The Role Of Zulu Strongmen In South African Politics Part 1

By Musa Mdunge

On 21 March 2019, the Inkatha Freedom Party hosted its Gauteng provincial manifesto  launch. The launch also marked  the 44th anniversary since its establishment on 21 March 1975. I found myself thinking about how Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and President Jacob Zuma as two of the foremost Zulu political strongmen have shaped South African politics in the past four decades. During this two-part series, I will attempt to present a historical context of these two men’s political role and will in the second part go on to expound on the implications they had and have on Zulu leadership, KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa’s electoral landscape at large. 

The Establishment of IFP

The establishment of IFP at the time as a “cultural organisation” to promote the Zulu culture was just a front, in order to form a new political formation that would be an extension of the ANC within the country. As its founder and Leader,  Buthelezi stated that the party was formed and sanctioned by the than ANC president, O.R. Tambo. However, four years later,  Buthelezi would fall out of favour with the ANC leadership in Lusaka in 1979. 

This came after he claimed that the ANC had asked him to bring together Zulu regiments to fight the South African Defence Force (SADF). However, Buthelezi rejected the proposal, arguing that he could not allow his people to be massacred by the superior apartheid military force. From that day forth IFP and ANC would be political rivals, as ANC remained suspicious of Buthelezi’s relationship with the apartheid government and his cordial relations with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan (the latter of which he met in the oval office in 1986) 

Buthelezi’s criticism of the ANC’s position to on sanctions and disinvestment and the apartheid government’s bid to rather negotiate with Buthelezi as the de facto point man in South Africa, would long define the fractions between the ANC and IFP from 1979 until present. 

However, fractions between the IFP and the ANC did not define his personal relationship with Nelson Mandela, both men had a profound respect for each other, as it is well recorded that Buthelezi would dine with Mandela and Winnie Mandela at their home in Orlando,  whenever he came to Johannesburg. 

Moreover, both men were of royal blood and so shared a commonality in social status, Mandela the member of the cadet branch of the Thembu Royal House and Buthelezi the son of a Buthelezi clan Chief and the Grandson of  the late Zulu King,  Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo.

Furthermore, the mutual respect was further strengthened by Buthelezi’s refusal to single handily negotiate with the apartheid regime. He was consistent in calling for the release of Mandela and other political prisoners and called for the unbanning of the ANC and other political formations such as the PAC.

IFP Leader, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi

KwaZulu Natal Bloodshed

The 1980s saw the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Mass movement. Between 1985 and 1990, conflicts between the IFP and  the ANC aligned UDF broke out and led to black-on-black killings of about a 150 people in the KwaZulu-Natal region between 1985-1990. It was found out later during the negotiations that a third force, mostly, the South African Police Force had supported the IFP with weapons and would even pose in blackface in order to instigate black-on-black violence in the KZN and parts of Gauteng. 

The conflict between these two parties threatened the negotiations, as South Africa was heading towards a full-blown civil war between rival political formations. The on-going conflict fit into the plans of President F.W. De Klerk’s government to undermine the talks, by selling a picture that black political leaders could not come together and thus could not be trusted by the international community with the running of a democratic South Africa. In many ways, the actions of the third force ushered in a new form of the scorch-earth tactic by the National Party.  During the 1990s, battles between the two parties and the reign of terror in the townships by IFP supporters carrying traditional weapons became the order of the day,  as the IFP felt side-lined during the CODESA talks, even though Buthelezi represented the largest tribal nation, the Zulu. It was clear that any political agreement that ignored the voice of Buthelezi and by extension the Zulu people, would threaten any lasting peace in South Africa. 

As a result of this impasse, the ANC deployed Jacob Zuma, who was at one point the Head of ANC’s intelligence unit. Zuma, who was a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, was the most senior Zulu member of the leadership core. Consequently, it fell to him to bring about peace between the ANC and the IFP. Unlike Mandela, Zuma was a commoner, who came from a poor family, moreover, even generationally, Buthelezi was senior to him. The political future of the country rested squarely between these two Zulu strongmen. In many ways this marked the third period in history where South Africa’s political trajectory would be consequentially shaped by Zulu strongmen.

