In praise of Mangosuthu

Mangosuthu Buthelezi, 89, has scored a big victory in Nqutu in KwaZulu Natal. His has led his Inkatha Freedom Party since 1975. Image Courtesy of: IFP


Former African National Congress MP Melanie Verwoerd is Parliamentary’s columnist for News 24 and she described a recent no-confidence debate like this: “Members shouted and made endless points of order. This continued until Mangosuthu Buthelezi with quiet dignity made his way to the podium. Then, for the first time, total silence fell over the house”. Cape Messenger founder Denis Worrall writes

24 January 2017 – This is what he briefly said:  “It is time to recognise that the call for the President to
stand down is coming from all corners of this country. But the president won’t listen, instead he trivialises the comments of comrades who worked with him in the struggle for decades. He won’t even listen to his own conscience.” Buthelezi wrapped up with this remarkable statement: “If the ANC is destroyed – the whole continent will suffer a blow”.

I first met this Zulu Prince in the 1970s when I lectured at the University of Natal, and I have followed his career and his contribution to political developments in South Africa with enormous interest and admiration.

When I was appointed Ambassador to Australia, it was Foreign Affairs practice to invite appointees to

indicate particular persons or institutions or projects in South Africa that they wished to meet or familiarise themselves with before taking up the foreign assignment. One of my wishes was to meet Chief Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his ministers. But I was quite specific: the meeting should take place in Ulundi, the capital of KwaZulu, which was also his home.

I meant this is an expression of respect for the man himself and what he stood for. I got to know Buthelezi well as a result of his Indaba constitutional proposals and my interest from the point of view of the President’s Council. On the homelands independence issue I respected the way he conducted himself relative to other homeland leaders.

Buthelezi was once the best-known African leader

I regarded him at that time as an important political figure, something borne out by David Welsh, who writes that Buthelezi was probably the best-known African leader in the 1970s. Surveys conducted by Theodore Hanf and his German associates between 1974 and 1977 found Buthelezi was the most admired African leader by 44% of respondents, surpassing ANC leaders nominated by 22%, including Mandela, who was nominated by 19%.

Moreover, Buthelezi was found to have significant support far beyond the Zulu people. I also knew his close associate Dr. Frank Mdlalose, who later was appointed Ambassador to Greece, and the very impressive Dr Oscar Dlhomo, who regrettably died before his time.

In any event, my wish was granted and Anita and I found ourselves staying in Ulundi in what was then characterised as “the smallest Holiday Inn in the world”.  We arrived by car and had dinner with Buthelezi and his cabinet, following up the next day with wide-ranging discussions. It was an experience I will never forget and I know that Buthelezi appreciated the gesture on my part of insisting that the meeting take place in Ulundi.

While I was not to know this at the time, after all I was heading for Canberra and not London, I had no idea how much Buthelezi would mean to my colleagues and I when I got to London. Margaret Thatcher knew and respected him, as did Geoffrey Howe and other British Cabinet Ministers. His connections with British business interested in South Africa and Africa generally were extensive. He was therefore a regular visitor to London and there never was an occasion when he visited that he did not advise me in advance of his coming and availability to see me. But he made a point of never coming  to the Embassy. We met for a cup of coffee or a light meal in the Savoy Hotel which is about 300 m from South Africa House. On at least three occasions during my ambassadorship he addressed the South Africa Club. The meetings invariably drew capacity audiences not because of his oratorical skills (he spoke too fast. Anita usually sat next to him and at his request tugged at his jacket when he exceeded the speed limit) but because of what he represented.

Aside from interest in the role he played in South Africa, he was important to the Embassy, to the UK business community and to the Thatcher government because he was one of the three most eminent opponents of sanctions against South Africa. The other two being famous author Alan Paton and Helen Suzman, lone PFP member of Parliament but probably the strongest opponent of apartheid within the political system. Buthelezi also supported a market economy which obviously was a plus.

But what was of particular importance and of the greatest interest to me was the Buthelezi Commission’s KwaZulu-Natal Indaba which I promoted on every conceivable occasion. When P W Botha turned this down, he squandered a superb opportunity of getting out of the constitutional hole we had dug for ourselves.

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