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Southern Africa Report Archive

Gerhard Mare suggests, in this article on pre-electoral developments in KwaZulu-Natal, that Thabo Mbeki - presumptive President of South Africa in the wake of the ANC's likely victory - seems much more preoccupied with swinging a (morally dicey) deal with the venomous Gatsha Buthelezi and his IFP than reaffirming and/or advancing a genuinely popular agenda. (jbv)

vol 14 no 3

Makin' nice with Buthelezi
Gerhard Mare

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 3, May 1999
Page 9
"S.A. Elections"



Gerhard Maré, a sociologist teaching at the University of Natal, Durban, is author of Brothers Born of Warrior Blood: Politics and Ethnicity in South Africa and is co-author of An Appetite For Power: Buthelezi's Inkatha and the Politics of "Loyal Resistance".

In January 1999, ANC president and South African president-to-be, Thabo Mbeki, called for a new morality in the country. He attacked ANC members who were more interested in self-advancement than in representing any constituency. A month later, at his final opening of parliament, president Nelson Mandela included a similar call in his "state of the nation address," asking for an "RDP [Reconstruction and Development Programme] of the soul." It seems odd, therefore, that, in the midst of carrying out this worthy crusade (and of preparing to take Mandela's office in the forthcoming election), Thabo Mbeki should also be pushing so hard for further, and rather dramatic, terms of rapprochement with the far from savory leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

RDP of the soul

We will return to the Buthelezi case in a moment. Let us first agree, however, that the calls for moral renewal are, in and of themselves, extremely appropriate. This is a country where the transition from liberation struggle to economic empowerment has been rapid for many - both through shady means, and through the extension of control and shareholding in some of the largest companies to a new elite of black capitalists including Ntatho Motlana, Cyril Ramaphosa and Mzi Khumalo. At its worst, such developments have reflected not only a shallowness of commitment to ideals other than prize seats on the gravy train but have also created or maintained a climate in which thugs, corrupt politicians, torturers and other remnants of the old order, white and black, have been able to continue with their nefarious activities. Generally, it has allowed many to get away scot-free with the crimes of the past, even if they now lie relatively low.

Calls for a moral and responsible society require prioritizing, of course. They also demand that action be taken to give effect to the calls. And there have been some positive achievements. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), now having completed its report and winding down its activities in evaluating amnesty, was largely successful in revealing the grossly abused ethical standards during the apartheid years and in allowing, for the first time, victims a voice that was listened to. The second elections within a democratic South Africa that are coming up in June remind us that the institutionalization of democracy is continuing (even if after two periods of registration pitifully few eligible South Africans had bothered to register). The government's Heath Commission, given powers to uncover corruption and recover pilfered moneys, is visible and effective. There are other smaller areas of social life in which such steps towards creating an accountable society have been and are being taken, sometimes against great odds.

Yet the ideal of a responsible society - be it in the domain of the home (where violence against women is extensive), on the roads (where fatalities caused by taxi wars and reckless driving make travel a dangerous venture), and in boardrooms and the government - does indeed demand urgent and even more searching attention.


We return, then, to the wooing of Buthelezi. The latter has served without break since 1975 as head, first of Inkatha and now of the IFP, has been minister of home affairs in the remnants of the government of national unity established in 1994 (one that initially included the National Party as well). It now seems that he will be given some even more prominent position, strongly rumoured to be that of deputy-president, after the up-coming elections.

It will be remembered that the IFP won a mere 10% of the vote in 1994, and is predicted to lose the only province that it controls, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) (although predictions of Buthelezi's demise, and that of his party, have been made before and should be treated with extreme caution). Yet in spite of being named in the TRC report as carrying responsibility for "gross violations of human rights," Buthelezi has escaped with scarcely a blemish and with apparent absolution from the ANC itself. His position as elder statesperson (a firmly held self-perception as well) is acknowledged through the number of times that he has served as acting-state president in the frequent absence of both Mandela and Mbeki: it was Buthelezi, for example, who gave the order for the invasion of Lesotho last year (South Africa there acting as part of a SADC force to "protect democracy" against civil unrest, but also, it has been argued, in order to safeguard South Africa's recently-completed first phase of a hydro-electric scheme in the water-rich mountain kingdom).

Now, hardly a day goes by without the face of one of Buthelezi's top lieutenants appearing on TV or in newspapers, presented as respectable politicians or business people even though a decade ago they were closely associated with horrendous acts of violence. Oscar Dhlomo, Inkatha secretary-general for many years (including those of greatest violence), is now one of the richest people in the country, a man undoubtedly privy to, if not part of, the schemes that made Inkatha an important player in apartheid's violent struggle to maintain racism and racial privilege. Dhlomo has never been called to account, and exited from Inkatha at an opportune moment before the final transition and before the TRC. He and many others have simply defied or ignored the storm and survived - often as members of various provincial parliaments or the central parliament, such as warlords David Ntombela and Mandla Shababala, and the notorious prince Gideon Zulu. Their interests have probably been well served by the argument, ceded to by both the apartheid regime and, apparently, the ANC government, that it was best not to pick up the gauntlet of defiance and violence threatened by Buthelezi so frequently when he did not get his own way, before, during and since the transition.

