UNBRIDLED adulation: that seems to be the default reaction at the passing of any prominent figure closely associated with the ANC. We’ve seen it again recently with the death of Mbongeni Ngema in a head-on car crash at the age of 69. He was a prominent playwright, lyricist, composer, director, producer, choreographer and opponent of apartheid, most famous for ‘Woza Albert’ and ‘Sarafina’. Peans of praise have included the term ‘cultural icon’.  He was buried at Heroes Acre in Durban (against the wishes of his rural family at kwaHlabisa) after an official provincial funeral (category two). It has been suggested that the Durban Playhouse be named after him and the Professional Soccer League held one minute’s silence in his honour.

But the official narrative has skirted a few unhappy truths. In the 1990s there were allegations of massive corruption around ‘Sarafina II’ together with criticism that its HIV/AIDS message was not as persuasive as it might have been (Minister of Health Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was also implicated). Then in 2002, Ngema composed a racist song entitled ‘Amandiya’, condemned by the South African Human Rights Commission as promoting hate in highly emotive language against the Indian community as a whole in a fashion likely to cause fear. It was justifiably banned from the airwaves and Nelson Mandela called for an apology, of which there is no trace. Involved with a 2019 production of ‘Sarafina’, Ngema was accused of sexual harassment and intimidation.

So, this is a national hero. Of course, he was never convicted of anything: whoever is among the ANC elite? Artistic ability aside, this was not a person to be revered; but his example goes to show that political allegiance and correctness override everything else in South Africa.

There was another recent example of praise singing; this one not associated with the ANC although it was happy to cash in on the occasion. On 9 September 2023, Mangosuthu Buthelezi died at the age of 95. The former leader of Inkatha and the KwaZulu bantustan, and traditional prime minister to the king of the amaZulu, was lauded as a statesman and man of peace with flags at half-mast and a week of official mourning. Praise from Inkatha was to be expected, but right-wingers had their say with the leader of the FF+ (Freedom Front Plus) describing him as a person of honesty and integrity and AfriForum adding the word commitment. A University of KwaZulu-Natal spokesperson described Buthelezi as an advocate of justice, equity and freedom. Others said he was an architect of moderation, upholder of the rule of law and a man of principle.

Some of these adjectives do indeed apply, but not in a positive way. Buthelezi’s commitment and principle led to many violent deaths: to do true justice to Buthelezi would require hundreds of voices from premature graves. Commentators such as Richard Lyster and Howard Varney have pointed out that two constant themes in Buthelezi’s political career were the ruthless pursuit of influence and power for Inkatha; and a determination that history would be recorded in his terms. A great deal has been written about the consequences, showing up the sheer hypocrisy of much uncritical commentary that followed Buthelezi’s death.

There is no separating Buthelezi and Inkatha. A largely dormant cultural organisation set up in the 1920s, it was resurrected by him in 1975 and politicised. Nor is there much dispute about the fact that it promoted ethnic nationalism and was patriarchal, hierarchical and reactionary. With these characteristics there was but a short step to violence to remove perceived obstacles. And nothing that happened within Inkatha can be disengaged from the all-powerful figure of Shenge.  

A look at what transpired in the Pietermaritzburg area in the 1980s and early 1990s provides closer focus. The second national state of emergency of 1985‒1986 was not extended to Natal; nor had there been much unrest during the years of the Soweto uprising, 1976‒1977. Pietermaritzburg was relatively peaceful in the early 1980s compared with the rest of South Africa but three factors provided a slow-burning fuse: general deprivation in black communities; a crisis in schools; and the incorporation of areas surrounding the city into the KwaZulu bantustan. In these incorporated areas schools in neo-fascist fashion taught something called Inkatha Studies, which antagonised pupils. Outside, Inkatha conducted a robust recruitment drive promoted by warlords like David Ntombela (out at Elandskop) and Abdul Awetha (in Imbali) backed by vigilante groups and hit squads. Later, after widespread conflict had erupted, the government would raise a force of kitskonstabels (instant police) who were ill-trained Inkatha goons with pump-action shotguns. A former member of the security police testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) admitted that they were a total disaster. In this manner Buthelezi became an integral part of P.W. Botha’s state security mechanism, contributing a privatised arm to the state’s repression.

