Buthelezi funeral: South Africans mull legacy of divisive Zulu leader

Zulu regiments sing and chant praises in front of a convoy carrying the coffin of Mangosuthu Buthelez on its to Ulundi - Friday 15 September 2023
Zulu regiments accompanied the hearse on its way to Ulundi

Mourners gathered for the funeral of veteran South African politician and Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

He was granted a state funeral in honour of his contribution to the fight against white-minority rule.

As a mark of respect, the national power firm also agreed Ulundi would not be subject to the national rolling electricity cuts during the events.

But his death at the age of 95 has opened up a debate about his legacy.

Born into the Zulu royal family, he remained their traditional prime minister until his death. However, it was his role in politics that has split opinions.

He founded the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) after becoming disillusioned with the African National Congress (ANC) in 1975 at the height of apartheid. He opposed the ANC's stance on armed action and sanctions, arguing that they harmed black South Africans.

Mourners of Mangosuthu Buthelezi in traditional Zulu attire in Ulundi, South Africa - Friday 15 September 2023
Mangosuthu Buthelezi's supporters see him as a man of peace

For this, his supporters believe he deserves all the accolades being showered on him - and the hundreds of people who lined the streets on Friday leading to the Kwa-Phindangene Palace in Ulundi, along with praise-singing Zulu regiments clad in traditional attire, see him as a man of peace.

Prof Kealeboga Maphunye, head of African politics at the University of South Africa, acknowledges Buthelezi was "a respected traditional leader who made a contribution in history in ensuring that the dignity of black people, particularly Zulus, was not trampled on by the apartheid regime".

Yet it was what happened during the transition to multi-party democracy in the early 1990s, when an estimated 20,000 people died in violence between the ANC and IFP, that has drawn criticism and opened up old wounds.

"We cannot forget that Buthelezi's supporters were involved in acts that undermined his legacy," Prof Maphunye told the BBC.

The City Press newspaper editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya was more forthright in his front-page editorial, a day after Buthelezi's death, calling him a "murderous apartheid collaborator who was behind hit squads linked to his organisation".

Makhanya went on to describe positive tributes about him as "the culmination of the greatest whitewashing of history that South Africa has seen".

Thokoza township in the east of Johannesburg is one of many areas that experienced political violence by those determined to derail the road to the country's first democratic elections in 1994.

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the certificate handover ceremony at Moses Mabhida Stadium on 29 October 2022
Buthelezi is seen as a "respected traditional leader" by some but others says his legacy was overshadowed by political violence

A monument to the 600 people who died there now stands on Khumalo Street, once the dividing line between two warring communities.

On Thursday people gathered at the memorial determined that their relatives who died would not be forgotten at this time.

"I lost my uncle during the violent clashes. He was bludgeoned to death," a man, who asked not to be named, told the BBC.

He had called on Buthelezi to "humble" himself and apologise for the atrocities that were committed in his name. "But instead of apologising, he denied involvement till his death," he said.

The IFP has dismissed these criticisms, saying neither Buthelezi nor his party can be blamed for planning the violence. After Nelson Mandela won the country's first democratic elections, he and Buthelezi buried the hatchet and the IFP leader went on to serve two terms as home affairs minister in the ANC government.

Buthelezi's son, Prince Zuzifa, said: "The IFP shares our pain in seeing long-discredited propaganda revived by a few individuals who have no sense of humanity but we will not be drawn into their spiral of hatred… history will vindicate our father."

Mourners are seen at the home of Mangosuthu Buthelezi at Kwa-Phindangene in Ulundi, South Africa - 15 September 2023
Some mourners in Ulundi are wearing wraps with Mangosuthu Buthelezi's image

Events to commemorate the Zulu leader began on Wednesday in Ulundi with a memorial service organised by the IFP and addressed by dignitaries and politicians of all parties.

But this too has become overshadowed by accusations that some are using the commemorations to play politics ahead of elections next year, with politicians accused of being prepared to revise history with votes in mind.

This criticism has particularly been levelled at the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the country's second-largest opposition party launched 10 years ago.

Its head of political education, Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, took to the stage to praise the IFP founder: "Never be shaken by the negativity of ill-informed, ignorant people.

"Never be shaken by opportunists, hypocrites who want to educate us about our own history and the leadership that stabilised this country into a politically peaceful environment," he told the crowd of mourners.

For the IFP the funeral is also a good opportunity to canvas for votes and for other parties to woo a possible coalition partner in KwaZulu-Natal province, homeland to the country's largest ethnic group.

Buthelezi retired from active politics five years ago, but recently won praise for the overseeing the peaceful installation of the recently crowned Zulu monarch Misuzulu ka Zwelithini, amid a battle for the throne among his brothers.

Although it was reported that he and the king were at loggerheads recently over the running and management of the Ingonyama Trust, a body with the role of managing communal land in KwaZulu Natal province.

Buthelezi regarded the trust as one of his great successes - and its creation did pave the way for the IFP to participate in the 1994 elections - although it has come in for criticism, with some seeing it as unconstitutional, as it leaves millions of people in rural areas under rule of the king.

But for historian Mphumeleli Ngidi, Buthelezi's nearly 70 years of service show an unfailing dedication to preserving Zulu customs and rituals at a critical juncture in South Africa's history - and for this alone there is no doubt he will be revered.