The first of these was the rise of Shaka kaSenzangakhona who came to the helm of the Zulu tribe in 1816 and built one of Africa’s most powerful empires by 1824. His expansion caused the “Mfecane” and saw widespread political and economic changes occur in Southern Africa, as new kingdoms were formed, and others destroyed. This period marked great bloodshed but caused great fear in the eyes of imperial Britain about Shaka and the threat he posed to British interests in the region. However, the assassination of this strong man led to the gradual erosion of the Zulu empire and subsequent kings were less talented in holding the empire together, especially with arrival of the Boers and the English in Natal.

Moreover, another example is the Bambatha Rebellion of 1906. This rebellion was sanctioned by the Zulu King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, who in a bid to revenge his father’s defeat and reclaim the Zulu empire, which had by now been under the rule of Britain. Dinuzulu sanctioned his regiments under the leadership of Chief Bambatha kaMancinza to mount an attack against British forces. However, the rebellion was crushed, and it marked the last armed resistance of African states against colonial powers in Africa.

The impact of the failed 1906 rebellion by the Zulu, marked the need to change tact and rather form an organisation that would fight for the rights of all Africans and thus the birth of the ANC in 1912. The humiliation of 1906, marked the intellectualisation of African liberation efforts as by intellectuals such as John Dube, Sol Plaatje and Pixley kaSeme (Buthelezi’s uncle)

Now the entrance of Zuma into the fold signalled the unfolding of events that again left the fate of millions in the hands of Zulu strongmen. The irony of which was while the nation focused on the Ramaphosa-Meyer relationship, an equally important duo was also shaping the South Africa we have come to love and spend sleepless nights worrying about today.

King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo

The rise of Zuma

Zuma’s prominence within the ANC had long been recognised but it was his work within KwaZulu-Natal that was most important. Zuma was central in getting the IFP to agree to the last-minute deal that would see it run for the 27 April national election in 1994, just three days before the polls. As already stated before, the entrance of IFP in the elections was important in solidifying the legitimacy of the new dispensation. However, Zuma who was ANC’s candidate for the premiership of  KwaZulu-Natal, failed, as he lost out narrowly to the IFP. Nonetheless, the elections were not without controversy, as the ANC almost almost appealed the results in the province, blaming the IFP for intimidating voters. However, Zuma played the long game an convinced the leadership to accept the result, citing the need create conditions for peace and that any other move other than to accept the result would compromise the chances of achieving peace. 

His acceptance of the results placed him at the centre of the KwaZulu-Natal peace process, and he was then appointed the MEC of Economic Development in the KwaZulu-Natal government and had the role of being also the leader of the opposition. During this time, he would negotiate with Buthelezi on the security of the Zulu Monarchy’s status as a constitutional head of province while successfully blocking moves by the IFP to establish a separate constitution for KwaZulu-Natal. 

Zuma’s success in negotiating peace in KwaZulu-Natal would give him the national reputation needed to move up the ANC. While Zuma served as both Chairman of the ANC and provincial chair of ANCKZN under the Zuma clause in the ANC constitution, he was nominated for the Deputy Presidency in 1997. Zuma’s popularity within the ANC, the need to strengthen ANC’s support in KZN and the need to stop Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ascension as ANC’s first female Deputy President, led to Thabo Mbeki and ruling elite within the favouring the 100% Zulu Homeboy as the “heartbeat away from the presidency” of not only the ANC but the country.

However, I have it on good authority that even though Zuma as ANC Deputy President was in line to be the DP of the country, Mbeki first offered it to Zuma’s old political foe. However, word soon reached the Zuma camp, who then sent a delegation to Mbeki to pressure him to give Buthelezi as the DP post in exchange for IFP full handover of control over KZN. However, Buthelezi refused, leading to Zuma being given the appointment as the Deputy President of the Republic. 

