Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi
Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi; drawing by David Levine

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.”

For Buthelezi, the Indaba seemed a gamble. For one thing, it threatened to widen his differences with the ANC, which rejected the entire project out of hand. As a banned institution, the ANC could hardly participate in the process, even if it wanted to. And the ANC saw the Indaba as a diversion from the main struggle—the establishment of a majority national government in a unified state. The ANC regarded the Indaba as little more than an effort by Natal’s whites to strike a separate deal with Buthelezi. And that, of course, helps to explain the project’s appeal for him. In view of the Zulu majority in Natal, a province-wide ballot would virtually ensure his election. As the first black to rule whites in modern South Africa, Buthelezi would no doubt find his national and international stature enhanced.

As far as the Indaba was concerned, then, Inkatha was taking a position that seemed statesmanlike. At the same time, though, I began picking up more disturbing signals about the organization. For instance, I met a young black journalist who, earlier in the year, had gone to cover a big Inkatha rally in Durban. Standing in front of the speaker’s platform, he had been accosted by two men. “One had a gun, the other a spear,” he told me. “They threatened to stab me.” The reporter recognized one of the men as the information officer of the KwaZulu government. Fortunately, a group of foreign journalists saw what was happening and intervened. The journalist immediately left the city and went to Johannesburg, where he stayed until matters calmed down.

In Durban I heard much of Inkatha’s growing militarization. A local gun shop was receiving a steady stream of Inkatha supporters, all of whom had licenses to buy firearms. Union organizers in the region had been set upon by Inkatha vigilantes, and some Durban townships had fallen under the control of Inkatha warlords. I met one young UDF organizer who was living underground to elude attack by Inkatha. Supporters of the organization, he said, had firebombed his house and shot his nephew five times in the stomach. He was now living illegally in a white suburb of Durban. “Inkatha,” he told me, “does the work of the security forces.”

I spent one Saturday afternoon with a former Inkatha adviser. For two hours we sat in his garden, going over his experiences with the organization. He told me that he had originally been attracted to Inkatha because of its potential for becoming a truly populist, mass-based organization. With time, though, he had become convinced otherwise. Inkatha, he told me, was “autocratic” and “incredibly violent.” As for Chief Buthelezi, he said, the most apt description was “intolerant.” “I started feeling that there was all the potential there for another dictatorial leader,” he said.

The theme of intolerance cropped up time and again in my conversations about Buthelezi. So, on meeting Inkatha’s legal adviser, I took the opportunity to ask him about it. Rowley Arenstein is not a typical Buthelezi supporter. He is, I’m told, the only avowed communist in South Africa today. He was banned or jailed continuously from 1960 until March 1986—longer than any other South African. Arenstein had recently thrown himself into the Indaba process. He met me at a Durban hotel. Now sixty-eight years old, he had a narrow face and gray goatee that made me think of Trotsky. When I raised the question of Buthelezi’s reputation for being authoritarian and ruthless, he said,

The principle of his people is that an injury to one is an injury to all. So an attack on Buthelezi is an attack not only on him but on the whole Zulu people. If he’s not man enough to stand up to their attacks, then he’s not man enough to lead the Zulu people.

Only in Natal, I thought, could I find a white communist defending a Zulu chief by appealing to the principles of African manhood.

Arenstein had worked for the ANC in the 1950s and had been on good terms with its leaders until they turned to armed struggle. I asked whether he thought a freed Nelson Mandela would be willing to work with Buthelezi. “Mandela will work with Buthelezi, and for a very good reason,” said Arenstein. “The African population in South Africa is 25 million. Nearly seven million of them are Zulus. For anybody to decide that he’s going to lead the African people and exclude the Zulus is like going into the ring with his left hand tied behind his back.”


In October, South African television began showing a lavishly produced miniseries titled Shaka Zulu. Many Zulus regard Shaka, a king of the early nineteenth century, as their founding father. Well aware of this, the series’ producers had cleared their script with the current hereditary Zulu king, named Goodwill Zwelithini, and the entire KwaZulu cabinet. Nonetheless, the project led to a passionate debate about the monarch’s true nature. “Shaka: Great Leader or Just a Black Hitler?” asked a newspaper headline, succinctly summing up the controversy. Chief Buthelezi, in his characteristic style, called Shaka’s contemporary white critics “depraved liars” who “scattered sperm around KwaZulu as other men scattered footsteps.”

For Buthelezi the point is hardly academic. The chief is fond of drawing parallels between himself and the Zulu kings. “King Shaka built a mighty empire through statesmanship and wisdom, and I have built the mighty Inkatha movement through statesmanship and wisdom,” he told a recent gathering. Inkatha, he said, is a “monument to Zulu political fidelity.” The chief added: “We as Zulus are proud of our heritage. We are proud of our warrior blood. We feel the very throb of history beating in our veins.”