If Inkatha ever had the million members it claimed, a proportion of them would have been coerced. Its ethnic chauvinism and patriarchal inclinations fed into an existing tendency to violent outcomes well embedded in local communities. Buthelezi used the political vacuum in the area and the benefits of a one-party bantustan that controlled education, social services and its own police force to pursue his ambitions of national political power and to fight his real and imagined foes. His public utterances were frequently intemperate and used threating language about ‘people’s anger’.

The Pietermaritzburg civil war kicked off at Mpophomeni in December 1986 when Inkatha kidnapped and killed three people associated with the long-running BTR-Sarmcol strike in Howick. The massacre at KwaShange in September 1987 marked the beginning of sustained conflict in Edendale, which became known as the valley of death (or widows). This would last three years with Inkatha violence backed by acts of commission and omission by the security forces. Residents of Vulindlela (upper Edendale) were given a deadline to join Inkatha. In January 1988 Operation Doom involved a heavily armed Inkatha invasion of Ashdown from Mpumuza supervised by South African Police officers. It was at this time that Ntombela called for non-Inkatha people to be killed.

The violence became more widespread from 1988 with a Complaints Adjudication Board set up to address it, but Inkatha warlords refused to co-operate. Buthelezi further stirred the pot at Taylor’s Halt at a Shaka Day rally on 25 September with a rant against white radicals, affirming government propaganda that black South Africans could not think and act for themselves. In December the Trust Feed massacre took place, incited by Ntombela, orchestrated from New Hanover police station and enforced by kitskonstabels. The wrong house was targeted in the dark and the victims were Inkatha. A church peace initiative by Anglican leaders joined by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was torpedoed by Inkatha (although Buthelezi was an Anglican) acting in concert with Minister of Police Adriaan Vlok who had consistently played a malign role in the conflict. In 1989 Inkatha turned Imbali into an occupied, quasi-military zone and one of its youth leaders was implicated in the death of union leader Jabu Ndlovu. Inkatha was later fingered in the February 1991 assassination in Pietermaritzburg of the reconciliatory chief, Mhlabunzima Maphumulo, who had sheltered refugees of all persuasions and none at Mqonqo.  

From 1987 to 1989, 82% of all deaths in political violence nationally occurred in Natal, the Inkatha stronghold. There was of course violence from anti-government groupings although much of it was defensive or retaliatory. The conflict reached a climax with the Seven-Day War of March 1990, which started with an anti-Inkatha attack on buses returning from a Durban rally and the cutting off of upper Edendale from Pietermaritzburg. But the response was clearly well-planned and involved an attack down the valley by an army of 12 000, organised by Inkatha heavyweights aided and abetted by KwaZulu officials and its police, which looted, burned and murdered. An army detachment was deliberately held back while South African riot police and kitskonstabels acted under Inkatha’s orders. Edendale became a war zone, a scene of Inkatha political cleansing. The organisation was shortly afterwards proved to be government-funded with a hit squad trained in the Caprivi Strip and arms caches in northern Zululand.

The TRC found Inkatha consistently guilty of gross human rights violations, a finding that leads straight back to Buthelezi who wielded immense power within the organisation and would continue to do so until 2019 when he was over 90. In his later years Buthelezi took on the image of elder, occluding his past. Evidence from the Natal Midlands, and elsewhere, in the 1980s suggests that he was a ruthless, authoritarian politician and demagogue happy to use violence to pursue his ethnic and personal ends; and money and legal proceedings to persecute his critics. The idea that he was a statesman and man of peace who respected the rule of law was total fiction. There was no moderation or integrity to Inkatha’s role in the conflict of the 1980s. The TRC confirms this.

What value can be ascribed to posthumous praise singing when it ignores or distorts historical fact? But it becomes cemented into popular perceptions of history – flawed, fake history. It is all part of our post-modern, post-truth world in which words are weaponised as propaganda rather than conveying true meaning. This year’s global flurry of elections may well prove the dangers of that yet again.