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The Chief

In mid-November, Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi arrived in the United States for a three-week visit. It was the most recent of more than a dozen trips here for Buthelezi, who is chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland, president of the Inkatha political organization, and leader of South Africa’s six million Zulus. He spoke to a Baptist congregation in Orlando, Florida, appeared on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club in Richmond, Virginia, and received an honorary law degree from Boston University. In Washington, Buthelezi met with the editorial board of the Post and attended a working dinner at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Most important of all, he had a half-hour meeting with President Reagan, as well as separate conversations with George Bush and George Shultz. Malcolm Baldridge at Commerce wanted to see him, too, but Buthelezi couldn’t fit him in.

At a meeting of the Foreign Policy Association three hundred people showed up at the New York Helmsley Hotel to hear Buthelezi talk about “The Survival of Diplomacy in Conflict.” Dressed in an elegant business suit, he did not seem entirely at ease. He read from a prepared text studded with high-minded phrases like “foreign policy responsibilities” and “framework of cooperation.” The message itself was rather bland, asserting opposition to “uncontrolled violence” and support for peaceful change. Reading hurriedly, the chief seemed in a rush to get through.

The fifty-eight-year-old Buthelezi is known as an engaging, jocular man—until he is aroused, when he can become quite sharp. And, as he answered questions after his talk, his manner changed. He lashed out at Desmond Tutu (“He’s not elected by anybody”), Oliver Tambo (“I don’t see how he thinks Inkatha can be wished away”), and the United Democratic Front (“It’s not an organization like Inkatha is—structured, with a constitution”). When it came to discussing his ideas about the future, the Zulu chief spoke eloquently about the American Dream and the Bill of Rights. He wanted both for South Africa. “You can’t have a democracy without freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of association,” he declared. “I want a government of law and a multiparty system.” It was an eloquent performance, and the applause was thunderous.

For Americans who want to find a pro-Western alternative to the African National Congress, Buthelezi seems tailor-made. John Silber, president of Boston University, recently wrote that the United States should “support the claims of proved democratic opponents of apartheid, such as Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi.” And a recent New York Times editorial had this to say:

Chief Buthelezi is unfairly caricatured by black militants as an Uncle Tom. The truth is more interesting. He has repeatedly called for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela, jailed leader of the African National Congress. Though the chief preaches moderation, he has scorned attempts to draw him away from Mr. Mandela into talks with Pretoria on a “new dispensation” meant to prolong minority rule.

Martin Peretz recently wrote in The New Republic, “Decent people should want Buthelezi to have more influence in South Africa rather than less.”

Buthelezi’s stand against sanctions has endeared him to American corporations; when he is in New York, he often stays at the home of Sal Marzullo, a Mobil Oil executive active in the corporate campaign against disinvestment. The chief also has fans in the American labor movement; in 1982, the AFL-CIO named him cowinner of its annual George Meany Award for human rights.

But Buthelezi has many detractors as well. The more than six hundred groups inside South Africa that make up the United Democratic Front differ widely in emphasis and style, but they are united in dismissing Inkatha as an arm of the white regime. The ANC, too, refuses to have anything to do with Buthelezi. “We keep hearing in the media that Gatsha is the leader of South Africa’s six million Zulus,” Neo Mnumzana, the ANC’s chief representative to the United Nations, told me. “This is nothing but a myth.” Inkatha, he adds, is “an integral part of apartheid. When apartheid goes, Inkatha will be nothing but a shadow of its former self.” He held out the prospect that Inkatha might one day “be forced to play a role like that of the contras.”

The reference is telling. Detractors of Gatsha Buthelezi often compare him to Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who was once touted as Rhodesia’s moderate hope and ended in exile in the US. But Muzorewa, like the Pope, had no divisions. Buthelezi, as leader of the Zulus, has many. What’s more, he seems to be preparing them for conflict. Even as the fight against apartheid unfolds, a black civil war seems to be taking shape. One day soon, the US may have to choose between Inkatha and the ANC (with whose leaders George Shultz has recently agreed to meet for the first time). What would Washington be getting in Buthelezi?


Natal is unique in many ways. Squeezed into the northeastern corner of South Africa, it is the smallest of the country’s four provinces. Subtropical temperatures and rich soil have made it an agricultural paradise. The lush sugar plantations here produce enough cane to meet all of South Africa’s needs and then some. This is also the nation’s playground, a land of game parks, wild banana trees, bright bougainvillea, and unspoiled beaches. Durban, a city of one million people on the Indian Ocean, is a mecca for middle-class whites. A beachfront strip of high-rise hotels, fast-food eateries, and souvenir shops gives the city the feel of Miami Beach.