Buthelezi’s mother was the daughter of King Dinizulu, the last king of an independent Zulu state; his father came from a tribe that by custom provided prime ministers to the Zulu kings. Like most Zulu boys, Gatsha Buthelezi grew up herding cattle. At the age of twenty, he entered Fort Hare University, one of the few universities then open to blacks, and it was there that Buthelezi first got involved in politics. He joined the ANC Youth League and took part in a boycott against the visit of the governor general. For this, Buthelezi was expelled from the school. According to a highly flattering biography, Buthelezi then went to work for the government Department of Native Administration, having been told by an official that this would help wipe the incident from his record.1

In 1952, he was offered a position as chief of the Buthelezi tribe. His career had reached a turning point: he had to choose between pursuing the nationalist politics of the ANC or the tribal politics of the Zulus. The position as chief promised little money and even less prestige, but, given his royal blood, it offered prospects of advancement. The ANC itself counseled him to take the position, arguing that it would provide him a base for advancing the black cause. So, in March 1953, at the age of twenty-four, Gatsha became chief of the 30,000 Buthelezis. Through deft maneuvering, he rapidly moved up the Zulu hierarchy, and when KwaZulu was established as the Zulu homeland in 1970, Buthelezi became its chief executive. In subsequent years, he refused to accept independence for KwaZulu, thus effectively torpedoing the government’s homeland strategy. Nonetheless Buthelezi worked within the homeland system and Pretoria provided a large proportion of the KwaZulu government’s revenues.

Buthelezi founded Inkatha as a “national cultural liberation movement” in 1975 and it quickly became the dominant political organization in KwaZulu. Its guiding principle was that the black nation could be liberated only after black individuals themselves had been liberated. Since its founding, Inkatha has sought to instill in its members a sense of control over their own destiny. In practice, this has meant offering people ways of bettering their lot. Adults can take courses in subjects like sewing and gardening, while youth camps offer instruction in civicminded projects. In the end, though, the message is more moral than material: with education and hard work, you can get ahead. This stress on self-esteem and self-discipline makes Inkatha’s rhetoric sound like an African version of Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH.

By 1980, Inkatha claimed 300,000 members. Today the figure is put at 1.3 million, leading Buthelezi to call it the “largest black movement ever to have emerged in the history of this country.” Inkatha’s more than one thousand branches extend into remotest Zululand, providing a ready network that can be set in motion when the chief wants a show of force. Last May 1, for instance, Inkatha scheduled a rally in Durban to mark the launching of a new trade union. A huge bus-and-train caravan was set up to bring in people from hamlets across the homeland. In the end, 70,000 people jammed King’s Park Stadium—a figure Buthelezi has cited ever since as proof of Inkatha’s strength.

Despite such large crowds, it is unclear how broadly based Inkatha’s support really is. Its activities have a very distinct ethnic cast. Zulu chieftains have an important part in the organization, and Buthelezi often seeks to bolster his authority by referring to his own hereditary position. The chief is addressed as Mntwana, or “Prince”—a title reserved for direct descendants of the Zulu kings. The name “Inkatha” itself refers to a ceremonial coil woven from natural fibers that the Zulu kings traditionally used to symbolize oneness with their people.

In KwaZulu, every September 24 is Shaka Day. At that time, the chief presides over a series of rallies throughout KwaZulu. Often dressed in animal skins and bearing a scepterlike rod of authority, he extolls the wisdom and might of King Shaka and calls on the Zulu people to emulate him. He is attended by warriors, or impis, who brandish traditional Zulu spears, shields, and knobkerries (clubs). As drummers pound out a warlike beat, the impis stage mock reenactments of battle. While appealing to Zulus, this spectacle of gyrating impis does not exactly advance Inkatha’s efforts among non-Zulus.

The emphasis on Shaka makes many non-Zulus leery. Shaka was something of a black Napoleon—a modernizing nationalist, a brilliant general, and an aggressive expansionist all rolled into one. At the time of his birth, in 1787, the Zulus were a simple clan with no more than 1,500 members. They lived in relative peace with scores of other clans, and the battles among them consisted mostly of throwing spears over great distances. That abruptly changed in 1816, when Shaka gained control of his own impi regiment. An advocate of hand-to-hand combat, he fashioned the common spear into a shorter, thrusting weapon and drilled his men in its use. He also ordered them to discard their sandals, thus increasing their mobility. With this well-disciplined force, Shaka marched through the countryside, subduing clans along the way, and he eventually expanded his army to 40,000 soldiers.

