Buthelezi: Adroit political survivor

Aubrey Matshiqi assesses the importance of the forthcoming elections to Buthelezi's future.

Summary - In the lead-up to the elections, KwaZulu-Natal is the main talking point. Political analysts predict a fierce battle between the IFP and the ANC which recent polls suggest the ANC will win. If the IFP loses its stronghold, will this portend the end for the great survivor, chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi? He is undoubtedly an astute politician. A bantustan leader who was also the head of a mass movement that purported to be part of the struggle, he straddled the divide between the apartheid regime and the liberation forces. Between 1975 and 1979 his multi-strategy approach earned him huge political dividends; Inkatha’s membership grew by 300 per cent and when he led a delegation to meet the ANC in London in 1979 he was the most popular black leader in the country. This was a major reason for the collapse of relations between Inkatha and the ANC. Subsequently, Buthelezi used his royal connections as prime minister to the Zulu king to promote Zulu nationalism. Increasingly, the ANC was portrayed as anti-Zulu and the result was an erosion of support among other Africans. The IFP’s Rev. Zondi, however, argues that a massive ANC-sponsored anti-Buthelezi propaganda campaign was the main reason for the decline in Buthelezi’s popularity. Buthelezi survived, says Zondi, because he had such a large constituency. But is this true? Some people believe the IFP hacked and shot its way into the new South Africa, and that without the violence of the early 1990s it wouldn’t still be a factor. Rumours persist that the IFP government in KwaZulu-Natal was the product of a political deal that sought to avoid civil war in the province. The latest SABC-Markinor opinion poll suggests that the IFP and DA combined will receive 30 per cent of the KZN vote while the ANC will win 50 per cent. This would be disastrous for Buthelezi and already, voices within the IFP are calling for a succession plan. If the IFP is concerned about the poll’s predictions, panic may set in, raising the possibility of violence. However, the polls may be wrong as KwaZulu-Natal has a high proportion of undecided voters. If the vote is so close that neither the IFP nor the ANC can govern without an ally, the DA will be the main beneficiary. If the poll is correct, would the IFP remain in national government if invited by the ANC? It seems unlikely. And would Buthelezi finally retire? That too is unlikely.

The last quarter of the twentieth century in South African politics was dominated by apartheid, the struggle for liberation and chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. It was a period during which the African National Congress (ANC) managed to eclipse other liberation movements and Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) straddled the divide between the apartheid regime and forces for liberation.

As we approach South Africa's first general election of the twenty-first century, apartheid is no more and the province of KwaZulu-Natal is - as was the case prior to the 1994 elections - the talking point of South African politics. Most political pundits have predicted a fierce and bruising battle between the IFP and the ANC with recent opinion polls suggesting that this province will elude the ruling party no more.

If the IFP loses KwaZulu-Natal will this portend the end for Buthelezi or does he still have more lives in his political bag? Can the great survivor of South African politics bounce back if the ANC triumphs in the only province where the IFP enjoys substantial support?

Those who support him say uMnyamana ka Ngqengelele (Buthelezi) has fought and survived many battles against the ANC and will, once again, emerge as the leader of a victorious IFP when the results for KwaZulu-Natal are announced.

To what can his political staying power and longevity be attributed? Reverend Musa Zondi, national spokesperson for the IFP, says Buthelezi, "has a full understanding of South African politics in terms of both liberation and post-liberation politics," and this has enabled him to "take positions that make him relevant".

There is no doubt that Buthelezi is an astute politician. It is this very quality which explains the contradiction of a Bantustan leader who was at the same time the head of a mass movement, the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement, which purported to be part of the liberation struggle against apartheid. He understood that operating within the homeland structure created opportunities for both the National Party government and the ANC in exile. The ANC needed the legal space that was occupied by Inkatha to implement its strategy of mass mobilisation while the apartheid regime wanted to use Buthelezi as a lever against the liberation movement. When asked about why he formed Inkatha in 1975, he said there was a need at the time for "democratic forces emerging in South Africa to accept a multi-strategy approach and to work in harmony with the ANC Mission in Exile". Between 1975 and 1979 Buthelezi's 'multi-strategy approach' earned him huge political dividends. So successful was his strategy that an opinion poll conducted by the German Arnold Bergstraesse Institute in 1978 showed that he enjoyed the support of 43 per cent of Africans in Soweto, Durban and Pretoria as opposed to Nelson Mandela's 21 per cent.

