Buthelezi claimed Inkatha was a revival of the ANC as an internal movement, and adopted the same colours. He alleged it was a strategy of undermining apartheid “from within”; these claims drew the ire of the exiled ANC leadership, which believed, correctly, that Buthelezi had his own aims and distinct power base.
The vicious war between these rival interpretations of nationhood and political expression divided people and families. It opened unexpected opportunities for the apartheid state to drive another wedge into opposition struggles.
Buthelezi’s contestation against apartheid was expressed in another way too. He sought to replace the bantustan fragmentation with a post-apartheid federal system.
In key ways, Buthelezi anticipated how ANC rule would develop post-democracy. One early indication of this continuity was the easy migration of the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, from a stalwart of Inkatha to the welcoming arms of the ANC government.
The contradictions that formed Buthelezi’s challenges as an anti-apartheid leader have continued in a number of unresolved issues. Chief among them are the Ingonyama Trust debacle and the unresolved status of land, custom and authority. The Ingonyama Trust was the outcome of a deal between apartheid’s last ruling party, the National Party, and the IFP during the dying days of white rule.
The homeland system was about to be dismantled, and the Trust, with King Goodwill Zwelithini as its sole trustee, was established to manage land then falling under the bantustan government of KwaZulu. The Trust, which is now responsible for managing some 2.8 million hectares of land in KwaZulu-Natal, has been criticised for threatening rural people’s rights.
A belligerent Zwelithini rejected recent calls for the Trust to be dismantled, and called on Zulus to take up arms to defend the land.
The material thread throughout Buthelezi’s life as both an ethnic and a national politician has been land and its relationship to political claim-making. So there is deep irony in the fact that Buthelezi was, in the 1980s, castigated and threatened with death for standing on culture-based land policies. Today many parties use these policies to mobilise public opinion and support.
It seems to be effective, with signs that the Inkatha Freedom Party is regaining support during a time of extreme political contestation in KwaZulu-Natal.
Buthelezi carries extensive accountability for the sectarianism that characterised politics before 1994. But the contradictions and responsibilities go beyond this fascinating figure. His retirement will certainly not bring an end to ethnic “traditionalism”.
- Gerhard Maré: Emeritus Professor of Political Sociology, University of KwaZulu-Natal
- This article was first published in The Conversation