Chief Buthelezi invokes the past to keep his power


October 11, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

DURBAN, South Africa -- In the turbulent world of South African politics, Mangosuthu Buthelezi is making his last stand, and he is summoning his tribe's ancient warrior tradition to the task.

Chief Buthelezi, this country's most prominent Zulu leader, is relying on the ethnic pride of the nation's Zulus to wage a life-and-death struggle with the African National Congress, which has displaced the Zulu kingdom as the most formidable black force in South Africa.

Inkatha is considered a conservative black organization, which promotes free enterprise, while the ANC has a large number of communists in its ranks. For years, right-wing white South Africans and Americans heaped praise on Mr. Buthelezi, who remained in the country while the African National Congress was banned and exiled. He accepted the government-appointed post top minister of the black homeland of KwaZulu during the apartheid years. ANC activists call him a puppet of the white regime.

In opinion polls conducted since the government's ban of the ANC was lifted in 1990, he has always run a poor third, after Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk.

Yet, Mr. de Klerk said as recently as last week that there can be "no comprehensive solution" to South Africa's future without Mr. Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.

Mr. Buthelezi puts it more forcefully. "I serve notice that the Inkatha Freedom Party is a national political force and that the KwaZulu government is an historic reality that can only be ignored at the peril of the negotiations process," he said in a

recent speech.

Detractors say the implications of such statements are not subtle and that the Zulu leader has gone to sinister lengths to keep a place. They say he uses violence, directed against ANC supporters, to gain recognition as the South African government turns more of its attention to negotiating with the ANC.

"As Mangosuthu Buthelezi becomes increasingly isolated, those who know him warn that he is a dangerous man to put in a corner," said Anton Harbor, editor of the liberal Weekly Mail newspaper.

Mary de Haas, a violence monitor at the University of Natal, said Inkatha is the only party making political gains from the violence.

"There is no way the ANC is gaining. Inkatha is gaining," she said in an interview, explaining that the violence is scaring some people away from the ANC.

Chief Buthelezi's rivals maintain that he uses his mostly rural, uneducated followers, who rejoice in the tribe's warrior traditions, to wreak havoc on communities that oppose Inkatha and support the ANC.

Mr. Mandela and his aides have contended repeatedly that Inkatha "impis," or regiments, have attacked ANC strongholds, such as black townships and squatter camps, and slaughtered innocent residents. The ANC also alleges South African police complicity in the violence.

In one of the worst such incidents, more than 40 people were brutally killed in a nightlong rampage through the little township of Boipatong last June. Almost 100 men were arrested on murder charges, all Zulus who live in a migrant-workers hostel controlled by Inkatha.

Zulu vs. Zulu

"What they can't win at the negotiating table or in elections, they will try to win through violence," one ANC supporter said.

The region in the country most beset by violence since 1985 has been Natal Province in the east, where KwaZulu is located and where the battle between Inkatha and ANC supporters began.

But of the 12,000 blacks who have died in political fighting since then, most have been victims of a bloody Zulu-against-Zulu conflict in the rivalry between Chief Buthelezi's supporters and others of the tribe of 7 million who support the ANC.

The war has displaced hundreds of thousands, flattened entire neighborhoods and divided Zulu families.

"There is still an ongoing tug of war between the two parties," said Oscar Dhlomo, Mr. Buthelezi's former right-hand man but for the past two years head of a respected institute that promotes multiparty democracy. "In most areas, it was easy for the ANC to establish its superiority."

Chief Buthelezi consistently denies that he promotes violence. But he does not discourage the terrifying Zulu mystique.

Of all the tribes in Africa, none has evoked more fear and fascination than the Zulu "warrior nation." Mr. Buthelezi constantly reminds South Africans of that history.

Throughout the 19th century, the thought of Zulus struck fear in the hearts of lesser black tribes, many of whom fled in the face of Zulu warriors decked out with ostrich plume headdresses and massive shields.

In one shining episode in their history, they dealt the British in 1879 the most shocking defeats of their colonial wars in Africa. The British called them "man-slaying gladiators," unafraid of death.

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