Having followed with keen interest his heroic struggles to secure a democratized South Africa in 1994 Prince Buthelezi had become much more than a leader of his people. He had become the living symbol and embodiment of their long and valiant struggle for their rightful place in the comity of nations. I recall with pride also Nigeria’s association with South Africa struggles against racist minority rule and country’s eventual end to Apartheid rule in 1994 and quite retaining is the memory of the honour of Nigeria being classified a Frontline State in those years. Prince Buthelezi was, without doubt, one of the greatest African freedom fighters to have walked on the African soil and played a leading role in the struggle. He forged friendships with the stalwarts of the South African struggle, such as Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, to restore dignity for the black people of South Africa as he continued his political activities. We can all agree that Prince Buthelezi did not disappoint his forebears, or their spirit of refusing to succumb to subjugation, and that he truly embodied their spirit throughout the various stages of his political life.
It was in the context of these trying times that the bonds of friendship were forged between the Prince and I. I remember the day – back in 1976 – as though it was yesterday, when I hosted him in Nigeria. His presence in my country, and his absence from South Africa, afforded him the opportunity to avoid attending the institutionalisation of the so-called independent Homelands. His willingness to honour my invitation, with the full knowledge at the time that Nigeria was host to the African National Congress (ANC) – with former President Thabo Mbeki as its Chief Representative in Nigeria – only attests to how he understood his place in history, and how he regarded his relations with the broader liberation movement.
The 1980s in South Africa is a period I remember well. I visited South Africa in 1986 as a member of the Commonwealth’s Eminent Persons Group. At the time the international community was still grappling with its response to Apartheid. I visited former President Mandela in Pollsmoor Prison and I had a long discussion with him. We discussed many things, but one of the things I did ask him about was Prince Buthelezi indirectly. I said Madiba, “When you leave prison, your problem will not be resolution of racial differences but also resolution of ethnic differences”. Nelson Mandela got me perfectly and said “You are referring to Comrade Buthelezi. He is a freedom fighter in his own right. The means are different but the objectives are the same”. Despite the narrative surrounding Prince Buthelezi at the time, Nelson Mandela knew who Prince Buthelezi was, and knew that at his core, when one looks at Prince Buthelezi, one sees a committed fighter for greater freedom in South Africa.
I learned a good lesson from that position of Madiba and I reported it to Prince Buthelezi. During the period that the IFP and ANC had their issues, Mandela never questioned the genuineness and the authenticity of Buthelezi as a committed Freedom Fighter. The fact that South Africa did not descend into a full-scale civil war during the 1990s is one of the true miracles of our time. Prince Buthelezi must be commended for his resistance to escalating tensions with the ANC. Not only did Prince Buthelezi balk at the thought of civil war, but he was more than ready to sit around the table and offer his wisdom for the establishment of a new South Africa.
While being able to sit across the table, Prince Buthelezi also exhibited a position of principles during the negotiations which some might say were disruptive to the negotiations, while others will see it for what it was, a man dedicated to the people he served. I talk of course of the Prince’s insistence on ISILO – the Zulu Monarch – being part of the negotiations. During the negotiations, Prince Buthelezi exhibited a capacity for compromise, such as accepting that South Africa would not be a federal state system in which provinces would hold greater power. However, on the issue of traditional leadership, Prince Buthelezi took a principled stance.
Having fought so hard for the liberation of South Africa, Prince Buthelezi became an active participant in the democracy he helped to shape. Prince Buthelezi was also not done providing us with examples of servant leadership and exhibiting his capacity for reconciliation. During the visit of Commonwealth Eminent Persons to South Africa in 1986, I asked Prince Buthelezi what was goading him on. Without hesitation, he replied, “interest of all people of South Africa”. I said, “We are all with you”. His wife of blessed memory, Princess Irene Audrey Thandekile, with whom he spent 67 years, was also with him through the thick and thin of his political and personal life and was a major pillar in shaping his thoughts and actions.
I recall vividly the time when he was once more called upon to show great leadership – when I led an African Observation Mission for the 2009 elections in South Africa under the auspices of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD). He exhibited great statesmanship, by leading his party towards accepting the electoral outcome, resulting in a smooth transfer of political power in a province whose people had seen much suffering and pain! He accepted defeat gallantly and cooperatively in the best interest of the people. He eschewed violence and disorder.
It was also on record that he exhibited so much concern and love not only for his South African people, but also for the rest of Africans as testified by his letter of September 12, 2019 to me, by which he expressed his disappointment and fear over the very unfortunate and sad incident of xenophobia in South Africa on which he made public statements and other communications. He condemned it totally and described it as a great disservice to the whole of Africa and the black race.
Taking a trip down memory lane was also his gracious acceptance to attend my 82nd birthday on March 5, 2019, in Abeokuta, in Ogun State of Nigeria. On that occasion, he gave an inspiring lecture which was laden with memorable narrations of how South Africa rose to freedom from apartheid and the roles of different actors in the emerging scenes. The reality of the blessing wondrously manifested when on March 5, I saw him, 90 years plus, globally-revered Zulu Prince, stand by the podium with a firm gait and magisterial, penetrating voice and the awe on the faces of the audience, attentively listening to the hitherto unheard stories of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I had my eyes glued to him throughout the Lecture, my mind walking with him along the historical journeys he traced with excitement in my eyes and sprinkle of smiles as he narrated some of the roles God gave me the opportunity to play in supporting the efforts especially of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which he led, and the ANC in the struggle against apartheid. It was one of the best lectures I have listened to and from the feedback from the audience, one of the most memorable. Many still wonder how I was able to bring him to Nigeria! It is surely the Lord’s doing hence it is marvellous in our eyes. On that occasion of my birthday, we both had the dream of celebrating my 90th birthday together when he must have clocked 99 years. Unfortunately, this can no longer be. As a believer in Christ, the ultimate joy for him will be to spend eternity with our Lord and Saviour in His Kingdom.
He lived such a long and illustrious life that, when finding aspects of his life to highlight, one is spoilt for choice. He has not only lived through very turbulent times in South Africa but he has been an influential figure. Trying to preserve his legacy in all the roles he had played in his very eventful life as an activist, student, a traditional Prime Minister to the Zulu Monarch and Nation, a negotiator, acting President of the Republic, Member of Parliament, Minister of Home Affairs, Chief Minister of the former KwaZulu Government, a liberation stalwart, and a Freedom Fighter in his own right, Chancellor of the University of Zululand, a conservationist, and a man who feared God, a transformational African leader and a true servant of his people, he established The Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Foundation. His legacy was cast in gold and there is no doubt that he is leaving an enviable heritage. We thank God for the totality of his life.
Indeed, the death of a leader of Prince Buthelezi’s stature is a big loss, not only to his immediate family and country but to the whole of Africa. History will record his vital contributions to the realisation of the dream of regional unity in Southern Africa. To learn more about his life is to learn more about strong, moral leadership, commitment to principles, dedication to the people he served and led and what it truly means to possess the traits of courage and bravery. Prince Buthelezi had the misfortune of being born during trying times, but the fortune to walk among giants, and the ability to become one himself. In this context, the Zulu nation, South Africa and the African continent as a whole must continue to honour and hold him in high regard, despite the fact that he is no more with us here on earth.
As we mourn this great son of Africa I urge you all to take solace in the memory of his total dedication and commitment to the service of his people and for the cause of justice. We salute his achievements in laying the foundation of modern, independent and free South Africa.
We pray that the Almighty God will give you, the entire Zulu Royal Family and the good people of South Africa the fortitude to bear the irreparable loss and grant Prince Buthelezi eternal repose in His bosom.