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Mangosuthu Buthelezi, polarising prince and powerbroker, dies aged 95

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Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu prince, nationalist leader and kingmaker who played a polarising role in South Africa’s transition from apartheid, has died at the age of 95.

Buthelezi, the traditional prime minister to three generations of Zulu kings but arguably the figure who truly dominated the Zulu nation as founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party, died in hospital in the early hours of Saturday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

His death coincided with the annual traditional Zulu reed dance, one of the institutions buttressing the monarchy Buthelezi remade. Last year he played a crucial role in elevating King Misuzulu kaZwelithini.

Buthelezi was “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”, Ramaphosa said.

Many in South Africa will be far more ambivalent about a figure who threatened to boycott 1994’s first democratic election until relenting just days before the vote, the culmination of decades of rivalry with the African National Congress and the IFP.

Buthelezi said that an accord with Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, apartheid’s last leader, for the IFP to join the post-apartheid poll might have saved South Africa “from disastrous consequences of unimaginable proportions”. 

But by that point his Inkatha loyalists had already fought a bloody civil war in all but name against the ANC and the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front as the white minority regime crumbled in the 1980s.

Thousands died. The IFP “sought and received training and arms from the security forces, which assisted it in forming death squads”, according to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Although I have not orchestrated one single act of violence against one single victim of the political violence that has cost us many lives, as the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party, I know that the buck stops right in front of me,” Buthelezi told the commission in 1996. The IFP has always denied that it instigated violence.

“History attests to Buthelezi’s progressively strained relationship with the ANC, exacerbated by the hostile political climate of the apartheid era,” the ANC said on Saturday in a statement that acknowledged “horrific bloodshed” in the 1980s and 1990s.

“However, the ANC recognises his contribution to the liberation struggle and the post-apartheid political environment.”

Born in 1928 to a mother who was granddaughter of King Cetshwayo, who fought and lost against the British in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879, Buthelezi was marked out to be a royal powerbroker.

As chief of the Buthelezi clan, he first took the role of royal prime minister in the 1950s to King Cyprian Bhekuzulu. He loomed large over the reign of Cyprian’s successor, Goodwill Zwelithini, until the king’s death in 2021.

Buthelezi formed early links with the ANC in opposing apartheid. But over the years he turned against the banned movement’s methods of armed struggle and pursuit of sanctions, in favour of seeking political concessions from within the system.

He agreed to head KwaZulu, one of the “bantustan” or “homeland” statelets created by the apartheid regime, though he refused to accept that it was independent, saying he opposed the “Balkanisation” of South Africa’s body politic.

Before his murder in 1977, the activist Steve Biko attacked Buthelezi’s decision to accept the homelands while still posing as a critic of the regime. “If you want to fight your enemy you do not accept from him the unloaded of his two guns and then challenge him to a duel,” Biko said. 

In 1978, Buthelezi was chased from the funeral of the anti-apartheid leader Robert Sobukwe, his contemporary, amid mounting tensions.

With the advent of democracy, Buthelezi served as home affairs minister in Mandela’s government after 1994. As acting president in 1998, he launched an invasion of Lesotho, the tiny mountain kingdom surrounded by South Africa, to crush a rebellion. It was bloodier than South Africa bargained for and it remains a controversial episode in the country’s regional hegemony.

As the not so grey eminence behind the Zulu kingdom’s reinvention for the democratic era, at apartheid’s end Buthelezi also secured the formation of the Ingonyama Trust, which now owns vast traditional lands in KwaZulu-Natal province, officially on behalf of the king.

In latter years the trust has been mired in corruption scandals and power battles. Buthelezi portrayed himself as an elder statesman but as he ailed in recent months, there were also reports of rifts between him and the new king.

The party he founded and officially stepped back from in 2019 has meanwhile sought to cultivate a multi-ethnic appeal. As the fourth-biggest party in South Africa’s national assembly, the IFP will be play an important role in potentially knife-edge elections next year, with the ANC’s long-held majority under threat.

“We are devastated by this unspeakable loss to the IFP, the Zulu Nation, our country, and the greater cause of justice and peace,” the party said on Saturday.

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