Before long, Shaka had brought the entire region under his control. Contemporary accounts portray his reign as exceptionally brutal. Members of Shaka’s kraal were executed at the slightest hint of opposition. Others were dispatched more whimsically; a nick by the royal barber, for instance, could cost him his life. Eventually, Shaka succeeded in combining the various clans in the region into a single people. Thus was born the “Zulu Nation.” With a population of 250,000, it was the strongest political unit southeastern Africa had ever seen. Even after Shaka was assassinated, in 1828, the Zulus were able to withstand repeated British efforts to defeat them. Only in 1879, after a series of bloody battles, did the Zulus finally submit.

Shaka’s reign left the Zulu people with a sense of nationhood that endures to this day. It also left Chief Buthelezi with a rich collection of symbols to draw on. His speeches often refer to the Zulus’ proud history, their fighting spirit, their mighty kings. As South African politics grow ever more fractious, these themes have provided the chief a convenient means of rallying his followers. As one of Buthelezi’s advisers told me, “The mobilization of Zulu nationalism is a very effective countermeasure to the spread of township violence,” helping to unite Inkatha’s members. Although this element has been present before, he said, “it has received increasing emphasis over the last three years.”

But this approach has some very clear drawbacks. Inkatha’s blatant appeals to ethnicity run counter to the direction of contemporary South African politics. Both the ANC and the UDF have consistently rejected tribalism as a mobilizing force, associating it with the divide-and-rule tactics of the white government. The homeland strategy, of course, rests on the government’s insistence on breaking down the African majority into so many Zulus, Xhosas, Sothos, and so on. By contrast, the ANC has sought to merge all ethnic groups into a common national movement.

Recent polls suggest the limits of Buthelezi’s Zulu strategy. In 1977, a West German survey found that Buthelezi was the figure most admired by 43.8 percent of all blacks in Soweto, Durban, and Pretoria. (The ANC was favored by 21.7 percent.) By August 1985, a London Sunday Times poll found Buthelezi was preferred by only 6 percent of the blacks polled; Nelson Mandela was the choice of 49 percent. Around the same time, pollster Mark Orkin, in a survey of eight hundred urban blacks, found Mandela and the ANC to be the choice of 31 percent and Buthelezi and Inkatha, of 8 percent. In general, Orkin found that the more urban Zulus become, the less likely they are to back Inkatha.2

Inkatha’s own claims to have 1.3 million members seem greatly inflated. Statements by Inkatha officials suggest this number includes everyone who has ever belonged to the organization since 1975. Independent observers generally put Inkatha’s paid-up membership at between 300,000 and 400,000, most of them located in Natal. Buthelezi is essentially a strong regional figure with a base in the remains of Shaka’s kingdom. While the Zulu nation has shrunk since its days of glory, many black South Africans, mindful of the Zulu past, fear it could rise again.


The Diakonia ecumenical center, located in downtown Durban, houses many of the city’s antiapartheid organizations. Among them is the Legal Resources Centre, Durban’s principal legal-aid office. Appearing there for an interview, I found its waiting room jammed with prospective clients, most of them black. In Durban, as elsewhere, blacks avoid the police whenever possible, so when they have something to report, they often come here instead. In cases where legal action seems warranted, the center’s lawyers ask clients to dictate an affidavit. I was given a sheaf of such statements dealing with recent fighting among black factions in the Durban area.

The affidavits made for hair-raising reading. In one, Belinda Mfeka, a resident of the Lindelani squatter settlement, described being forced to go to the home of Thomas Shabalala, a KwaZulu legislator and member of Inkatha’s Central Committee. Shabalala’s house and yard, the document stated,

appeared to me to be a most sinister place. There were many armed men within the premises, many armed with rifles and some of them wearing khaki uniforms and boots, and armed with knobkerries, spears and rifles. I gathered that the people were [Shabalala’s] body guards. Many of them pointed the rifles at me several times…. I saw five vehicles…leaving [Shabalala’s] premises packed with men, armed with sticks, spears and bush knives.

In the yard, several people were being held in a barbed-wire enclosure. One teen-age boy with bound hands “looked extremely afraid and was shivering,” Mfeka stated in the affidavit; she was told that he was waiting to be killed. Eventually, Shabalala himself appeared and shouted that all those gathered should

leave Lindelani immediately, otherwise he would send his warriors to kill us and burn our houses down. He said that Lindelani was a place for Inkatha people and not for people who supported the United Democratic Front.

In the end Mfeka was let go, but, according to her affidavit, she was “too terrified” to return home.

The other documents were equally chilling. They told of death threats, firebombings, abductions, beatings, stabbings, and shootings. Many of the attacks were attributed to vigilantes who, like those in Shabalala’s compound, carried traditional Zulu weapons. In the last few years, these warriors have become a regular presence in the townships of Durban, serving as shock troops in Inkatha’s ongoing war with the ANC and UDF. The UDF has mounted its own attacks against Inkatha, and both sides have by now compiled long lists of grievances. The confrontation has become a bloody one, raising serious questions about Inkatha’s often proclaimed commitment to nonviolence.

