It was with great sadness that we learned on the morning of Saturday September 9, 2023 of the passing of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Over the past few years Africa Media Online has had the privilege of working closely with the Prince on digitising his extensive archive, a task that is ongoing.
Prince Buthelezi (Shenge as he was called) was a man with a unique place in South African history. In his person so many threads of the tapestry of South African life wove together – rural and urban, traditional and progressive, political and monarchial, liberation fighter and government minister; tribal leader and democrat. He was nephew to the founder of the ANC, Pixley ka Isaka Seme; disciple of ANC President and Nobel Peace Prize winner; Chief Albert Luthuli; student at the hotbed of liberation movements in Southern Africa, the University of Fort Hare, where he was a student of Professor ZK Matthews and fellow student alongside Oliver Tambo, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe and other liberation stalwarts and from which he was expelled for boycotting the visit of the Governor-General of the Union of South Africa; member of the ANC Youth League; graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal; Inkosi of the Buthelezi clan; Prince in the Royal House of the Zulu nation; deacon in the Anglican Church; husband to Irene Audrey Thandekile Mzila and father of eight children, Founder of the cultural organisation, Inkatha yeNkululeko yeSizwe, which became the Inkatha Freedom Party; Chancellor of the University of Zululand, Founder of the Mangosuthu University of Technology, Founder of Ithala Bank to enable loans to rural people; Chief Executive Councillor of the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly; Chief Minister of KwaZulu; Traditional Prime Minister of the Zulu Kingdom serving three different Zulu kings; South Africa’s longest standing Minister of Home Affairs; Acting President of South Africa on 22 occasions under President Nelson Mandela; and elder statesman whose contribution to the running of Parliament in the new dispensation was widely acknowledged.
His had not been an easy road. He played a significant role in South Africa’s transition to democracy resisting apartheid from within and frustrating the grand apartheid scheme to place large numbers of South African citizens in “independent” homelands. He motivated with FW De Klerk for the release of Nelson Mandela and the leaders of the ANC. His great grief, however, was the rift the came between him and the leadership of the ANC in the dying years of apartheid and his detractors consistently accused him of being a puppet of the apartheid state and fomenting violence between IFP and ANC. Yet he himself spoke often of how he had always seen himself as an ANC member acting on the orders of the ANC right from the time he joined the ANC Youth League as a student. It was Kenneth Kaunda who recommended that he start a cultural organisation as a means of resisting apartheid from within while the banned ANC resisted from without and he did not act on it until he had the blessing of the ANC leadership in Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. His mandate from them was to create internal resistance to apartheid. There is good documentation that he did just that, frustrating Pretoria’s attempt to finalise the “grand apartheid” scheme to setup homelands as pseudo-independent states.
Prince Buthelezi invited the Africa Media Online team for lunch last year while we were working at the Prince Mangosuthu Museum and Documentation Centre and he told me the story of his falling out with the ANC. He said it was at a meeting in London where Oliver Tambo asked him to provide young people to be trained for the armed struggle and to join them in sanctions. He said his initial response was to agree, but an older member of the IFP delegation who was present said that this could not be done without consultation with the senior leadership of the movement since it was against the principle of non-violence and their concern for the rural poor. After that meeting conflict between the ANC and the IFP began. Tambo and Prince Buthelezi had one thing in common, both were Anglicans, and I asked him about how it was they could not find common ground. He said “I never understood why Tambo turned his back on me. I wanted to ask him when he came back to South Africa, but I never got the opportunity before he passed away.” In his last days, Prince Buthelezi made several appeals for reconciliation between the ANC and the IFP, not least at the launch of the Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Foundation.
All parties agree that in the democratic dispensation, Prince Buthelezi became a valuable elder statesman firmly upholding the democratic protocols of Parliament when they came under threat. Obituaries to him written in local and international newspapers, however, show sharply divided opinion on his place and role in the latter years of South Africa’s transition to democracy.
One resource, however, that will go a long way toward settling his place in history is the extensive archive that Prince Buthelezi has left behind. He was meticulous about keeping everything. If arranged and made accessible, then, the detailed record could be there to be investigated by researchers and journalists. This is the project that Africa Media Online with funding from the Eric Thorrington-Smith Trust through the Institute of Race Relations, the Konrad Adenaur Stiftung, the Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Foundation and former South African Member of Parliament, Graham McIntosh has undertaken. Already close to 700,000 pages have been arranged and captured in digital form. While much has been digitised, much more remains to be done. This material has been quantified and funding proposals for two further phases of the project have been created, one that is R5.5 million and the other R7 million. We have a generous initial commitment of R500,000 from Oppenheimer Generations which is dependent on the balance of either of the new phases being raised.
At Prince Buthelezi’s funeral talk about the rift between the IFP and the ANC was not shied away from, nor was talk about the reconciliation needed between the two for the project of nation building and social cohesion in South Africa to be advanced. A key contributor to the healing of the past, then, could be what lies in Prince Buthelezi’s archives which has potential to give all an understanding of the forces and circumstances that drove decisions made during a time of conflict and division.
If you would like to contribute to completing this vital project that secures the legacy of Prince Buthelezi and gives significant insight into his times, you can contribute via the crowd-funding initiative that has been set up: Complete the Digital Legacy of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi