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Buthelezi's Presence Has Loomed Large Through Four Decades

Was the imperative to accommodate Buthelezi a primary shaper of Jacob Zuma’s post-1990 political trajectory?

01/11/2017 06:17 SAST | Updated 01/11/2017 08:01 SAST

It is hard to imagine South Africa's political landscape without Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. His presence has loomed large through four decades.

I cut my activist teeth in Pietermaritzburg in the mid-1980s. For my mentors at the time, the intersections between the apartheid regime, the KwaZulu Bantustan and Buthelezi's Inkatha were numerous and intimidating. We were horrified but not surprised by the civil war which ravaged KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the Rand in the decade after 1984.

In the early 1990s, I participated in ANC Gauteng-based and national structures. To the latter, it had become clear that Buthelezi would have to be accommodated and that achieving this would require major concessions.

Like accepting three tiers of government and giving provinces significant resourcing and authority. Like making a place for traditional leadership in the post-apartheid state. Like embracing a Government of National Unity for at least the first democratic administration. Like accepting that only low-level Inkatha operatives would ever be held accountable in meaningful ways for human rights violations.

Between 1994 and 1996 I was back in KwaZulu-Natal, engaged in the complex task of amalgamating apartheid-era provincial and Bantustan structures. The 1994 election had failed the tests of 'free and fair' in large swathes of the province.

The official result was a negotiation designed to avoid a bloodbath. What followed was a painstaking process of accommodation in the name of peacebuilding. I remember still the countless trips in small planes travelling daily between Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Ulundi -- agreement could not be reached on which city would be the provincial capital.

I am pained by the memory of the National Party, the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party all trying to suppress elements of the TRC's reporting.

In the second half of the 1990s, I participated in a number of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) processes. For most of my colleagues in those processes, the dreams of 'full disclosure', reparation and accountability were primary driving forces. I still find it hard to accept that there was so little delivery on these objectives.

I am pained by the memory of the National Party, the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party all trying to suppress elements of the TRC's reporting. And I have been forced to accept that the amnesty process has been rendered a farce by the state's unwillingness to engage in anything but token prosecution work in the TRC's wake.

My professional work in the last decade and more has been focused on the challenge of opening Nelson Mandela's legacy to a continuing process of making and remaking. In this space, there has been a multiple intersecting of Madiba and Shenge narratives. In many ways, the two leaders came to embody an understanding of reconciliation which had no need of forgiveness, nor of forgetting the past, nor even of learning to like one another -- it was simply about determining to get on together.

And yet I am left with myriad questions. To name a few: what are the limits to inclusiveness? In retrospect, were all the compromises of the 1990s necessary? Was the imperative to accommodate Buthelezi a primary shaper of Jacob Zuma's post-1990 political trajectory?

Is the political violence being experienced in KwaZulu-Natal today unconnected to the violence of the late 1980s and 1990s? What lessons do we learn from the strategic deployment of violence in order to secure political ends?

So, what is Buthelezi's legacy? At one level it is what South Africans choose to make with it in the next ten years. More prosaically, it has to do with what can happen when ethnic identities are mobilized by political formations.

And it is intricately interwoven with that of the fateful decade 1984-1994. In my view, the violations, betrayals and seductions of that decade were decisive in making the monsters of South Africa's present. It was a desperately messy moment in our history. No hands were entirely clean. Which is why securing significant disclosure, let alone full disclosure, is proving so difficult; and why removing the monsters won't be easy.

Verne Harris is the director of archive and dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. The views expressed in this piece are personal ones and do not reflect Foundation positions.