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A person can be good and evil at the same time. Sometimes, good and evil do not exist in a person simultaneously, writes Prince Mashele

When Mangosuthu Buthelezi turned 90 in 2018, I was one of those he invited to be part of his big celebration at the Durban City Hall. The invitation surprised me because about three years before his 90th birthday, I had been on the receiving end of Buthelezi’s wrath. He bought an entire page in the Sunday Independent newspaper to respond indignantly to my dismissal of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) as a regressive Zulu nationalist party.

Before that unfriendly exchange in the pages of a newspaper, Buthelezi and I, other than bumping into each other at public functions, had had no direct personal encounters. After all, he was not my peer. He was old enough to be my father. When I received the invitation to attend Buthelezi’s 90th birthday, I wondered why someone with whom I had publicly exchanged unflattering words would like to have me around on so special an occasion. After reflection, I decided to fly from Gauteng to Durban to be among Buthelezi’s special guests on his big day. There I sat in the City Hall, within earshot of Buthelezi, who sat behind me on the right-hand side of the late Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini.

As he sat down, Buthelezi turned to greet me and said, “Thank you, Doctor, for coming. I feel honoured.” I knew he was under the wrong impression that I had a PhD, but I had no opportunity to correct him. The sincerity in his voice left me deeply humbled and puzzled.

To this day, I still cannot explain why Buthelezi invited me. I must confess, though, that, obsessed as I am with literary beauty, I have for years harboured a secret admiration for Buthelezi’s polished writing style. The man knew how to hold an English pen, even though his rootedness in Zulu traditions was never shaken. In this regard, he was like Jan Smuts—the committed Afrikaner general whose mastery of the English language was admired by Englishmen.

At 90, Buthelezi was obviously nearing the end. He spent the last two years of his life trying to facilitate a smooth transition from the reign of King Zwelithini to that of his contested young heir, Misuzulu. Death intervened to extricate Buthelezi from that messy affair.

Over the years, Buthelezi positioned himself as the second most powerful man, after the king, in the Zulu nation. He projected himself, and was largely accepted, as the prime minister of the Zulu nation. To be precise, Buthelezi was appointed as the traditional prime minister of the Zulu royal family in 1954 by King Bhekuzulu, a position he held until his death.

Truth be told, Buthelezi was smart. He knew that traditional authority without engagement in politics was not enough. He devised a plan to lodge himself firmly within the Zulu institution of traditional leadership and, at the same time, connect himself to the wider world of politics. In other words, he contrived to stand on a Zulu platform to influence matters far beyond Zululand.

After 1994, Buthelezi was always at pains to explain that, as a former member of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), he had consulted with ANC president Oliver Tambo before forming the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement (INCLM) in 1975, which morphed into the IFP after 1994. Frustrated by the ANC’s refusal to acknowledge him, Buthelezi never missed an opportunity to let his audience know that former South African President Thabo Mbeki had been present at the meeting where he (Buthelezi) presented the idea of forming Inkatha to Tambo. Buthelezi’s version, which Mbeki has neither denied nor confirmed, is that Tambo gave him the green light.

Whether Oliver Tambo permitted Buthelezi to form Inkatha or not is neither here nor there. The fact remains that, at critical moments when the ANC underground sought the cooperation of Inkatha, Buthelezi refused to collaborate.

According to Buthelezi’s account, he had two fundamental policy differences with the ANC underground: the necessity for an armed struggle, and sanctions against South Africa. His version is that he sought peace and did not want sanctions to hurt black people. The correctness or otherwise of the ANC’s policies during the liberation struggle is another matter, but Buthelezi’s explanation regarding peace and his professed intention to protect black people from the adverse impact of sanctions do not hold water.

Strictly speaking, Buthelezi’s claim about his opposition to the ANC’s armed struggle does not make sense, since, by his own account, he went to seek permission to form Inkatha from Oliver Tambo in the 1970s, by which time the ANC was already engaged in such a struggle. We all know that Inkatha impis, under the leadership of Buthelezi himself, murdered thousands of black people in the 1980s and 1990s. This has indeed been confirmed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). About 20 000 people died from violent clashes between Inkatha and ANC supporters in the 1980s and early 1990s.

People in areas like the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, Thokoza or the Vaal in Gauteng don’t need a TRC report to remember Inkatha’s murderous acts. They have lost family members and friends.

My late brother, Louis, was nearly thrown out of a moving train by Inkatha’s marauding gangs between Germiston and Johannesburg in the early 1990s. The warriors spared his life when they discovered he was Shangaan, not Xhosa.

We also know that Inkatha warriors were trained by the South African Defence Force to eliminate United Democratic Front (UDF) activists, who were indeed black. We thus cannot accept Buthelezi’s version that he loved and protected black people. Even Zulus who did not support Inkatha were murdered.

Here we are now, at a point where it is difficult to avoid the verdict that Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the magnanimous old man who invited me to his 90th birthday celebration, and the 95-year-old soul that exited the mortal realm on Saturday, 9 September 2023, was the person who headed the organisation that had committed those killings. Does that make him a murderer?

Buthelezi was indeed responsible for those deaths. Does that make him a mass murderer? But that is not the end of the story. We could say that he had two lives, demarcated by 1994 as a dividing line.

Human beings are not one-dimensional creatures. A person can be good and evil at the same time. Sometimes, good and evil do not exist in a person simultaneously. The same man who was good yesterday can be evil tomorrow, or vice versa.

Inkatha under Buthelezi’s leadership killed people before 1994, and the same man reinvented himself into a constructive statesman in the democratic era. The political leaders who have praised Buthelezi after his death was announced have chosen to focus only on his post-1994 life, turning a blind eye to what he did during and in collaboration with apartheid.

It is true that after 1994, Buthelezi conducted himself as an exemplary statesman. He served as a minister under the ANC-led government to promote national unity and peace. This cannot be denied. After 1994, Buthelezi did nothing to undermine South Africa’s democratic order, even though his party decided to participate in the first elections at the eleventh hour. Indeed, Buthelezi was one of the longest-serving members of our National Assembly, and he has treated all presidents of our country since the dawn of democracy with respect.

Even when he held and expressed a different political opinion in Parliament, Buthelezi neither sidestepped decorum nor skipped the bounds of dignified political discourse. In his last years, he was visibly troubled by the barbaric style introduced by EFF hooligans to Parliament. The brokenness of his heart would show each time he appealed for order in the heat of unparliamentary mayhem. That is how Mangosuthu Buthelezi wormed his way into the hearts of many South Africans who had previously dismissed him as a murderer.

African spirituality does not entail the idea of eternal damnation. It is anchored in the belief that even in death, a sinner can be forgiven and be reunited with his or her ancestors. The question is: would Africans be willing to forgive the sins Mangosuthu Buthelezi committed before 1994?

In the Bible, we are told that the sinner Saul repented and became Paul, and that after he became Paul all his sins were forgiven. Unlike Saul, who became Paul after repentance, Mangosuthu Buthelezi did not acquire a new name after 1994. But most honest observers will not deny that, even though Buthelezi retained his old name, he did indeed become a different person.

There is no doubt that Buthelezi’s family will inscribe a glowing epitaph on his tombstone. The more complicated question is what historians will write in their books. When he was still alive, Winston Churchill said, “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.” Mangosuthu Buthelezi lived long, but he died before he could write a kind history of himself. His place in history will now be decided by unkind wielders of the pen.

This article first appeared on litnet and is published with permission.

Prince Mashele is a political scientist and author.