Zwelithini’s willingness to lend his powerful position to the service of the National Party cost tens of thousands of lives in the final years of white oppression, writes Mondli Makhanya.
When this lowly newspaperman was a young reporter in the early 1990s, a frequent stomping ground was the blood-drenched streets of Gauteng’s townships.
Then known as PWV (Pretoria/Witwatersrand/Vaal), the region was a hotbed of political violence that pitched the apartheid-sponsored Inkatha against township communities.
Inkatha regiments, backed and armed by the apartheid police and military, would attack communities in the dead of night and wantonly slaughter young and old.
Wedding and funeral ceremonies would end in bloodshed as the bloodthirsty warriors pounced. They would sometimes board trains and spray cornered commuters with automatic gunfire.
We media types would arrive on the scene to find sickening scenes of heads and other limbs severed from their torsos, bodies hacked and pierced all over, and corpses riddled with multiple bullet wounds.
Sometimes we would arrive to find the battle still in progress, with communities fighting back with all they had.
We would witness police and army vehicles giving cover to the marauding killers.
If you managed to talk to the warriors and ask them why they were involved in the murderous sprees, their answer was simple and consistent: they were fighting for the Zulu kingdom.
The ANC and its allies had to be stopped from taking over the country because that would spell the end of the Zulu kingdom. Everything had to be done to ensure that this never came to pass.
And so, in the name of King Goodwill Zwelithini and in pursuit of some concept of Zulu sovereignty, they spilled blood.
Gallons and gallons of blood.
The war that had now moved to PWV had been raging in what was then Natal for close to a decade.
In its quest to halt the march to liberation, the National Party government had enlisted the services of Inkatha and its power-mongering leader Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi to crush the surging resistance to apartheid rule.
Buthelezi had mobilised the potent weapon of Zulu nationalism to whip up the spirit of traditionalists.
In defence of king and nation, they waged war, not knowing that they were defending their own oppression. Again, gallons and gallons of blood was shed.
At the centre of all of this was one Goodwill Zwelithini ka Bhekuzulu, the eighth monarch of the Zulus. The man for whom flags are today flying at half-mast and who is being lauded as a “visionary”; “pillar”; “champion of peace and reconciliation”; “beacon of hope”; and “champion for peace”.
President Cyril Ramaphosa paid tribute to the “much-loved, visionary monarch who made an important contribution to cultural identity, national unity and economic development in KwaZulu-Natal and, through this, to the development of our country as a whole”.
Parliament’s presiding officers said Zwelithini led “successfully with honour and principle”.
The Thabo Mbeki Foundation said Zwelithini would be “remembered for the important role he played to bring about peace in KwaZulu-Natal during a turbulent period in our nation’s transition. He also upheld an abiding commitment to nation-building and the advancement of our democracy.”
Zwelithini should be remembered for what his most prominent role was in our history: a useful idiot in the hands of the apartheid government, whose willingness to lend his powerful position to the service of that regime cost tens of thousands of lives.
He was a man who, together with Buthelezi and white supremacists, nearly derailed the democracy negotiations with their demands for Afrikaner autonomy and a form of Zulu sovereignty.
A man who only agreed to the democratic order at the eleventh hour after the parties involved in the negotiations agreed to “recognise and protect the institution, status and role of the king of the Zulus and the kingdom of KwaZulu”.
A man who made a devil’s pact with the National Party government on the eve of democracy to reduce millions of rural people to second-class citizens under the Ingonyama Trust Act.
In life, Zwelithini was little more than Buthelezi’s trained puppy, willing to do anything the master ordered him to do and quick to get back into line when the master punished him for naughtiness.
It was a master-puppy relationship that went back to the king’s coronation in 1971.
History records that young Zwelithini’s ascent was expedited at the behest of Buthelezi, who was uncomfortable with how his nemesis Prince Israel was settling too comfortably into the regent role.
From then on, Buthelezi pulled the young man by the nose and, even deep into the king’s reign, he behaved as the monarch’s senior.
Using his hereditary position of traditional prime minister, Buthelezi milked the power of the monarchy for all it was worth as he built his own influence in apartheid South Africa.
With his KwaZulu Bantustan government and legislature in charge of the royal budget and infrastructure, Buthelezi would hit the king with financial sanctions on the rare occasion that the latter exhibited signs of rebelliousness.
Stories would circulate about how water and lights would be switched off at the palaces to curb Zwelithini’s occasional petulance.
Buthelezi’s hold over Zwelithini would prove a boon for the latter’s handlers during the uprisings of the 1980s.
By this time, Inkatha, purportedly a cultural organisation but actually a political movement, had perfected the craft of ethnic mobilisation.
Selling the dream of returning the Zulu kingdom to its former glory, Inkatha appealed to emotions and nationalist sentiment.
Buthelezi would haul out his useful idiot on significant days of national commemoration, when the latter would deliver scripted speeches that served his master.
Even his New Year’s Day messages were heavily slanted to attack his master’s foes.
The masses that were mobilised on these nationalistic sentiments became the ground troops for the war that Buthelezi waged on anti-apartheid movements on behalf of Pretoria.
For them, it was in defence of the king against the ANC and the communists. Zwelithini went along with this abuse of his throne by the apartheid government and its most loyal and enthusiastic collaborator.
When the negotiations commenced following the unbanning of political organisation and the release of political parties, the now renamed Inkatha Freedom Party’s spoiler demand was special powers for the king and maximum autonomy for what is now KwaZulu-Natal within a federal arrangement.
This, of course, meant maximum power for Buthelezi – Zwelithini’s master.
Throughout the four years of negotiations, the Inkatha Freedom Party wielded Zwelithini and the regiments that were willing to spill blood for him as its trump card.
We all know very well what the result of that was: humans were daily slaughtered in Zwelithini’s name.
So when the hagiographers hail Zwelithini’s role in making peace, they should also talk about his major part in creating the bloody war in the first place. And those people who refer to his commitment to democracy and nation-building should also remind us about how he resisted democracy with the blood of innocents, and about how most of his 50 years on the throne were spent fostering destructive ethnic nationalism.
Perhaps we should not be surprised at all the hagiography.
Zwelithini abandoned his master and sidled up to the governing ANC in the post-1994 era, a move that contributed to the rapid decline in the Inkatha Freedom Party’s fortunes.
For this abandonment of his master, he was rewarded with a generous (and escalating) annual budget, other luxuries and a status above that of other monarchs.
Other than waging a self-serving strident defence of the exploitative Ingonyama Trust, he was also the ANC’s loyal puppy until his death.
And so, once more, we whitewash history.