The conflict is rooted in the tension that, since the mid-1970s, has simmered between Inkatha and the ANC. Until then, the relations between the two organizations were fairly cordial ones. ANC leaders encouraged Buthelezi to take up his position as a homeland leader, and they strongly praised his decision to refuse independence for KwaZulu. The ANC also looked favorably on Buthelezi’s decision to create Inkatha, seeing it as a vehicle for organizing Zulu peasants.

Then came the 1976 Soweto uprising. With the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed students, an entire generation of blacks became more radical. The first large contingents of township youth took off for ANC guerrilla camps outside the country. Meanwhile, Chief Buthelezi was looking for foreign investment and holding private meetings with Afrikaner Nationalists. He had cautious praise for P.W. Botha after his election as prime minister in 1978. In the new climate, Buthelezi looked more and more like a conventional homeland leader.

In the fall of 1979, the two sides met in London to try to resolve their differences. The ANC had expected a low-key, off-the-record session, but Buthelezi arrived with a seventeen-person entourage, and before long, the meeting appeared on the front pages of Johannesburg’s newspapers. From there matters quickly went downhill. In 1980, Inkatha vigilantes broke up school boycotts in the Durban area; Buthelezi, intent on preventing similar protests in the future, called on his followers “to create well-disciplined and regimented impis in every Inkatha region.” Angered by such comments, militant forces inside the country pressed the ANC leadership to take a stand against Inkatha. In July 1980, it finally did. President Oliver Tambo declared that Buthelezi, encouraged “to join the forces of the struggle,” had instead “emerged on the side of the enemy against the people.”

In the years since, Buthelezi has attempted to take over the aura of the ANC. Inkatha’s colors—green, gold, and black—are the same as the ANC’s, and Inkatha members wear ANC-like uniforms. In speeches, the chief frequently recalls his days in the ANC Youth League. Above all, Buthelezi has sought to attach himself to Nelson Mandela. He has repeatedly called for Mandela’s release and has refused to talk with the white government until that happens. The chief has circulated the courteous but perfunctory-sounding notes Mandela has sent him in an effort to create an image of warmth between the two men.

At the same time, Buthelezi has harshly attacked the ANC leadership based in Lusaka, Zambia. He invariably calls it the ANC’s “external mission,” in an attempt to distinguish it from the “real” ANC led by Nelson Mandela. Buthelezi condemns the ANC for what he claims is its communist domination, its lust for one-party rule, and, above all, its use of violence. A new Inkatha brochure conveys the flavor of his remarks: “The External Mission of the ANC…receives arms and ammunition to kill people from the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc and has hardline Communists on its executive.” It says of Inkatha members that “their weapons are not AK 47 rifles, hand grenades, limpet mines and the barbaric ‘necklace,’ but time-honoured values enshrined in internationally accepted methods of democratic opposition.” Buthelezi frequently asserts that the “external mission” adopted armed struggle without first obtaining a mandate from inside the country.

The ANC, for its part, rejects such charges, maintaining that it adopted the strategy of violent opposition only after the government banned it from pursuing nonviolent forms of protest. As for a mandate, the organization would no doubt note that its popularity has steadily grown over the twenty-five years during which it has engaged in armed resistance. The ANC as an organization has not endorsed practices like necklacing, the gruesome killing of alleged collaborators by setting fire to gasoline-filled tires hung around their necks. It is true that one ANC official—Secretary General Alfred Nzo—told an interviewer he supported the practice. Oliver Tambo has said he regrets it. Buthelezi has rarely criticized the killings carried out by the vigilante groups loyal to him.

During the last three years, Inkatha’s attacks have concentrated on the United Democratic Front. By its very existence, the UDF challenged Buthelezi’s claim to be the ANC’s true heir. As Gerhard Maré and Georgina Stevens observe in their forthcoming book, An Appetite for Power: Buthelezi’s Inkatha and the Politics of “Loyal Resistance,” 3

the UDF had self-consciously drawn on the same tradition that was represented in the ANC, and had done so with greater legitimacy [than Inkatha]. The UDF accepted and vigorously promoted the Freedom Charter, and it elected patrons and office bearers who could successfully lay claim to that tradition.

For instance, Albertina Sisulu, one of the UDF’s three presidents, is the wife of Walter Sisulu, a former secretary general of the ANC who is serving a life prison sentence with Nelson Mandela.

More important, the UDF challenged Inkatha on its own ground. For many years, Inkatha enjoyed a monopoly over black political life in Natal, but it spent more energy teaching women how to sew and teen-agers how to grow crops than how to organize serious protests. From the time of its founding in 1983, the UDF has set up a network of grass-roots organizations in the Durban townships to deal with such issues as housing, forced removals, and transportation. By offering an outlet for protest, the UDF attracted many black professionals, intellectuals, students, and clergy.