Demographically, too, Natal is unique. For one thing, the white population is almost entirely English-speaking. Most Boer farmers were driven out in the nineteenth century, when Natal was the preserve of British settlers. Even today, Natal has a British feel to it. Towns have names like Dundee and Newcastle, and grocery stores are quaintly referred to as “tea rooms.” Durban’s city hall is an almost exact replica of the city hall in Belfast. On the city’s streets, men sporting colonial-style khaki shorts look like so many extras in an Alec Guinness film.

Most of South Africa’s 900,000 Indians live in Natal. They first arrived in the 1860s, when Natal’s sugar magnates, unable to convince local blacks to cut cane, imported thousands of indentured servants from India. Mohandas Gandhi came to Durban as a young lawyer in 1893 and stayed for twenty years, during which time he worked out his ideas of passive resistance. Today the Phoenix settlement outside Durban continues his work. The city has an exotic Indian bazaar, and curry is a staple on restaurant menus.

Natal is also home to most of South Africa’s Zulus. Of the country’s many ethnic groups, the Zulus are the largest, accounting for about one quarter of the nation’s 25 million blacks. Unlike other South African blacks, who have been displaced and dispersed over the years, the Zulus remain rooted to their ancestral lands. Today most of them live in the homeland of KwaZulu, which, made up of some ten separate pieces, is spread like an inkblot across Natal. With a population of about four million, KwaZulu is the largest of the ten homelands, and Buthelezi is its chief executive.

Not only Natal’s Zulus but many of its whites as well look to Buthelezi as a possible leader. And this is probably the most distinctive thing of all about Natal. The province’s Anglophone whites like to consider themselves more enlightened than whites elsewhere in the country. (Many blacks dispute this claim.) As the ANC’s popularity rises, threatening a radical transformation, Natal’s whites have fastened on Buthelezi as their last, best hope. As one leading businessman told me, “Over the last five years, Buthelezi has, in white eyes, changed from being someone hardly anyone looked up to to being the person who says what everyone wants to hear.”

Buthelezi is lionized in Durban’s white newspapers. Here is a representative passage, from the Sunday Tribune:

Now 58, he burns the midnight oil to keep up with the demands of his constituents…. He regards it as a real plus if he can get five hours’ sleep a night…. His guest register would probably compare favourably, if not outdo, that of President Botha. He never takes holidays. There just isn’t time…. Chief Buthelezi’s bedroom and car are full of books and magazines to which he subscribes. But he never has time to finish one.

One morning I paid a visit to the Inkatha Institute. Located in downtown Durban, near the city’s yacht basin, the institute serves as a sort of personal think tank for the chief, churning out studies and position papers on the great issues of the day. As Buthelezi’s global connections have expanded, so has the institute’s staff, which now numbers twenty-five people, up from seven a year ago. I met with the institute’s white director, Peter Mansfield. A Durban politician and a member of the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), Mansfield explained why he had gone to work for Buthelezi: “I believe in peaceful change if it is humanly possible. Chief Buthelezi is the most substantial leader pushing for such change.” Mansfield added: “The ANC’s proclaimed policy is killing people, and the UDF has sympathy for that, too.” By contrast, he said, “the chief’s philosophy is fundamentally nonviolent.”

Mansfield is not the only white to work for the chief. Whites also help to write the chief’s speeches, handle his public relations, provide him with legal advice, and counsel him on policy. In addition, Buthelezi has enthusiastic backing from Natal’s sugar barons, the dominant economic force in the province.

Early in 1986, Inkatha and the sugar barons joined forces to promote an Indaba, a Zulu term for a conference. By the time of my visit, the Indaba was in full swing. Thirty-seven organizations were drafting a constitution to combine white Natal and black KwaZulu into a single political unit. (Among the organizations are political parties such as the PEP, business associations such as the Durban Chamber of Commerce, and local and regional government bodies such as the Durban city council and the KwaZulu government.) The new entity—dubbed KwaNatal—would be governed by a province-wide executive elected by people of all races. A proposed bicameral legislature would include one house with seats elected by universal franchise and another with ten seats allocated for each of five “cultural groups”—including Afrikaners, English, blacks, Indians, and a catchall group of South Africans.

To succeed, the project would have to win the approval of Pretoria—a highly uncertain proposition, given the Nationalists’ traditional antipathy to any form of power sharing and particularly to nonracial democracy. Undaunted, the Indaba went on to draft a bill of rights many times longer than its American counterpart, with guarantees for equal protection under the law, the right to own property, and a full basket of freedoms. The bill of rights also sought to reassure whites that their rights would not be swamped by a black majority: “A person belonging to an ethnic, religious or linguistic group shall not be denied the right to enjoy his own culture, to profess and practise his own religion or to use his own language.”

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