Mangosuthu Buthelezi on his legacy: 'I believe in the goodwill of people'

2018-12-16 15:33

When Mangosuthu Buthelezi announced his retirement from politics in 2017, then ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said he had "run his race and played his role". 

It was as neutral a statement as you get, and the best the party could come up with after its decades-long complicated relationship with the leader of the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP), which was at best, one of mutual expedience and at worst, one of all-out war.

More than a year after the announcement, Buthelezi is still not retired and seemingly waiting for the IFP to constitute a national congress in order to elect a new leader.

At 90, his work schedule has been considerably lightened over the year, although he still attends sittings of the National Assembly regularly. Here he is known to lambast the EFF for their "disgusting" behaviour in the House and he recently cautioned against the expropriation of land without compensation outside the confines of the law. 

The spirit of Ubuntu

"The manner in which Parliament has lost decorum goes much further than anything. The image of the country is being tarnished," he says when we interview him in his office in the Marx building on the parliamentary precinct.

"But I think the majority of South Africans cannot tolerate this thing. They really pride themselves on the spirit of Ubuntu and will not allow it go on for long."

In a career in politics spanning some 40 years, Prince Buthelezi (as he recently reminded the ANC is his title) has been called many things: a traitor, an apartheid collaborator, a careerist.

But, as is often the case when controversial public figures reach old age, all of this is now a thing of the past and Buthelezi is regarded a respected elder and moral compass among peers and the public. 

In his old age, he can spend hours happily speaking about the key role he played in the country's history as founder of the IFP and in the democratic transition. Asked about what he thinks his legacy will be, the conversation inevitably turns to the black-on-black violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s and early 1990s, and his initial refusal to participate in the 1994 election, only consenting at the last minute.

"I never condoned, or ordered or ratified any orders that we should kill any members of the UDF or ANC"

The whole thing, he says, was part of the ANC's campaign at the time to vilify him. 

"I never condoned, or ordered or ratified any orders that we should kill any members of the UDF or ANC. But I said that everyone has an inalienable right to defend themselves. And our people should have a right to defend themselves and their loved ones," he says. 

"When this thing hotted up, there were attacks and counter attacks, revenge attacks, pre-emptive attacks… the whole thing gained its own momentum. And we as an organisation, never took a resolution in our central commission to say we should kill members of the UDF and ANC. But then, of course, I said we must defend ourselves."

The ANC, the organisation to which he once belonged, had turned against him.

Buthelezi maintains that the reason for this was because he refused to soft peddle the interests of the Zulu people and wouldn't support the decision of the ANC in exile to wage an armed struggle against apartheid and call for international sanctions.

Pressing for Mandela's release

He also credits himself in part for the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, which, he says happened after he insisted to then president FW de Klerk that Inkhata would only come to the negotiation table if Mandela was released. 

His personal and political relationship with the latter has been the topic of much reflection as Mandela on several occasions made known his frustration with Buthelezi. 

"Political connections aside, our relationship was never disrupted. I could never go to Johannesburg without him inviting me to his home," says Buthelezi.

But the late president's attitude towards him has been described as ambivalent at best. "I have enormous respect for Mangosuthu Buthelezi," Mandela is quoted as saying in Dare Not Linger, his second memoir finished last year, by author Mandla Langa.

"We used as ammunition against him facts which are of common knowledge… All of these failed to tarnish his reputation and he remains to the present day a powerful public figure that cannot be ignored." 

"Buthelezi has been at the centre of some of the country's most historic moments"

Regardless of his politics, South African history pre- and post-democracy cannot be complete without Buthelezi, as analyst Aubrey Matshiqi recently remarked.

He has been at the centre of some of the country's most historic moments, often as the cause of turmoil and controversy and always as a vocal advocate for the interests of the people of KwaZulu-Natal.

After 1994, he joined Mandela's Cabinet as Minister of Home Affairs and acted as president on several occasions. He maintains that where IFP premiers governed, there has not a been a whiff of corruption.

"Corruption shames all of us a black people. Because the poverty of our people is enormous. Actually, when all of us struggled for liberation, we didn't struggle so that people could loot Venda bank and so on. And that is a challenge, to get us out of the cesspool of corruption, because only then will we truly be serving our people.

"But there is always hope," he says. "I believe in the goodwill of people."

Read more on:    ifp  |  nelson mandela  |  mangosuthu buthelezi  |  election  |  democracy

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