When he led a delegation to meet the ANC in London in 1979 it was as the most popular black leader among Africans in this country, a political reality that drove a wedge between him and the then president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, and also led to the collapse of Inkatha's relationship with the ANC. The ghosts of that meeting still haunt the two parties to this day.

According to Mzala Nxumalo, the late ANC and South African Communist Party intellectual, the ANC had hoped that Buthelezi "would use the legal opportunities provided by the Bantustan programme to participate in the mass mobilisation of the oppressed people". This point is amplified by Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC's head of the presidency, who argues that the formation of Inkatha resulted from an agreement between Buthelezi and the ANC. Ngonyama also believes the IFP should have disbanded when the ANC was unbanned, an argument which clearly adds a new dimension to our understanding of the tensions between the ruling party and the IFP.

Whatever the origins of Inkatha were, Buthelezi's approach to the 1979 London meeting with the exiled ANC was a tactical and strategic error. Like most politicians who act from a position of relative strength and strategic advantage, he made the cardinal mistake of assuming the predictability of the outcome in the political contest between him and the ANC. This error of political judgment is understandable given the fact that Inkatha's membership had grown by 300 per cent between 1975 and 1979. In addition, he occupied the unique position of a national political figure who was also prime minister to the king of the largest ethnic group in South Africa.

He used his royal connections to promote a narrow form of Zulu nationalism, which became almost inseparable from Inkatha and the homeland government of KwaZulu. The ANC was portrayed as anti-Zulu and, therefore, a threat to Zulu nationalism. As he continued to consolidate his power within Inkatha and the homeland structures of KwaZulu, he suffered an erosion of the support he had enjoyed amongst Africans in the late seventies.

Reverend Zondi has a different explanation though. He argues that the ANC "ran up a huge bill funding its propaganda machinery against Buthelezi". This is a view shared by Dene Smuts of the Democratic Alliance who says that, "Buthelezi has a unique degree of the courage of his convictions which is what was required for him to continue over the decades in the face of one-dimensional propaganda on the part of a large proportion of South African media". She also believes that the ANC and its allies were the main source of this anti-Buthelezi propaganda campaign. Ngonyama, however, refutes this allegation and offers the explanation that the often vitriolic exchanges between the ANC and Buthelezi occurred "in the normal course of an ideological and political contest for hegemony".

Without apportioning blame, it must be remembered that the conflict between the IFP and the ANC led to the loss of many a life in the months leading to the 1994 elections. The National Party government was by no stretch of the imagination an innocent bystander. In fact FW de Klerk's government employed the three-pronged strategy of promoting violence between ANC and IFP supporters, engaging the ANC in negotiations for a post-apartheid political settlement and attempting to isolate Buthelezi. Buthelezi survived this strategy because, as Zondi puts it, "he had a large constituency and could not be wished away".

But is this completely true? Would Buthelezi and the IFP have been a factor in the absence of the violence that wracked the country in the early nineties? Some have opined that the IFP hacked and shot its way into the new South Africa. And what about the rumours that persist to this day about the IFP government in KwaZulu-Natal having been the product of a political deal that sought to avoid a state of civil war in that province? Zondi dismisses these sentiments and quickly points out that Buthelezi's importance has not waned notwithstanding the ten years of peace in KwaZulu-Natal.

