom”. I was raised on a steady diet of Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe – the predecessor of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – politics, as narrated by my father, and later through reading Inkatha’s political literature from the early ’80s.

Truth be told, I was introduced to political propaganda and speech writing through Buthelezi’s speeches. He was indeed a gifted writer, crafting statements that could move masses. My father, an Inkatha member, often brought home Buthelezi’s speeches in Zulu and English. We amassed a stack equal to a roomful of his speeches and magazines. Reading them in both languages helped me learn English and politics. Despite having reservations about his politics, I cannot deny the impetus his speeches gave me, guiding me towards linguistic mastery and igniting a passion for writing.

After cutting ties with Inkatha, my relationship with my father began a downward spiral, a trend that sadly persists – a common experience for many youngsters of that era. My experience with Inkatha symbolises how Buthelezi exerted control over his subjects and later drove a wedge between families, often leading to killings amid political violence. He was Inkatha, and Inkatha was him; he often told his interlocutors, “Inkatha is my party.”

In 1986, he urged his subjects to fund overseas studies for government officials, but we later discovered that the funds were actually for Caprivi trainees. A similar situation happened with the Self-Protection Units in the ’90s.

Yet nothing prepared me for the post-1986 developments. Before South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, the Inkatha office in Eshowe released the “Eshowe 19” hit list. Leaflets, distributed clandestinely overnight and labelling us as marked men, listed underground ANC activists, including me and my half-brother Mbongeleni. Though Inkatha often acted on threats, we miraculously survived.

I crossed paths with Buthelezi again in my role as a political reporter and columnist for the Witness newspaper. This last experience with him was even more traumatic; during the Inkatha (Zulu) crisis imbizo in Durban in 2005, I was attacked by Inkatha impis. Throughout my writing career, he never missed an opportunity to use his legendary letters to the editor to label me publicly a political “pipsqueak”. He later described me as someone with “a flair for the dramatic” – clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Looking back and as a survivor of the Inkatha madness, I know he consulted the ANC leadership on many matters: assuming his chieftaincy role, taking up the Bantustan position and founding Inkatha – envisioning it to be an ANC unit within the country while the movement’s leaders were banned, exiled or incarcerated on Robben Island. History unequivocally bears witness to Buthelezi’s strained relationship with the ANC, starkly pronounced following the pivotal 1979 London meeting. After this fallout, political violence began in earnest. Put differently, the Buthelezi Project, as sanctioned by the ANC, unravelled when he tasted power and found it intoxicating. The scent of absolute authority was overwhelming, compelling him to cling to it at any cost.

Documented events from the ’80s and ’90s show that orchestrated actions driven by Buthelezi’s power ambitions – supported by a third force and carried out by Inkatha impis – led to severe bloodshed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng (formerly Transvaal). This period bore witness to tragedies including the Ongoye massacre (1983), Boipatong massacre (1992), Trust Feed massacre (1988), KwaMakhutha massacre (1987), Pietermaritzburg seven-day war (1990) and Shobashobane massacres (1995).

Sadly, Buthelezi died without having addressed the nation on the confirmed TRC findings, which identified him as central in founding the militia group known as the Death Squads or Caprivi trainees. Trained by the South African Defence Force, this unit was involved in many atrocities during the civil war. Caprivi trainees Commander Daluxolo (ironically meaning “make peace”) Luthuli and his lieutenant, Romeo Mbambo, admitted to many murders and received amnesty at the TRC. Now, they live comfortably and are famous.

Buthelezi’s death marks the end of an era of duplicity and hypocrisy and a sad chapter marked by secret meetings with the apartheid government, the unleashing of the Caprivi trainees, the KwaZulu Police and, later, the Self-Protection Units, which were used to kill and maim innocent people; 20 000 perished, by conservative estimates.

  • Bhekisisa Mncube is an award-winning Witness columnist and author.
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His Majesty King Zwelithini is dead. Long live the King!

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  • Barend van der Merwe

    Since Buthelezi's passing, it felt as if we had been bombarded by candy floss from almost every corner of the media. On the Afrikaans radio, we were reminded that Buthelezi was a Christian and a gentleman. The authors of the radio news carefully curated selections from reactions to stress Buthelezi's better side. It was just horrible to listen to. I don't even need to mention social media, where the usual flood of loony followed in comment sections.

    This article at least provides some perspective.

  • Reageer

    Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.