On offer

What is the substance of the new offer to Buthelezi and why is it being made? What, in turn, does Buthelezi himself have to offer? These questions emerge in tandem with other problematic events that are part of the confusion of the current pre-election period. For example, KZN premier, Ben Ngubane, is shifted upwards into a national cabinet position that he had, in fact, previously occupied; accusations and counter-accusations of assassination attempts and plans, and of gun running, are flung back and forth between the provincial ANC and the IFP; notorious Richmond warlord (and ex-ANC strongman until his expulsion) Sifiso Nkabinde is recently assassinated while serving as secretary-general of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), thereby sparking a further outbreak of general violence and several murders in KZN; defections from parties, including the IFP, occur with increasing regularity, claimed to be made on principled grounds, but more often informed, it would seem, by more mercenary motives as parties draw up their proportional-representation lists in preparation for the elections.

What is most apparent from all this is that democracy is a precarious practice and a fragile commitment in South Africa. And here I am only referring to democracy in a rather narrow sense, as simply the formal political processes established for citizens to elect representatives and approve of policies. After the joyous celebrations that were part of the first elections in 1994, it seemed that participation could be expected from (and even demanded by!) those who had struggled for just that political right for so long. Now, five years later, fewer than half of the potential electorate had bothered to register nationally during the first two periods made available.

Once again, however, it is in the KZN province that the fragility of the new democracy is most apparent. Here the heavy hand of Buthelezi is visible, in his leaving little to local initiative. People are equally susceptible, at the very local level, to the heavy hand (with gun!) of the warlords - just as they were during the 1980s. True, years of violence have made the desire for revenge on all sides a force in its own right, thus reinforcing a downward spiral of social and political decay difficult to reverse in a setting where poverty and insecurity, conflict and disruption, leave little chance of development or stability. And yet the IFP's particularly active and provocative role in all of this at provincial level cannot be doubted.

How, to repeat, does this square with the close relationship that has developed with the ANC at national level? How can it be even suggested that Buthelezi might be made a deputy president under Thabo Mbeki later this year? How can he be permitted to escape responsibility for the violence committed by his followers and his integration into apartheid structures during the fading years of National Party rule? Why has the pre-election tension merely increased even with Buthelezi already in place as a "national unity" partner?

The ANC's stake

Buthelezi's "worth" to the ANC, or at least to certain factions within the organization, rests on several claims. First is the claim that his incorporation at the top would bring an end to the tension and violence between followers of the two organizations that has cost the lives of more than 15,000 people since the mid 1980s. Here it bears noting that the belief that violence in the province will subside after any such further recognition of Buthelezi and that yet another leadership pact will bring the sporadic violence to a halt, has repeatedly been shown to be a chimera. For years, for example, the ANC operated with the naive and ahistorical belief that if the Zulu king, Goodwill, could be wooed from Inkatha, then Inkatha as Zulu traditionalist organization would collapse and the violence would end. No such thing happened. Violence has to be addressed at several levels, most importantly at the local, grassroots level. Here, as noted earlier, complex histories of antagonism, revenge and manipulation come to the fore. Calls for peace at highly publicized events may serve the politicians' purposes but hardly filter down to affect the daily lives of local, especially rural, people.

Are there other, more plausible claims? A second claim might be that, more opportunistically, it would strengthen the ANC's obvious quest to consolidate its own political position, including pursuit of the elusive two-thirds majority in parliament. Here fusion is not of the essence: if Buthelezi as leader of the IFP is further integrated into government structures, even if not into the governing party, it seems sure, it is argued, that the IFP would support the ANC on most issues.

Third, Buthelezi has not been averse to playing the "race" card over the years and would certainly support the "Africanist" (pro-black African) agenda that is present as one prominent strand within the ANC which might well welcome allies for its position. It is unclear what this would mean precisely: perhaps a lessening of the influence of non-black Africans in the ANC and less attention, too, to the concerns of variously-defined minorities (thus helping qualify a preoccupation that informed much of Mandela's actions and pronouncements with his strong, albeit inconsistent, reconciliation stance). More predictable in terms of class politics would be the IFP's contribution to a further narrowing of the definition of "black economic empowerment" to a practice that aimed at creating a class of large-scale capitalists from within black ranks (and thus further facilitating the downplaying of any notion of some more widespread redistribution to those who need it most).

