Some time ago, I decided to refrain from writing about Mangosuthu Buthelezi until after old age had dealt him the fate that he and his murderous battalions prematurely dealt others. That was mainly because so much has been said and written -- including by this lowly newspaperman -- about the evil legacy of the head of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Even when he made his long-overdue announcement about his imminent retirement, I was determined to resist the temptation to write about him. But then came the disingenuous tributes. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said Buthelezi had "run his race and played his role". DA leader Mmusi Maimane thanked him "for the role he played in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1990s" -- which happens to be when the IFP's bloodlust was at its peak. He expressed appreciation "for the 1994 decision Buthelezi took to participate in the first democratic South African election after he initially refused".
After the man and his friends in the loony right-wing and the security forces waged a terror campaign against the people with their machine guns, bombs and other weapons, we are supposed to be grateful. But the one that took the cake was a tribute penned by United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa.
While acknowledging Buthelezi's role in the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, Holomisa also praised him for calling off the dogs of war. "His astute leadership qualities became evident as he helped resolve the situation," Holomisa wrote.
Help me here. Someone starts a fire and then gets praised when he joins community efforts to douse the flames? Holomisa continued: "Shenge was very influential at the negotiating table during Codesa [the Convention for a Democratic SA]. His vision and commitment could not be ignored."
If only Buthelezi's praise singers could pause and repeat these names: Boipatong, Shobashobane, KwaMakhutha, Sebokeng, Khumalo Street, KwaThema, Meadowlands, Trust Feed, Hammarsdale, Swanieville and Imbali.
He was indeed influential in demanding a semi-autonomous Zulu kingdom and using violence to force his point across. Who could ignore such mayhem and destruction? The general then lectured that Buthelezi's political life "teaches us that, to be a formidable leader, you never shy away from your responsibility to the nation for empty populist slogans".
The people of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng know exactly what a formidable leader he is -- not because of empty populist slogans, but because of the time they spent at funerals. In his message, Mantashe wished Buthelezi "a good retirement". Maimane wished him "strength in retirement" and "many years of good health". Holomisa wished him a "well-deserved rest".
If only the dead, the orphans, the widows, widowers and the countless victims of Buthelezi's insatiable bloodlust could also have been wished such.
I know it is human instinct to be nice to the elderly to the point of grossly misrepresenting the truth. This seems to be the case with Buthelezi, who has suddenly become everyone's favourite grandfather figure. Buthelezi's role in South Africa's history should never be sanitised. Of all the Bantustan leaders who collaborated with the apartheid regime, he was the worst.
His fellow travellers, such as Lucas Mangope, Lennox Sebe, Patrick Mphephu and Kaiser Matanzima, were brutal in their collaboration and suppression of anti-apartheid activism. They served the apartheid government with the enthusiasm of a strip-club janitor who loves his job because it gives him benefits he would otherwise not have enjoyed.
But none of them was as dedicated to upholding and defending the apartheid system as Buthelezi. So much so that the National Party government's security apparatus armed and gave logistical support to the killers who proliferated in his party. Elite IFP killer squads and militias were trained by the South African military in camps inside and outside South Africa.
If only Buthelezi's praise singers could pause and repeat these names: Boipatong, Shobashobane, KwaMakhutha, Sebokeng, Khumalo Street, KwaThema, Meadowlands, Trust Feed, Hammarsdale, Swanieville and Imbali. These are just a few of the places associated with massacres carried out by Buthelezi's party in collaboration with the apartheid state.
It is important that, while he lives, Buthelezi is reminded of his egregious sins.
These imbongis should tell those in South Africa's townships and villages who were terrorised by IFP impis that this man truly deserves a peaceful retirement. It is a tribute to the great spirit of South Africans that Buthelezi -- like his surviving masters in the erstwhile National Party leadership -- can enjoy the comfort of the democratic South Africa they fought so hard and bloodily to stop.
We can be certain that this parade of tributes will be repeated when Buthelezi sheds his mortal coil. The revisionism will be strong as people make the excuse that culture says this and tradition says that. We will only be told of his greatness and not the evil that he perpetrated.
So it is important that, while he lives, Buthelezi is reminded of his egregious sins. History behoves us to parade before him the images of the corpses of those who died because he committed troops to the defence of apartheid. As he rocks in his retirement chair in Mahlabathini, he has to be haunted by his deeds.
No rest for this cantankerous chief.
This post first appeared in the City Press on November 5, 2017.