The one group it had no time for was Inkatha. The UDF regarded it as a collaborator with the regime and thus refused to have anything to do with it. Some local UDF affiliates tried to convert certain areas into “no-go” zones for Inkatha officials. In 1984, for instance, local UDF representatives sought a court injunction to prevent Chief Buthelezi from holding a rally in the township of Lamontville. In the end, Buthelezi managed to appear without incident. Nonetheless, the no-go strategy contributed to a climate of intimidation against Inkatha supporters, some of whom were attacked.

But the violence carried out by Inkatha seems to have been more extensive and better coordinated. With the tacit and at times active support of the South African security forces, Inkatha has sought to eliminate UDF influence from the townships under its control. The worst bloodletting occurred in August 1985. At the start of the month, Victoria Mxenge, a well-known UDF lawyer, was gunned down in front of her house in the Durban township of Umlazi, an Inkatha stronghold. Her killers were never caught; nonetheless, outraged UDF students called for a week-long boycott of classes. The protests quickly got out of hand. Groups of “comrades” began setting fire to school buses and other targets. Soon more criminal elements took over, setting off waves of looting and arson throughout the townships. Scores of businesses were torched, many of them belonging to Inkatha members.

To provide protection, busloads of heavily armed men were brought in from the countryside. Amabutho, they were called, a term from Shaka’s day referring to warrior regiments. Moving quickly against the rioters, these vigilantes soon managed to restore order. But they were just getting started. Taking control of the townships, the amabutho went on the warpath against the UDF. Their offensive began on August 7, at a memorial service being held for Victoria Mxenge in an Umlazi movie house. One mourner recalled the occasion: “I could see a large group of men outside the cinema. They were carrying sticks, spears, or knobkerries and were moving rhythmically and chanting, ‘Usuthu!’ [a Zulu war cry]; behind them, military vehicles…used a spotlight to light up the area near the Executive Hotel. I have never been so afraid in my life.”4 When the people inside got wind of what was happening, they frantically tried to escape. As they emerged, the amabutho attacked. An estimated nineteen people were killed and more than one hundred injured.

A week of terror followed. Brandishing sticks and spears, the amabutho swarmed through the streets of Umlazi and other townships, forcing bystanders to join them as they moved from house to house, searching for UDF members and other “troublemakers.” Those unable to produce Inkatha membership cards were harassed, beaten, and sometimes shot. In all, scores of people were killed, dozens of houses burned, and many thousands terrorized. The tension reached a high point at the end of the month, when Winnington Sabelo, Inkatha’s top man in Umlazi, publicly ordered all UDF supporters to leave the township.

Since that August, the violence in Natal has persisted, though on a smaller scale, with each side seeking to settle old scores. For instance, I was told that pro-UDF youth are receiving military training in order to carry out reprisals against Inkatha members. Inkatha, meanwhile, seems determined to root out all remaining traces of UDF support. In March 1986, for instance, a UDF conference held in Durban to discuss the crisis in education was disrupted by hundreds of amabutho, who were taken to the conference building in buses rented by Inkatha; in the ensuing fighting, two people were killed and many injured. Inkatha has also carried on a violent campaign against the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the largest labor organization in the country.

A particularly striking feature of the violence is the degree to which high Inkatha/KwaZulu officials have been involved in it. The affidavits filed by victims mention KwaZulu cabinet ministers; members of the KwaZulu assembly; a local chairperson of the Inkatha Women’s Brigade; a national Inkatha youth organizer; a KwaZulu public relations officer; and various township councilors.

Among the most feared Inkatha officials is Winnington Sabelo. In addition to sitting in the KwaZulu assembly, Sabelo serves on Inkatha’s Central Committee, the organization’s principal policy-making group. During the August fighting, Sabelo was frequently sighted directing amabutho attacks. A newspaper photograph at the time showed him at the head of a group of vigilantes. The headline read: “Here’s the proof: Top Inkatha men are leading the notorious impis in their terror campaign in Durban.” Sabelo’s ruthless control of the Umlazi township has earned him the Inkatha title of “warlord.”

One afternoon I set out to find Sabelo, driving to Umlazi with a young black journalist. The largest of Durban’s townships, Umlazi is also the most prosperous. As we glided along Mangosuthu Highway (named after Chief Buthelezi), we passed a shopping complex, a cinema, a soccer stadium, even a golf course. The houses seemed well built, their yards well tended. At Sabelo’s house, we found him sitting in his car, signing checks for a waiting assistant. He said he would be happy to talk. We followed his car up the road and into a hotel parking lot. There we conducted the interview. Sabelo did not look the part of a Zulu warlord. Bald and plump, he wore a tan jacket, brown loafers, and a yellow cap with a childlike drawing of the US space shuttle. As we began, he told me to look into the distance, where buses were bringing children home from school. Students across South Africa were boycotting classes, but not in Umlazi.

