“A DISTINGUISHED statesman," says the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal of Buthelezi. Father figure of peace and of the Zulu nation, says the IFP. A man of his word who was always reconciliatory, says the DA.
“A thoroughly evil man," says the editor of City Press, Mondli Makhanya.
When we assess historical figures, we must look at their earlier and later behaviour and leave the door open for rehabilitation.
Robert Mugabe was a liberation giant in Africa who led his country to independence in 1980. He was conciliatory towards other groups besides his Shona majority and placed a high premium on good education.
But three years after independence, his government unleashed the Fifth Brigade of the military on Matabeleland. Between 30,000 and 50,000 Ndebele speakers were killed, and more were mutilated; thousands of women were raped. When his authority was challenged within his own circle, Mugabe began to evict white farmers from their land in 2000, leading to an economic decline. He stole three consecutive elections.
Mugabe was the architect of Zimbabwe's freedom and Zimbabwe's downfall.
Winnie Mandela was a brave, proud freedom fighter and a remarkable symbol of resistance after her husband was imprisoned in 1962. But when she returned to Soweto in 1985, after banishment in Brandfort, she and her “soccer club" terrorised the community, resulting in the deaths of several young people.
Mugabe and Winnie's latter years dominate their legacies.
But then there are figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev and FW de Klerk who rehabilitated themselves in later life.
Gorbachev started out as a staunch old-style communist. As a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's politburo from 1970 onwards, he supported the suppression of democratic activists in Poland and the invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 — and the Soviet Union itself was far from being a democratic order.
But after becoming the leader of the Communist Party and, therefore, the country in 1985, he began preaching perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), pursuing peace with the West and economic reform.
Ultimately, he was the man who ended the Cold War (although this is not viewed as praiseworthy in today's Russia under Vladimir Putin).
De Klerk was an apartheid disciple like few others for most of his career, the hardline leader of the National Party in Transvaal. He staunchly supported the pass laws, forced removals, and all the abuses of the police and military.
Then he became president, realised the country was in a dead end, and delivered his courageous February 1990 speech. Afterwards, he convinced the security forces and NP supporters to walk the path of negotiation with him, and in 1994 he became deputy president under Nelson Mandela.
Gorbachev and De Klerk are examples of national leaders who largely rehabilitated themselves and their legacies.
Can we say the same of chief and Zulu prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi?
If you took notice of Buthelezi only after 1994, you might be astonished that Mondli Makhanya of City Press wrote on Sunday that the epitaph on his tombstone should read: “Chief apartheid collaborator and mass murderer."
But if you, like me, witnessed or paid attention to the slaughter of about 20,000 people in the conflict between Buthelezi's Inkatha and the UDF/ANC between 1985 and 1994, you must realise that this part of Buthelezi's life cannot simply be swept under the rug.
Before we get there, however, Makhanya might get away with “mass murderer", but “chief apartheid collaborator" might be a bit much.
The cold fact is that Buthelezi nearly single-handedly undermined the entire idea of Grand Apartheid. The whole raison d'être of “separate development" was that black “nations" would have full citizenship rights in their own independent states while whites ruled the rest of the country.
If Buthelezi had accepted independence for KwaZulu, as the National Party spent years persuading him to do, history might have unfolded quite differently, and the “independence" of Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei might have meant much more. Buthelezi thus undermined the only legitimacy apartheid could claim.
In the 1970s, the ANC also courted Inkatha, but Buthelezi was unmoved. I always suspected his most basic objection was that the ANC was dominated by Xhosa speakers, but officially, his objection was to the ANC's armed struggle (oh, the irony) and the influence of the Communist Party.
After the founding of the UDF in 1983, resistance to apartheid intensified, and it became important for the UDF and ANC to establish themselves in Natal and KwaZulu as well.
Buthelezi decided to enlist the help of the apartheid government's police and military to support Inkatha's war. It was indeed a bloody civil war, not just within KwaZulu and Natal but also in some of greater Johannesburg's townships, especially those with hostels inhabited by Zulu-speaking migrant workers.
This is not my opinion; it has been documented repeatedly, and abundant testimony was provided before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The police hit squads at Vlakplaas and the military's clandestine units, the Civil Cooperation Bureau and the Directorate Covert Collection (DCC), not only fought on the side of Inkatha but acted as a third force to inflame the violence.
I still remember the shocking testimony before the TRC of Daluxolo Luthuli, head of Inkatha's leading hit squad trained by the SADF in Caprivi, and that of Vlakplaas commander Eugene “Prime Evil" de Kock about what happened.
The original Vrye Weekblad in 1992 told the story of Joao Alberto Cuna, one of the mass murderers the police sent to mow down people in a Durban township, which ultimately exposed the existence of the DCC.
So, Mangosuthu Buthelezi indeed had the blood of thousands on his hands; there can be no doubt about that.
But there is another part of this terrible chapter in our recent history that is not often told: the role played by ANC warlords such as Harry Gwala, ANC leader in the Natal Midlands, and Sifiso Nkabinde, his henchman in Richmond. Both went on to hold senior ANC positions after 1994.
The TRC found that the late Gwala, still an ANC hero today, “functioned as a self-styled ANC warlord", while Nkabinde later admitted in a debate in the KZN legislature that he was an ANC warlord but maintained that he was only protecting his people.
In early 1994, it seemed as if Buthelezi wanted to destabilise a peaceful first election, but at the last minute he decided Inkatha should participate.
And there begins the other side of Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Mr Hyde became Dr Jekyll.
He was a member of Mandela's first cabinet as home affairs minister and a dignified, sober, hardworking, honest and wise parliamentarian until his death at the age of 95. A true gentleman and a devout Christian.
You can choose to remember him as Dr Jekyll, but do not forget that he was Mr Hyde for a long time.
♦ VWB ♦
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