How Mangosuthu Buthelezi Won the Long Game

Mangosuthu Buthelezi in May 2019.

Contemporary South Africa is a world apart from all the emancipatory visions of the past. There is, though, a significant extent to which Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu nationalist leader who was buried with full state honours on 16 September, achieved some of his key goals.

Buthelezi did not win everything he wanted, and aspects of the logic of the present that look like the vision for the future that he laid out in the 1980s are not due to his agency. It is the African National Congress (ANC) that subordinated society to capital, and it is forces in the ANC that are now preparing the country for a brutal escalation of austerity amidst mass impoverishment and decaying social services and infrastructure.

But Buthelezi’s cultivation and politicisation of ethnic sentiment, his mobilisation of violence and his brinkmanship in the period between the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations in February 1990 and the first democratic election in April 1994 won him significant political gains. There was a general concession to traditional authority in the former Bantustans, the standing of the Zulu monarchy was assured and the land once administered by the KwaZulu Bantustan transferred to the sole authority of the Zulu king. While Buthelezi and his allies, including white fascists, did not secure a fully federal political system significant compromises were made with the establishment of provinces and provincial governments that have reinscribed elements of the larger spatial logic of apartheid giving some provinces an ethnic character.

Buthelezi, a great grandson of the Zulu king Cetshwayo kaMpande, joined the ANC in 1949 while a student at the university of Fort Hare. In the early 1950s he took up positions within the system of traditional authority from which he pushed to restore the standing and power of the Zulu Kingdom which, under the rule of his great grandfather, had been defeated by the British in the Battle of Ulundi in July 1879. The destruction of the kingdom came after the Zulu regiments had inflicted an initial routing of the invading army at the Battle of Isandlwana in January that year.

There were clear points of connection between Buthelezi’s ambitions and those of the apartheid state. In 1954 Hendrik Verwoed, the leading figure in the conception and imposition of apartheid who was then the minister of ‘Native Affairs’, sponsored the first annual celebration of ‘Shaka Day’, bringing in a white anthropologist to design a ‘traditional’ costume that neither the King, Cyprian kaSolomon, nor his father Solomon kaDinizulu, had worn before. Buthelezi presided over the event.

After the banning of the ANC and other radical organisations in 1960 the state sought to cultivate Black leaders that it thought could deliver legitimacy and consent for apartheid. In 1970, when large numbers of African people had their South African citizenship revoked in favour of citizenship in the ethnically deliminated territory of KwaZulu, Buthelezi became its head, a position he retained when it became ‘self-governing’ in 1977. He did not accept the full form of the pseudo independence offered to the Bantustans but he worked, doggedly and effectively, to build an ethnic politics and entrench a form of traditional authority.

What Mahmood Mamdani called ‘decentralised despotism’, authoritarian rule through ‘traditional authority’ in the name of ‘custom’, had been central to the mode of rule of British colonialism in Africa. It was invented to rule KwaZulu before being exported across the continent and KwaZulu offered the apartheid state its best opportunity to exclude Africans from access to the rights of citizenship, democratic rights, in white dominated territory in the name of African tradition.

In 1975 Buthelezi revived Inkatha, a moribund cultural organisation that his uncle, the Zulu king Solomon, had run in the 1920s. He  remained its leader until 2019. From the outset it was run as an authoritarian personality cult legitimated in the name of culture and tradition. Membership was required for teachers and civil servants, and from 1978 school pupils had to attend an Ubunto-Botho class, known colloquially as the ‘Inkatha period’. The committee that drew up the syllabus lamented that “many adults seem to hold divergent views and beliefs about Inkatha” and declared its aim to “clear doubts and thus create unified ideas to match with the goals of Inkatha”. Each of the text books for these classes begins with a chapter on Inkatha, and much attention is given to Buthelezi. They are marked by a pronounced conservatism. Children were taught that “In the family the man is head. The woman knows that she is not equal to the husband.”

From the early 1970s the ethnic nature of Inkatha, its assertion of the authority of tradition and its participation in the system of government set up by the apartheid state generated bitter conflict with the university students who formed the Black Consciousness Movement. For these new entrants to the political stage Blackness was affirmed as a unifying modern political identity transcending the ethnic and racial categories on which the apartheid project depended. The decisive break between Inkatha and the ANC came later, and is often said to have begun with a meeting between Buthelezi and Oliver Tambo in London in 1979. By the following year the ANC was openly attacking Buthelezi as a collaborator. Buthelezi then took his own path building considerable white support at home and abroad. He claimed to be holding true to the principle of non-violence, which the ANC had affirmed prior to its turn to armed struggle in 1961.

The emergence of a Black trade union movement following a set of strikes in Durban in 1973 began to undermine Buthelezi’s standing as the sole authorised representative of African people in KwaZulu and Natal, the white ruled territory adjacent to KwaZulu. The emergence of the more confrontational United Democratic Front (UDF) a decade later escalated the challenge to his authority.