“One hundred percent of our schools are functioning,” Sabelo told me proudly. “People are criticizing us because we don’t allow our students to boycott classes. They killed my wife, and for one reason: I refuse to let the townships be disrupted.” Five weeks before our talk, men armed with AK-47s had attacked Sabelo’s car. He wasn’t in it at the time but his wife was killed and his three children seriously injured.

I asked whether Inkatha had used violence during the dark days of August 1985. “Inkatha has never opted for violence!” he insisted. “We are obeying the laws of the country. Others support using violence. We are the ones who say negotiate.” He then made a familiar point: “I don’t deny that when you’re attacked, you’ve got to defend yourself. They were swearing at Inkatha, at Chief Buthelezi. It went on for three days. That’s why the community got angry. They attacked because their leader was being sworn at.”

I had brought along the newspaper photo that showed Sabelo leading a column of amabutho. A circle drawn on his hip was said to mark the presence of a gun. I took out the clipping and showed it to Sabelo. He put on his glasses. “Oh, yes, that,” he said. He launched into a long, improbable-sounding description of how he had accidentally happened upon the warriors while driving around the township. And what about the circled spot on his hip? Was it indeed a gun? “Ridiculous!” he protested. “I’d be a fool to carry a gun there.” He paused. “I carry my gun right here,” he said, patting the left side of his chest.


A few days later, the Inkatha Women’s Brigade was to meet in Ulundi, the Zulu capital. Chief Buthelezi was scheduled to attend and I hoped to talk to him. Driving from Durban, I was soon in Natal’s sugar country; green carpets of cane covered the rolling hillsides. Sooty mills stood off in the distance, and packed trucks shed stalks of cane as they cruised the two-lane blacktop. Then, about two hours out of Durban, the terrain abruptly changed. Here was dusty scrubland, with boulders and cacti. Cattle chewed at the barren veld, and clumps of huts stood off the roadside. I had crossed the invisible line separating white Natal and black KwaZulu.

Along the way to Ulundi I stopped at a town called Nqutu. A typical KwaZulu settlement, it consisted of a big sleepy intersection, a cluster of trading stores, and hundreds of houses scattered about the countryside. Its distinctive feature was the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital, the only medical facility for many miles around. I arrived in the middle of the “baby season,” which regularly occurs nine months after the migrant workers return home for Christmas. At the time of my visit, dozens of big-bellied women sat on the hospital grounds, gossiping away the hours until their contractions began.

Nqutu, I discovered, is an Inkatha town. Like most KwaZulu communities, it is extremely poor; jobs are scarce, and the land has been scratched bare by generations of overuse. In such barren surroundings, Inkatha is one of the few things to take root. Its message of self-discipline and self-esteem holds out some hope for those who lack money, education, and prospects. Here, as throughout KwaZulu, peasants make up most of Inkatha’s base. In addition, many of Nqutu’s leading citizens are members of Inkatha. For store owners, lawyers, teachers, and other members of the village elite, Inkatha offers their principal opportunity to exercise influence.

In contrast to the volatile townships, Inkatha faces little opposition in rural KwaZulu. In the 1978 election for the homeland assembly, Inkatha won every seat. In the 1983 election, the organization faced contests in only four of the twenty-six seats; it won all four. Inkatha effectively monopolizes the KwaZulu legislature. In fact, it controls every level of KwaZulu government. Jobs throughout the homeland are reserved for Inkatha members. Most teachers, doctors, and even scholarship holders must sign pledges affirming that they will not criticize Inkatha, the KwaZulu government, or its chief minister. Buthelezi has gone further, declaring that members of the UDF may not hold positions in the KwaZulu civil service. For all practical purposes, Buthelezi’s homeland is a one-party state.

While in Nqutu I met a high-school senior who, though a strong backer of the UDF, had joined Inkatha. To do otherwise, he said, would be dangerous. “The UDF can’t operate here,” he told me in a hushed voice. “If you showed your UDF affiliation, you’d be in real trouble.” I heard similar complaints from a senior hospital employee. He had refused to sign the Inkatha pledge but, he said, many others, especially teachers, had been forced to do so. Middle-aged and articulate, the man commended Inkatha for offering a lifeline to “people who are ignorant, who’ve lost hope, who are poor.” He added, however, that Inkatha’s influence was “crumbling,” especially among the educated. “Inkatha is following a tribal line,” he explained. “It makes Zulu nationalism its first priority. And, because of that, people say the organization is taking us backwards.” Many of the people in the region, he said, were sympathetic to the ANC. “In fact,” he observed, “I don’t think there’s a single person who’s black who doesn’t sympathize with the ANC.”

