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Chief Gatsha Buthelezi : Amid the Violence of South Africa, the Zulu Chief Jockeys for Power

May 12, 1991|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is Johannesburg bureau chief for The Times

ULUNDI, SOUTH AFRICA — When the African National Congress recently demanded the government stop township violence, it described the Inkatha Freedom Party as a "minor player" in South African politics.

Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, president of Inkatha, was incensed. "I now ask, how can I deal with the ANC in the light of their utterances?" he asked in a statement quickly pumped out by his prolific publicity department.

That night, ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela telephoned Buthelezi. "Why do you make yourself a spokesman for (President Frederik W.) de Klerk?" Mandela asked. "What do you mean?"' Buthelezi retorted. "Inkatha was attacked. I had to respond."

Buthelezi recently recalled, "He said I just should have kept quiet. I couldn't believe my ears." As all South Africans know, one thing the Zulu chief does not ever do is keep quiet in the face of criticism. No slight is too small to prompt a larger, acidly worded counterattack from Buthelezi.

The Zulu chief has become a major figure in the fortunes of South Africa, wracked by five years of fighting between supporters of his Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC. The ANC-Inkatha feud has claimed more than 4,000 lives in Buthelezi's home base of Natal Province.

Inkatha's decision last July to expand into Johannesburg-area townships touched off another blood bath. About 1,500 people have died in that conflict, including nearly 150 in the past 10 days. On Thursday, De Klerk banned "dangerous weapons" in public, but excluded spears, a cultural weapon.

Buthelezi, a youthful-looking 62, oversees his kingdom from the legislative building of the KwaZulu self-governing homeland in Ulundi, near the battlefield where British colonialists routed the Zulus in the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu War, 112 years ago. He works in a windowless conference room, surrounded by photos of the heads of state he's met on his travels. Access to his inner sanctum is guarded by three security checkpoints and one-way mirrors.

Buthelezi is the son of a Zulu chief and the 10th of his 20 wives. His mother was the descendant of a heralded line of warriors, including the founder of the Zulu nation, King Shaka. Buthelezi was the first Zulu chief to graduate from college and, early on, he showed signs of political acumen, from his journeys on horseback into distant rural villages to his remarkable memory for names. The father of seven children by Princess Irene, Buthelezi is a complex man, living behind many faces. Brooding and impatient one minute, he is charming the next.

Question: Fighting between supporters of Inkatha and the African National Congress poses a serious threat to South Africa's future. The government blames the violence on the ANC, and the ANC blames the government. Who do you think is responsible?

Answer: The documentation is there. The (verbal ANC) attacks on me over decades (are) . . . documented. There is nothing mysterious about that. And there is nothing mysterious about the ANC wanting to make the country ungovernable (during the mid-1980s).

Having said that, I have repeatedly said that members of the Inkatha Freedom Party have been sucked, as well, into the violence. There has been violence and counterviolence, there has been feud violence, there's been preemptive violence and so on. And the thing has escalated . . . . The violence has become a thing in which all are involved, the ANC and the IFP.

But . . . there has never been one occasion where the Inkatha Freedom Party's . . . Central Committee has planned and plotted that anybody should be killed. (When) our members have been involved in violence, they did it without any orchestration from my level.

Is the ANC responsible? It's not a question I can answer myself . . . .

Q: You and Nelson Mandela have spoken several times since you signed the peace accord on Jan. 29. When was the last time he phoned and what was discussed?

A: The last time was a phone call that worried me very much. It was the (April) 13th, after 11 p.m. and he seemed agitated. He said he had heard the people in the (Soweto) hostels were going to attack the residents . . . . And he said, "You must do something, because after these meetings there is always violence."

I said, "The violence does not come from us." . . . He said, "I wasn't blaming the IFP!" It was the first time ever since I've known him, for 30 years or more, that he'd ever spoken in anger to me. I was quite surprised.

Q: In the Johannesburg-area townships, where hundreds have died, it's clear that Inkatha supporters, wearing red headbands, are heavily armed and involved in the violence.

A: Quite so, but they don't initiate it. It's the press (who say they do) . . . . The Inkatha Freedom Party holds peaceful rallies and when our people are returning, they are prevented from returning. And everything has followed from that.

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