While it is true that the province has experienced a decade of peace, it coincided, particularly towards the end of the decade, with the serious souring of relations between the IFP and the ANC, especially in KZN. At the moment, the alliance pact between the two parties is not worth the paper it was signed on. This state of political affairs presents Buthelezi with a set of strategic choices not dissimilar from those he faced in the seventies. The challenges he faces have both an external and internal orientation. The external dimension involves positioning the IFP between the ruling party and the official opposition in a manner that guarantees the best results for Buthelezi in KwaZulu-Natal. This may involve maintaining a delicate relationship with the ANC at national level while attempting to consolidate the IFP's position in KwaZulu-Natal through the new election pact between the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the IFP. Some IFP hawks and other party insiders have argued privately that the floor-crossing legislation was an act of political betrayal that amounted to a violation of the ANC-IFP pact. It is from this perspective that it can be argued that the ANC pushed Buthelezi into Tony Leon's welcoming arms.

If the latest SABC-Markinor opinion poll is anything to go by, the IFP may have to rethink its strategy towards the ANC. The poll suggests that the IFP and DA combined will receive 30 per cent of the KZN vote as compared to the 50 per cent of the ANC. Such a political outcome would spell the beginning of the end for Buthelezi and complicate his life inside the party. There are already voices within the party, and its youth and student formations, that are calling on the IFP to adopt a succession plan that will lead to the appointment of Buthelezi's successor. A defeat by the ANC may embolden the supporters of hawks such as premier Lionel Mtshali, given the already strained relations between Buthelezi and Mtshali. Attempts at a coup may alienate those calling for Buthelezi to retire from the roots of Inkatha's support base.

But those inside and outside the IFP who decide to undermine Buthelezi's survival instincts will be doing so at their own risk especially if the SABC-Markinor poll is wrong about the ANC capturing KwaZulu-Natal. The race for KwaZulu-Natal may still turn out to be close with neither the IFP nor the ANC being able to govern without an ally. The DA stands to benefit the most from such a scenario. Since KwaZulu-Natal is one of the provinces with the highest number of undecided voters, the final result may be inconsistent with the findings of the SABC-Markinor poll. Add to this the possibility that there may have been respondents who, concerned about the possibility of some violence during the election campaign, deemed it prudent to hide the identity of the party they intend supporting.

If, on the other hand, the IFP is concerned about the poll's findings, panic may set in, creating the possibility of a climate for violence and an attempt at a return to the 'no-go' areas of the past. Even if violence flares up, it is highly unlikely that it will reach the alarming proportions of the period preceding the 1994 poll because this government, unlike the old Nats, stands to benefit very little from a state of provincial civil war.

If the election outcome confirms the findings of recent opinion polls, will the IFP remain in government if invited by the ANC or will they move to the opposition benches both at provincial and national level? When Musa Zondi was canvassed for an answer he said it was difficult to say whether the IFP would accept such an invitation. He further stressed that "the involvement of the IFP in the Government of National Unity had been important for reconciliation" but, "the experience of IFP participation in government since 1994 has been a difficult one," therefore, the IFP's decision "will be based on the content and context of the invitation". Ngonyama, however, seems to have a different invitation in mind because he contends that, "there is still an expectation that the IFP should disband and come back home". I have a feeling the IFP will not be taking him up on his offer irrespective of the 'content' or 'context' of the invitation.

What we are likely to see instead in KwaZulu-Natal are rising political temperatures as the leaders of the two parties do battle in the colloseum of electoral politics. The stakes are high. S'bu Ndebele, leader of the ANC in KZN, is a man who has been waiting for nearly a decade to be crowned political king of the province of Shaka, Dingane and Cetshwayo. A victory for the ANC would be a political and personal disaster for Buthelezi, dethroning a political survivor second to none. Love him or hate him, one cannot dispute the fact that Buthelezi has survived fifty years of politics because of an amazing capacity to reinvent himself. The results did not always advance the goal of liberating the black majority but in his role as a minister in the ANC government, Ngonyama appreciates that "he may differ with the policies of government but he recognizes that this is a democratically elected government".

After fifty years in the trenches of South African politics is it not time for Mnyamana ka Ngqengelele to ride into the political sunset? This is what he had to say in November 2003: "Mine has been a long journey which has not been easy" but "the fire in my belly is as alive as it ever was".