The drive from Nqutu to Ulundi took about an hour. On arriving I was ordered to stop by a group of machine-gun-toting KwaZulu police. My car was searched thoroughly for weapons, then waved on. The town looked forlorn. Situated in a rugged highland valley, Ulundi was built in the mid-1970s on the site of the one-time capital of the Zulu kings. Today, it looks like a case of “new city” planning run amok: the government and residential sectors are located two full miles apart, with nothing but veld between them. Ulundi has one hotel, a Holiday Inn, which, with fifty rooms, bills itself as the smallest Holiday Inn in the world.

The Inkatha Women’s Brigade was meeting in a huge, billowing tent in the residential sector. When I arrived, a thousand women in khaki uniforms were singing plaintive Zulu psalms. Fifteen minutes later, drums began pounding and women ululating: the chief was arriving. Buthelezi entered the tent, bounded up to the podium, and smiled broadly as the brigadists continued their chanting. Behind him was a large banner proclaiming the theme of the conference: “The Challenges of Black Womanhood in the Midst of Escalating Violence, White Intransigence and the Problems of Facing Escalating Poverty Worsened by the Imposition of Sanctions Within a Stunted Economy.”

A minister delivered a long, impassioned invocation. “The president of Inkatha,” he intoned, “is a prophet who is leading the nation peacefully.” He urged everyone to pray that P.W. Botha would heed the chief’s message. Murmurs of supplication filled the tent. Next was a Zulu “praise singer,” who, at rhythmic, breakneck speed, recounted the heroic deeds of Chief Buthelezi and his forebears. The recitation took a full twenty minutes.

It was now time for the chief’s speech, which lasted for one hour and forty minutes. The speech, read from a prepared text, was very dense, with few applause lines, and as the chief went on in a monotone, heads began to nod off. The themes were familiar: praise for nonviolence, warm regard for Mandela, attacks on the ANC. In a peculiar twist of logic, the chief blamed the ANC, and not the apartheid government, for the recent decision by the European Economic Community and the United States to impose sanctions on South Africa. “Black organizations who are precipitating this increased suffering,” he warned, “must now be dealt with. It is our children they want to maim with malnutrition.” Buthelezi ended on a martial note:

While we reject the sword as the instrument for bringing about changes that are urgent in our country, if some people try through the sword to force us to abandon what we are doing, let it be understood that we will seriously consider picking up the sword to defend what we are doing. If it ever becomes necessary one day for me to place a gun into your hands, my sisters (may God forbid), I will place that gun in your hands, if through it, it is the only way we can achieve our ideals.

Amandla!” he shouted, using the Zulu word for “power.” “Ngawethu!” (“to the people”) a thousand women thundered back. They broke into Zulu chants. When they finished, several reluctant sheep were dragged before the podium and presented to the chief as a sign of respect. A number of other tributes were offered to Buthelezi, including a long poem comparing him to Shaka. Finally, two lines of drum majorettes formed, and Buthelezi exited between them.

The chief and his entourage went to the Holiday Inn, where lunch was being served in a private dining room (called the Buthelezi Room). Toward the end of the meal, I was told the chief was prepared to see me. I was directed to take a seat next to him at the head table. Buthelezi is a robust, handsome man who, despite his paunch, looks a decade younger than fifty-eight. Fortunately, the day’s events had left him in an expansive mood, and when I asked about US policy toward South Africa, the praise came forth in a rush. President Reagan, he told me, “will go down in history as one of your greatest presidents. He has acted in a very statesmanlike manner.” “Constructive engagement,” he added, was a commendable policy that should be continued.

I turned to the subject of capitalism, and the chief brightened further. “As someone responsible for the lives of my people,” he said, “the free-enterprise, capitalist system remains the only system that is a force for development.” Capitalism would prove to be the salvation of Africa, he said, and the South African economy could one day serve as an “engine spreading it to the rest of the continent.”

I asked Buthelezi about the violence in the Durban townships. The chief shifted in his chair. “When people talk about this, they usually point a finger at Inkatha as responsible,” he said with some heat. “We are not responsible. When we say we are committed to nonviolence, we mean it. But there’s no way we’re going to be sitting ducks. We reserve the right to retaliate.”

I mentioned that Winnington Sabelo had become a somewhat controversial figure in Durban. “I don’t know what you mean,” Buthelezi snapped. I explained that many people in the townships wondered whether Sabelo’s activities were sanctioned by Ulundi. The chief became more agitated. “Mr. Sabelo is a member of the central committee,” he said loudly. “He’s a member of the KwaZulu assembly. Yes, some statements he made were controversial. But it was Mr. Sabelo’s wife that was killed, not Mr. Sabelo that did any killing.”

