Buthelezi, at center of South African political puzzle, remains an enigma

March 31, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

ULUNDI, South Africa -- Mangosuthu Buthelezi -- the Zulu chief who opposed both apartheid and trade sanctions -- was once praised as the black who would save South Africa from communist domination. Now he is denounced as the obstructionist who could drag it into civil war.

The four weeks remaining between now and South Africa's first multiracial elections will tell whether he is reduced to a historical footnote. He and his Inkatha Freedom Party are boycotting the vote, certain to be won by his avowed enemy, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC).

For the moment, he is seen by many as the final piece needed to complete the puzzle of the new South Africa. Sitting in the impressive circular, wood-paneled meeting room in the vast, modern building of the KwaZulu government, he comes across as a bundle of contradictions, as difficult to read as his enigmatic smile. He is at once hospitable and charming, abrasive and insulting.

During a 90-minute interview yesterday, with his country roiling in violence, he spent an inordinate amount of time shuffling through photocopied newspaper articles, letting two aides carry on the talking while he searched for perceived insults written by one of his interviewers.

What does he want? Hard to say, precisely.

"That is the demonic approach of the press," he said, replying to a question about his negotiating position. "You try to make us demons, irrational, that our demands are unreasonable when you Americans would never live under this constitution. Never."

Mr. Buthelezi's negotiations have centered on federalism: securing more power for the country's regions -- the equivalent of states in the United States -- and reducing the role of the central government.

Complicating the picture is a recent demand by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini for a sovereign Zulu kingdom following pre-colonial 1834 boundaries.

Yesterday, Mr. Buthelezi said King Goodwill made that demand only when there was no agreement on a suitable federal arrangement.

Despite lengthy questioning, Mr. Buthelezi refused to say whether he would be satisfied if his previous federal proposals were granted or if he now joined in the king's demands.

And what about the Zulu self-defense units being trained?

"Surely you know that thousands of Zulus were killed. It is very insensitive to ask me. Is it because white people don't care about black lives? I don't know."

After the April 26-28 election, KwaZulu -- parts of the Natal province designated as the homeland for the Zulus -- will cease to exist. The South African government will stop paying for all the trappings of a pseudo-semi-independent state. Mr. Buthelezi will a president without a country.

But, because of the sway that he and King Goodwill hold over many of South Africa's 7 million Zulus, Mr. Buthelezi is seen as crucial to a smooth transition.

So, for now, the major players in South African politics are at once courting and threatening him, meaning he is finally in the position he long has sought, at the center of the country's many political orbits.

While Mr. Buthelezi gives public guarantees that all who want to vote in KwaZulu will be allowed to, peace monitors and voter education workers throughout Natal province say the current level of violence makes a free and fair election impossible.

Many see the bloody chaos of Monday's march by thousands of Zulus in Johannesburg as a preview of election day throughout Natal and the townships around Johannesburg.

Before the gunfire at Monday's rally, in which about 53 people were killed, an Inkatha official, Humphrey Ndlovo, told the crowd that no one would vote April 27, promising a violent response.

Yesterday, Mr. Buthelezi dismissed that statement but did not repudiate it. "He was speaking as a subject of the king. Just because he is an Inkatha official does not mean he is not a subject of the king. I am not responsible for his remarks," he said of Mr. Ndlovo.

Mr. Buthelezi wears three hats: chief minister of KwaZulu, head of the Inkatha Freedom Party and a member of Zulu royalty. He seems to change them in the middle of a discussion, putting on whichever one is needed to fend off a challenge to his position.

From those perspectives, his logic seems impeccable. The KwaZulu/Natal region needs sovereign powers it can exercise without interference from a central government to insure that the self-determination of the Zulu people.

In that sense, KwaZulu is not like the other black homelands, artificial creations of apartheid. Instead, it is the contemporary manifestation of the 200-year-old Zulu kingdom that fought the British for dominance in Natal.

"We were a nation-state long before there was any Pretoria, before there was any multiparty talks," he said. "To say that we as a people, as a nation, will cease to exist, I find it laughable, really."

That might make sense inside KwaZulu, but to many looking in from other parts of South Africa, Mr. Buthelezi's thinking appears aberrant at best, dangerous at worst.

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