Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a formidable Zulu nationalist and a key player in South Africa’s tumultuous journey from a divisive apartheid regime to a multiracial democracy, has passed away at the age of 95.
President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed his death, emphasizing Buthelezi’s monumental contributions to South Africa’s political, cultural, and liberation realms.
Ramaphosa said, “Prince Buthelezi, who served as the democratic South Africa’s first Minister of Home Affairs, passed away in the early hours of today, Saturday, 9 September 2023, just two weeks after the celebration of his 95th birthday.”
“Buthelezi has been an outstanding leader in the political and cultural life of our nation, including the ebbs and flows of our liberation struggle, the transition which secured our freedom in 1994 and our democratic dispensation,” the President added.
Buthelezi carved out a significant position for himself during the volatile final years of the racist apartheid system.
His influence was such that he became indispensable in drafting South Africa’s new constitution, standing shoulder to shoulder with figures like former President F.W. de Klerk and global icon Nelson Mandela.
His lineage, descending from Zulu royalty, further amplified his stature. As a hereditary chief of the Zulus, South Africa’s most populous ethnic group, Buthelezi had a unique blend of traditional influence and political clout.
Buthelezi’s life narrative extends beyond politics. Born in Mahlabathini, South Africa, in 1928, he was a descendant of Zulu royalty. His educational journey saw him attending prestigious institutions like Adams College and the University of Fort Hare, although he faced expulsion from the latter due to his political activism.
Buthelezi’s political endeavors led to the founding of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu-centric political and cultural movement boasting 1.9 million members.
By 1990, Buthelezi’s voice echoed the sentiments of nearly a quarter of South Africa’s 28 million Black residents.
However, his political ideology was distinct, emphasizing a peaceful transition to democracy, endorsing free enterprise, and starkly opposing some of the methods that Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) adopted.
This encompassed his resistance to global sanctions targeting apartheid and his advocacy for free-market principles during an era when the majority of liberation movements leaned towards socialism and African nationalism.
Buthelezi’s global stature was evident in his interactions with world leaders. Whether it was discussions in the Oval Office with United States Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, tea sessions with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, or meetings with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, his influence was unmistakable.
However, as with many influential figures, Buthelezi’s political journey was layered with complexities. Critics have often pointed out the autocratic undertones in his leadership style, suggesting that he exhibited tendencies reminiscent of the very system he seemed to challenge.
He was accused of leveraging power in ways that stifled opposition within his governed territories. This included alleged suppression of anti-apartheid groups, and some historians assert that he controlled paramilitary factions that clashed fiercely with the ANC in the late 1980s and ’90s.
These conflicts between his Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC represent some of the most devastating periods in South African history and significantly impacted Buthelezi’s political legacy.
Countless lives were lost in these confrontations, which originated in Zululand and expanded to regions such as Transvaal, today’s Gauteng province.
This period of turmoil reached its pinnacle in 1994 with the tragic event known as the Shell House Massacre. On that day, 19 Inkatha supporters were killed by ANC security personnel as nearly 20,000 of them marched to Shell House in Johannesburg.
At that time, Shell House served as the ANC’s headquarters, with the organization being unbanned just four years prior in 1990.
These IFP supporters were rallying against the imminent elections, alleging that the ANC was sidelining Zulu leadership and traditional chiefs.
Further controversy surrounded Buthelezi when, in the aftermath of apartheid, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission found ties between him, his party, and the erstwhile white regime.
The report also implicated his party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, in several massacres. Buthelezi challenged these assertions in court, leading to his eventual exclusion from the commission’s final report.
In his personal life, Buthelezi shared a nearly seven-decade-long marital bond with Irene Mzila, and together, they had eight children, three of whom survived him.
Buthelezi’s political career was a mosaic of significant positions and choices. His split from the ANC, once led by his early friend Mandela, resulted from differing ideologies. As someone who denounced violence and believed in the potential of free markets to usher in prosperity, he revived the once-dormant Inkatha in 1975, leveraging it as a powerful base to rally Zulu nationalist sentiments.
In the inaugural democratic elections of 1994, despite initially hesitating, Buthelezi campaigned vigorously. Although the Inkatha Freedom Party managed only 10% of the votes, he was appointed Minister of Home Affairs, a testament to his undeniable influence.
Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s life and legacy, marked by a blend of traditional influence, political activism, and personal milestones, make him one of the most memorable figures in South Africa’s recent history.