When I asked Buthelezi about his position on the current “state of emergency” imposed by the government in mid-June, he was abrupt: “I’ve condemned the state of emergency many times. Haven’t you read my speeches?” I mentioned charges that while more than 20,000 people had been arrested under the state of emergency, Inkatha members had been able to move about freely. “That’s a lot of bullshit!” he shouted. “I’ve been persecuted by the regime for many years. I had my passport taken for nine years. I’ve been hounded by BOSS [security] agents. It’s nonsensical for people to make these charges. Neither Mr. Botha nor Mr. Tambo can intimidate us. Inkatha’s a very big organization. We don’t need a state of emergency to help us. That’s a lot of bullshit. I don’t know how else to say it.”

Getting up from the table, I attempted to cut through the tension. “I hope you don’t have to do any more interviews for a while,” I stammered. Buthelezi glowered. “I do this only as a slave to my people,” he said, and stood up. “Otherwise I wouldn’t put up with this bullshit!” He pushed his chair hard up against the table.


The dilemma Buthelezi poses for black South Africa can be simply stated. He is too weak to rule black South Africa himself, and he is too strong for someone else to run it without him. Rowley Arenstein was right: Anyone attempting to govern South Africa without Buthelezi would face a heavy handicap. So a freed Nelson Mandela might well try to reach some accommodation with Gatsha Buthelezi, perhaps by offering him a high government position. Some have mentioned foreign minister.

Such an effort seems likely to fail. The bitterness that has accumulated between Inkatha and the ANC will not be easily overcome. The bloodshed in Durban has created a powerful desire for revenge. One has only to listen to one of Chief Buthelezi’s tirades against the ANC to understand how far things have gone.

Moreover, it is not clear that Buthelezi would accept a post in an ANC government. Based on his political history, the man seems unlikely to settle for anything less than top position in whatever organization he’s involved with. Buthelezi’s intolerance—some would call it paranoia—makes the prospect of dialogue with ANC leaders doubtful. Inkatha itself appears to be a one-man political machine. The constant tributes to Buthelezi, the frequent allusions to kings and prophets, the equation of leader and people—all these give Inkatha the tone of a personality cult.

In the end, though, Buthelezi’s greatest liability may be his own record on apartheid. The chief claims to be the single most radical force working for change in South Africa today. His performance indicates otherwise. Buthelezi spends far more time attacking other black groups than he does the Pretoria government. Throughout Inkatha’s eleven-year history, the organization has rarely attempted to challenge the system. It has undermined consumer boycotts and other kinds of popular protest. Inkatha has also been loath to call strikes, and when it created a labor federation in May 1986 it chose a well-to-do businessman as its leader. Buthelezi, moreover, has campaigned tirelessly against international sanctions.

During my interview with Buthelezi, I asked how, given his opposition to sanctions, he proposed gaining concessions from the Nationalist government. His answer, in one word, was capitalism. As the economy grows, he said, black leverage will increase. As an example, Buthelezi cited the repeal of laws reserving jobs for whites; when it became apparent that there weren’t enough whites to go around, the laws were dropped. “Whites have accepted that blacks must be trained if the economy is to be saved—not only as laborers but even as managers,” he said. “There are predictions that by the end of this century, a majority of managers will be black.”

The end of the century! The townships are burning, the prisons are filled, the education system is in shambles, and here Buthelezi was talking about blacks becoming corporate managers in the year 2001. It is indeed hard to imagine Buthelezi and Mandela finding common ground.

There remains the Indaba. The more Buthelezi’s national support diminishes, the more appealing the Indaba becomes for Buthelezi. Buthelezi’s election as KwaNatal’s leader would enable him not only to consolidate his regional base but also to project an image of strength to blacks throughout South Africa. But the Indaba faces the same fundamental problem that all other efforts at power sharing have encountered: the intransigence of the central government. In late November 1986, Stoffel Botha, minister of home affairs, rejected the Indaba on the grounds that it would “lead to domination,” i.e., black rule. The Indaba process continues, but its chance for success rests on a radical change of heart in Pretoria.

If the Indaba fails, Buthelezi may find himself left with one real choice. Its signs are apparent everywhere. Buthelezi denounces the ANC as a Soviet puppet manipulated by communists. He uses tribal appeals to solidify his ethnic and regional bases. He travels frequently to the United States, Western Europe, and Israel, talking warmly about democracy and free enterprise. Meanwhile, with every passing month, Inkatha is becoming more heavily armed.

One might call it the Savimbi option. For more than a decade, Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA forces have been fighting the Soviet-backed government of Angola. Savimbi has a secure regional base, powerful ethnic support, and strong backing from the West. Viewing Inkatha up close, I was struck by its growing similarities to UNITA. Inkatha officials themselves seem to regard civil war as inevitable. As one Buthelezi adviser told me: “Over the long run, there’s only one central black political process in South Africa—the conflict between the ANC and Inkatha. And there can be only one victor in that conflict.”

Already, Chief Buthelezi has begun calling himself a “freedom fighter.”

January 15, 1987

This Issue

February 12, 1987