I wonder how history would have turned out had Madikizela-Mandela become ANC DP or Buthelezi the DP of South Africa. Was the universe attempting to save us from the Zuma presidency or would history have turned out the way it was supposed to turn out? We shall never know. 

The 100% Zulu Boy

Zuma and Mbeki would soon have a fallout as Zuma faced criminal charges of racketeering and corruption over his alleged acceptance of bribes during the Arms Deal and faced a rape accusation from a daughter of a late political friend, known as Khwezi. The controversy caused by Zuma and his legal woes forced Mbeki to relieve him of his duties. However, the move was interpreted by Zuma and his supporters as an attempt to prevent him from running for the presidency. 

At this point, the tribalistic suspicions between the Zulu and Xhosa people were re-awoken as Mbeki was accused of promoting Xhosa domination of the ANC and  the government. Furthermore, Zuma's supporters galvanized around the slogan of “100% Zulu Boy” as to promote the rise of Zulu leadership in the country but to highlight the perception that Zuma was being denied his place in government due to his tribal lineage. If Zuma could plead victim-hood, he could claim martyrdom.

However, beyond this, the 100% Zulu Boy campaign had another objective, to communicate to the broader ANC membership that if it wanted it wanted to solidify its control over KZN, which it has gained after 2004 elections, Zuma was the man to deliver the province to it. 

Zuma’s sought to present his tribal identity as a weapon he could yield to attract traditional Zulu people to the ANC.  Consequently,  the court cases were, in fact, the begin of Zuma’s campaign for the ANC presidency but the country at large. 

Buthelezi could do nothing but watch the ANC's support increase and when the dust had settled in Polokwane in 2007, Zuma who was now the ANC president was now firmly in prime position to deliver South Africa’s second most populous province to the ANC and so he did. In 2009 ANC gained 62% over IFP’s 22%. From that point, Zuma would make KZN his own kingdom, unifying a province and controlling the political nexus of KZN. 

On the other side, Buthelezi was undermined by Zuma through buying out his Chairperson, Zanele Magwaza-Msibi who was posed to become IFP’s leader. Upon her ascension, a deal was struck with Zuma to bring IFP back into the ANC fold. Buthelezi got wind of these plans and after failing to solicit a response from Magwaza-Msibi, she left the IFP to form the National Freedom Party (NFP), accusing Buthelezi of being an autocratic leader, who does not want to leave the stage. 

Zuma's divide and conquer strategy worked, as IFP lost many municipal seats in the 2011 local government elections, including the seat of its power, KwaNongoma. However, Magwaza-Msibi's health issues, Zuma’s growing unpopularity, ANC infighting and killing, have since seen the resurgence of  the IFP.

Former President, Jacob Zuma

The Twilight

In December 2017, Zuma finally lost, albeit through his proxy, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to Cyril Ramaphosa.  The ANCKZN was no longer the power province it was during the 2007 and 2012 ANC elective conferences. This time around the party was divided due to political infighting over positions and access to state resources. The division of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal and political killings have cast a shadow of whether the ANC can maintain their control over KZN. 

The province is key, given the fact that the ANC faces a possibility of losing Gauteng. Any loss of electoral power in KZN would dent its overall result. It is then important to ask what will happen in KZN politics as both Zuma who, resigned as president of the Republic and Buthelezi, who at the age of 90 is poised to retire or nature will take its cause, have both in effect left the stage. 

These men have defined Zulu politics and South Africa at large. Who will fill this void in Zulu political leadership? Are there any people worthy to do so? Or will Zulu political leadership face the same vacuum Xhosa political leadership faced after the end of the Mbeki presidency? Has the sun set on the "ngunification" of South African politics with the rise of Ramaphosa, a Venda speaking man, who hails from Limpopo and grew up in Soweto? 

Next week I will seek to answer these questions, but it was important to set a historical and political context to examine the role of Zulu strongmen.


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