A final factor may have to do with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the argument, increasingly heard in some circles, that it is not really possible to grant amnesty to people in the ANC for deeds committed during the struggle years without also doing the same for Buthelezi and others in the IFP. Certainly, the ANC has no wish to take a route that would somehow equate deeds committed against apartheid with deeds committed in defence of that system: on several occasions already the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its five-volume Report have come under fire from Mbeki for suggesting that there is a level at which gross violations are simply that, no matter who committed them. Of course, Buthelezi has consistently gone further, refusing to accept the TRC process and calling it a witch-hunt against Inkatha. But as the ANC has moved from a position of support for the TRC process to a much more ambiguous relationship (including rejection of a large part of the TRC's final report) it seems that, ironically, the leaderships of the two movements are coming closer together in their rejection of a process that allocates blame, albeit carefully qualified, to them as well as to apartheid criminals.

Buthelezi's stake

From the IFP, or, rather, Buthelezi's side, it is imperative that he be incorporated not least because his very considerable ego demands it. In his own best case scenario, recognition would be accorded him as individual: now, as he has claimed, the most senior politician with Mandela's retirement, a Zulu prince and "traditional prime minister" of the country's largest ethnic group, and the leader of a political party that also struggled against apartheid. Clearly, each of these elements would be difficult to swallow for many within the ANC - even though at present their voices have been largely silent. At the very least, however, Buthelezi would stake his claim to be recognized on the basis that he is a political leader with significant independent mass support (and not just the ethnic support he drew on principally in the 1970s and 1980s while the ANC was banned). This is the argument that he has consistently used against both the apartheid state and the ANC government. Of course, to validate this latter claim (the more desirable option for him and the IFP members who also wish to retain seats in and the perks of parliament which they could not do so straightforwardly if there was simple fusion of the two parties) he and his party will have to win the elections in the province again, as well as improve their national standing.

Here, in the need to gain votes before striking any further deals with the ANC, we have a probable answer to the mystery of the sacking of KZN premier Ben Ngubane (as has been the case when such action has been taken by the ANC in the provinces that it controls, the moving of Ngubane was also termed "redeployment"). Ngubane, during his short term in office, proved himself to be a provincial premier interested in the economic development of the province. For this reason he based himself in the port city of Durban, the economic heart of the province, and within easy commuting distance from one of the two capitals of KZN, Pietermaritzburg (the other being Ulundi, the previous bantustan capital, and symbol of the IFP's grassroots strength). He had good relations with the business community and not just with those elements of it who continued to support the IFP.

The man who replaced Ngubane immediately displayed his colours. Lionel Mtshali, one of three IFP cabinet ministers in the national government (that of Science, Technology, Arts and Culture) laid down his basic agenda in his first speech. He advocated greater powers and extended recognition to the amakhosi ("traditional leaders") within local government on the grounds that the chieftainship was "an institution that distinguishes us as people of Africa from Western communities." This was an essential first step in the "mobilization" of rural voters along quasi-traditional lines for the next election, much as had been IFP practice in the past. Additionally, he proposed demanding increased powers and greater political autonomy for the province, especially in the area of policing; and he expressed commitment to a shift of the capital to Ulundi in rural northern KZN, where he would also base himself, a proposal that appeals to the traders and other small-business practitioners who have always been strong Inkatha supporters. (There was also immediate speculation that he would support the bid for a casino license in the province by Inkatha supporter and honourary Zulu, English zoo keeper and eccentric conservative John Aspinall.)

Mtshali is certainly the kind of political figure who reflects the wishes of the central power in the IFP, Buthelezi, and one who can be expected to advance the immediate interests of the IFP, no matter how narrowly these might be defined. Indeed, he has often been accused of using his national ministerial office to do just that - thus recycling his role from the negotiations period of the early1990s when he had been a vocal proponent of the extremely obstructionist line pursued by the IFP. This is a line that continues to appeal to those who feel more at ease with an Inkatha government at the provincial level, whether for economic or political reasons, than with the centralizing tendencies of the ANC.

If the IFP could pull off both electoral victory, which the Mtshali-line is aimed at ensuring, as well as greater central influence through the incorporation of its leader Buthelezi, then it would have succeeded in shaping the closer relationship with the ANC in its favour. If it does not - by losing the province to the ANC for example - Buthelezi's face will still be saved: he would have a senior position (though perhaps, under such circumstances, more of a ceremonial one) despite his party having been consigned to a relatively minor role in national politics. Provincial cooperation with a ruling ANC government would probably continue. But, regrettably, the activation of even more extensive warlordism (local "strong men" controlling access to land, economic opportunities, and security in exchange for the political acquiescence of communities) in the province would also be possible, drawing active support from various interests who might not consider themselves to be well-served by ANC politicians.

* * *

Whatever the specific unfolding of the presently fluid political situation, the developments we have traced - the continued wooing of Buthelezi - reflect a rewriting of the past. It is difficult to see how this process - it can only be described as an instance of political immorality - squares with other laudable and necessary attempts to address economic corruption and society-wide moral collapse. Once again, it seems, power and the powerful will decide what elements of the past can be quietly forgotten, swept under the carpet of "necessity," while new alliances are cemented.

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