The UDF emerged from opposition to a new constitutional order, established in 1983, that gave limited rights to people classified as Indian and coloured via a new racially segregated ‘Tricameral’ parliament. Africans were said to have political rights in ethnic ‘homelands’. Buthelezi rejected the Tricameral system but, in the same year as it was adopted and the UDF formed, around 500 Inkatha supporters entered the campus of the University of Zululand and murdered five UDF supporting students. Buthelezi would neither accept every diktat from the state nor would he tolerate the emergence of new forms of African political power beyond his control. His commitment to non-violence with regard to white power and people was not matched with similar commitment to non-violence towards new forms of independent African politics entering the terrain from the left, and at significant and rapidly growing scale.

As the power of the UDF grew, and a new implicitly ANC aligned trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), was formed in 1985 millions of people were organised and mobilised into forms of progressive politics. In 1986 two developments marked a point of no return. In April 206 Inkatha men were sent to the Caprivi Strip along the southern Angolan border for military training. On their return they carried out assassinations and a set of massacres including the KwaMakhutha Massacre in 1987 and the Trust Feeds Massacre in 1988. There are many well documented instances of support for Inkatha from the police during attacks.

In May 1986 Buthelezi launched the United Workers’ Union of South Africa (Uwusa), a conservative trade union federation to rival Cosatu. Uwusa was funded by the notorious security branch of the police, and the money paid into a personal account held by Buthelezi. By June it had murdered 11 members of a radical metal workers’ union. Unionists were regularly targeted in the years to come, perhaps most infamously Jabu Ndlovu, a leader in the same metal workers’ union who, along with her husband and elder daughter, was murdered by Inkatha in 1989.

As KwaZulu and Natal were roiled by violence Buthelezi took a clear anti-Communist position, opposed sanctions against South Africa, affirmed a ‘free market’ and federal future and was embraced by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl. Following apartheid propaganda in South Africa they presented the ANC as ‘terrorists’ controlled by Soviet backed Communists and lacking any popular support. Buthelezi was taken as an authentic, credible and respected Black leader.

In South Africa he was a frequent and respected presence on state television news broadcasts. Like Jonas Savimbi in Angola, and to a lesser extend Hastings Banda in Malawi, he was presented as a critical line of regional defence against a Soviet onslaught. White boy scouts and girl guides from Natal were taken to Ulundi, the capital of KwaZulu, to be introduced to Zulu history and participate in activities with members of the Inkatha Youth Brigade. Alliances were made with right-wing white Christians, including the now notorious cult at the KwaSizabantu Mission where Buthelezi and the apartheid minister of law and order Adrian Vlok were both regular visitors.

The situation escalated after the ANC and other organisations were unbanned in February 1990 and Inkatha rebranded itself as the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). In March there was an all-out war in the valleys around Pietermaritzburg. In that same year the violence spread to parts of Johannesburg where Inkatha had a base in the single sex hostels for migrant workers. In December 1990 54 people were killed in two days of fighting in Thokoza on the eastern periphery of Johannesburg. The fighting sometimes took on a generational dimension. In Gamalakhe on the south coast of Natal it was described as a war between fathers and sons.

Throughout the early 1990s IFP warlords like David Ntombela in Pietermaritzburg and Thomas Shabalala in Durban ran large militias. The ANC aligned forces had their own strongmen, such as Harry Gwala in Pietermaritzburg and John Mchunu in Impendle, and there were abuses on both sides. People often recall being caught up in a maelstrom by forces beyond their control and being coerced to give money and attend meetings, and conscripted to fight.

The massacre of 45 people in Boipatong in June 1992 following an IFP attack believed to have been backed by the police put an end to the credibility of FW de Klerk, the last apartheid president. This advanced the previously stalled movement towards a democratic election as the state began to capitulate on important issues. But preparation for war continued. In August 1993 Buthelezi called on Zulus to contribute towards the establishment of a “private army” to “guard against the obliteration of KwaZulu”. In November thousands of recruits received paramilitary training at the Mlaba camp in Northern Natal. In the same month the IFP made a pact with the Afrikaner fascist Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) declaring that “Boer and Zulu would fight together for freedom and land should they be confronted by a common enemy”.

In February the following year the Zulu king, Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, proclaimed the “exclusive and independent sovereignty” of the Zulu Kingdom and described the coming elections as a “denial of our claim for sovereignty and determination”. Buthelezi, in alliance with a set of right-wing forces made up of Bantustan leaders and white right-wing extremists, declared an intention to boycott the coming election scheduled for 27 April. On 12 April Henry Kissinger began a failed mediation process to persuade Buthelezi to participate in the election. On 24 April a secret deal was made between the apartheid state and Buthelezi to sign over the entire territory of KwaZulu, 2.8 million hectares, to the Zulu king. Inkatha then agreed to participate in the election and it went ahead on 27 April. The ANC, and the wider public, only became aware of the deal after the election.

