The Controversial Legacy of Mangosuthu Buthelezi

Mourners have gathered in the town of Ulundi to attend the funeral of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a veteran South African politician and Zulu chief, who passed away at the age of 95. Buthelezi’s death has ignited a debate about his legacy, as his political career was marked by both praised contributions and controversy. Born into the Zulu royal family, Buthelezi served as their traditional prime minister while also founding the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) during the apartheid era.

Many of Buthelezi’s supporters view him as a man of peace who fought tirelessly for the dignity of black people, particularly Zulus, during the oppressive apartheid regime. He stood against the ANC’s approach to armed action and sanctions, arguing that they disproportionately harmed black South Africans. Supporters believe that Buthelezi’s contributions to the fight against white-minority rule warrant the accolades and recognition he is currently receiving.

However, it is the violence that erupted during the country’s transition to multi-party democracy in the 1990s that has raised criticisms and reopened old wounds. An estimated 20,000 people lost their lives in clashes between ANC and IFP supporters during this period. Critics argue that Buthelezi’s followers were involved in acts that undermined his legacy, accusing him of being a “murderous apartheid collaborator” and linking his organization to hit squads. They claim that positive tributes about Buthelezi represent a dangerous whitewashing of history.

Thokoza township in Johannesburg, along with many other areas, experienced severe political violence as various factions attempted to derail the country’s path to its first democratic elections in 1994. Some individuals present at the funeral were determined to ensure that their deceased relatives, who lost their lives during these clashes, were not forgotten. They demanded that Buthelezi apologize for the atrocities committed in his name, but he denied any involvement.

The IFP has adamantly dismissed these criticisms, contending that neither Buthelezi nor the party can be held accountable for planning the violence. After Nelson Mandela’s victory in the democratic elections, he and Buthelezi reconciled, and the IFP leader served as home affairs minister under the ANC government. Prince Zuzifa, Buthelezi’s son, expressed the IFP’s pain at witnessing the revival of discredited propaganda, asserting that history will ultimately vindicate his father.

While the funeral proceedings began with a memorial service in Ulundi, organized by the IFP and attended by dignitaries and politicians from all parties, the event has become overshadowed by accusations of political opportunism. Critics have accused certain politicians, such as those from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), of revising history for electoral gain. The EFF’s head of political education defended Buthelezi and criticized those attempting to distort the Zulu leader’s legacy.

For the IFP, the funeral presents an opportunity to garner support ahead of the upcoming elections, while other political parties see it as a chance to court a potential coalition partner in KwaZulu-Natal province, where the largest ethnic group resides. Despite retiring from active politics five years ago, Buthelezi recently gained praise for overseeing the peaceful installation of the newly crowned Zulu monarch. However, disagreements arose between Buthelezi and the king regarding the management of the Ingonyama Trust, which oversees communal land in KwaZulu-Natal.

Some critics question the constitutionality of the Ingonyama Trust, arguing that it leaves millions of people in rural areas subject to the rule of the king. Despite these controversies, historian Mphumeleli Ngidi emphasizes Buthelezi’s unwavering dedication to preserving Zulu customs and rituals during a critical period in South Africa’s history. It is undeniable that Buthelezi’s nearly 70-year service will ensure his lasting reverence in the Zulu community.

The funeral of Mangosuthu Buthelezi serves as a reminder of the complex and divisive nature of his legacy. The contrasting viewpoints surrounding his contributions to the fight against apartheid and the violence that occurred during the transition to democracy create a rich tapestry of perspectives. Ultimately, society must grapple with the legacy of this influential Zulu leader and reckon with the historical events that continue to shape South Africa today.