Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who founded South Africa’s opposition Inkatha Freedom Party and served for a decade as a cabinet minister after the country’s first multiracial elections, has died. He was 95.
Buthelezi passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning, the South African presidency said in a statement issued by text message. Plans are being made to mourn and honor him as “a formidable leader who has played a significant role in our country’s history for seven decades,” it said.
Buthelezi led Inkatha from 1975 to 2019, quashing several attempts by rivals to unseat him before finally retiring. He remained an influential figure within the party, retaining the title of its president emeritus and representing it in parliament.
He was derided by critics for collaborating with South Africa’s apartheid rulers and implicated in alleged human rights violations during a long-running conflict with the African National Congress, which won power in 1994. He partially redeemed his reputation by forging peace between Inkatha and the ANC, joining Nelson Mandela’s government.
Buthelezi earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for delivering the longest-ever political speech — a 400-page oratory that spanned five days — and played Zulu King Cetshwayo, his grandfather, in Zulu, a 1964 film starring Michael Caine.
A Zulu prince, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was born in Mahlabathini in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province on August 27, 1928. After earning a college degree in 1950, he began preparing to be a lawyer before aborting his plan to become the chieftain of the Buthelezi clan.
He held several leadership positions in KwaZulu, a territory South Africa’s White regime established for the Zulus, the nation’s biggest ethnic group, and was its chief minister from 1976 to 1994.
In 1975, Buthelezi established the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement, which tried to advance the interests of South Africa’s Black majority. While he forged close ties with the ANC — he belonged to its youth wing as a student — relations deteriorated over the ANC’s decision to take up arms against the apartheid government and call for international sanctions.
Political rivalry between Inkatha and the ANC escalated into an undeclared civil war that led to more than 12 000 deaths in the 1980s and early 1990s before it ended. The conflict was stoked by the White government, which wanted to create divisions among the country’s Black majority, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission, created in 1995 by the government to probe apartheid-era atrocities, found Inkatha responsible for human rights violations. Inkatha’s leadership, allied with the White security forces and planned violent attacks against ANC supporters, according to its 1998 report. Inkatha rejected the commission’s findings as biased and inaccurate.
In 1990, Buthelezi’s cultural movement transformed itself into the Inkatha Freedom Party, which championed federalism and a free-market economy.
Buthelezi threatened to boycott the 1994 elections in a bid to win greater political autonomy in Inkatha-controlled territory, relenting days before the vote. Inkatha won 10.5% of the national vote and control of KwaZulu-Natal.
He was appointed minister of home affairs in Mandela’s cabinet and named acting president 22 times when Mandela was out the country, a gesture aimed at defusing tensions between the ANC and Inkatha.
Buthelezi refused the ANC’s offer of the country’s deputy presidency in return for Inkatha relinquishing the KwaZulu-Natal premiership and in 2004 then-president, Thabo Mbeki, omitted him from the cabinet.
Inkatha’s political fortunes waned in 2009 after Jacob Zuma, also a Zulu, was appointed South Africa’s president, enabling the ANC to capture a large share of its traditional support base. Inkatha secured just 3.4% of the national vote in May 2019 elections, held three months after the ANC forced the scandal-tainted Zuma to step down as president and replaced him with its new leader, Cyril Ramaphosa.
Inkatha’s fortunes subsequently picked up as it capitalised on public discontent over high levels of poverty, unemployment and graft, and it won control of a number of town councils in KwaZulu-Natal.
Buthelezi, who had eight children, is survived by two daughters and a son. His wife of almost 67 years, Irene, died in March 2019.