Estimates of the number of lives lost in the war between Inkatha and the UDF range from 11 000 to 20 000, and up to half a million people are thought to have fled their homes, often after their destruction. As others have noted when the phrase ‘peaceful transition’ is used to describe this period its real meaning is that few white lives were lost.

After the election Buthelezi was, in terms of the interim constitution, brought into the transitional government as a cabinet minister. After taking office he swiftly become an early promoter of the vicious xenophobia against, in particular, working class African and Asian migrants that has now metastasized into the marrow of politics across a set of parties and other organisations. He continued his long standing harassment of journalists and other people who noted his record of collaboration and violence, often threatening to sue and writing long letters to newspaper editors liberally scattered with the term ‘poppycock’. He was sometimes effective in suppressing free debate, most notoriously with regard to the 1988 book on Buthelezi by the communist intellectual Mzala Nxumalo which has still never been published in South Africa.

Almost thirty years after Buthelezi entered the 1994 election at the last minute, full measure has never been taken of the political violence that painted the path to that election in blood. What is now the province of KwaZulu-Natal is riven with political violence. There are regular murders of grassroots activists in both urban land occupations and rural communities opposing mining deals struck by traditional leaders, multinationals and the ANC. There are even more murders of elected politicians, carried out both within and between the ANC, the IFP and other parties. At least 150 politicians have been shot dead in the province since 2011. Political violence is now largely about access to money and power rather than ideology, and is generally carried out via targeted assassinations rather than open battles with large numbers of men in the field. For some years it has been moving into some other parts of the country, perhaps most notably the Eastern Cape.

The Ngonyama Trust, which holds the land that was once KwaZulu in the name of the Zulu King, is notorious for corruption, authoritarianism, exploitation, expropriation and dispossession, much of it intensely gendered. In 2007 it began to force residents to pay rent, subject to a 10% annual increase, and assumed the authority to evict. These kinds of practices are carried out in the name of tradition but have no basis in precolonial practices.

Across the country the powers of traditional authority have been significantly advanced in the former Bantustans.  The ANC’s turn to the right in this regard is not anomalous. As Mamdani has shown the governments that came to power in Africa after independence often found it expedient to sustain this form of colonial rule in which rural people were rendered as subjects rather than citizens and “pinned down, localized … confined to custom, and then defined as its product.” He notes the important exception of Tanzania under Julius Nyerere.

The ethnic nature of some of the provinces that make up contemporary South Africa continues to enable ethnic modes of politics. When, in contemporary Durban, ANC politicians tell residents of the city’s shack lands that they do not have housing because people ‘from the Eastern Cape’ have ‘flooded the province’ their statements are immediately read, as they are intended, in ethnic terms. Outside of the former Bantustans rights are still sometimes deemed to be mediated through ideas of who belongs where that are in turn mediated through ethnicity.

Impoverishment remains concentrated in the former Bantustans. As Ashley Westaway, speaking of the Eastern Cape, has observed the former residents of the Bantustans are  “governed distinctly and differently from the rest of South Africa. The people of Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown and East London – black and white – are governed by rights, democracy and development. The people of Keiskammahoek, Cofimvaba and Lusikisiki – all black – are governed by custom, tradition and welfare”. The ANC has, he shows, assimilated what he calls ‘segregationism’ as a technique of power.

Many of the people leaving the former Bantustans for the cities access urban life via the shanty towns, another zone of diminished rights. Here people are often ruled with violence meted out by a range of actors, including elected local politicians who, in KwaZulu-Natal, are frequently heavily armed and very dangerous. Mamdani’s critique of the bifurcation of the colonial and postcolonial state along the lines of rural / urban, tradition / modernity and custom / rights requires an expansion into an understanding of a third zone in a trifurcated society.

In the zones of urban space without urban rights, the most effective resistance to oppressive forces and actors often simultaneously draws on rural practices of collective deliberation and consensus seeking that, in the cities, have been made open to women and young people, as well as struggles to access the rights affirmed, in principle, by liberal democracy.

Lungisile Ntsebeza concluded Democracy Compromised, his important 2005 study on traditional authority after apartheid, with an argument for “a new form of democracy . . . that would combine the participatory elements of pre-colonial indigenous institutions and the representative aspect of liberal democracy . . . throughout the country, both urban and rural.” Something like this is being forged, from below and often at great cost, in the best of the politics to have emerged in the shanty towns. But a democratic peace is yet to come. Buthelezi’s legacy is yet to be undone.

Richard Pithouse is a research associate in the philosophy department at the University of Connecticut and a columnist with the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg.