It is unfortunate that the Mercury’s rather cursory farewell editorial to Chief Buthelezi (October 31) is marred by historical inaccuracy. In stating that “Buthelezi’s tenure as IFP leader is not comparable with that of Oliver Tambo who led the ANC’s external mission from 1960 to 1990,” the Mercury makes two mistakes. Tambo became a leader in 1969 having served in an acting capacity until then. So his actual tenure of the ANC’s external wing was just 21 years whereas Buthelezi led the IFP for 42 years. But aside from the difference in time frames, the historical realities are such that it is perverse to suggest that Tambo’s role was greater than Buthelezi’s. Having recently been treated to pages of print eulogising Tambo, some right-sizing of his footprint is overdue.
Tambo left South Africa in March 1960 and acquired a house for his family in the middle-class suburb of Muswell Hill in London. For the next thirty years, he lived out of a suitcase constantly travelling between Africa, Asia and Europe courtesy of funds donated by the likes of Sweden and the USSR.
His greatest achievement during that time was that he was able to remain president of a very fractious ANC in exile. As Stephen Ellis states in his sympathetic account External Mission -The ANC in Exile (2012): “Struggling to assert his authority over an organisation as quarrelsome as the ANC, Tambo saw his role essentially as that of an umpire” (p. 102).
While Buthelezi was attempting to serve his people within the marginalised structures of apartheid regional government – a role which Tambo initially endorsed – Tambo’s contribution was an incendiary one of trying to overthrow Buthelezi via a civil war in KZN. As ANC leader, Tambo must have been aware of the plan of ANC operatives in Lusaka to kill Buthelezi (Ellis, p. 221). And while Buthelezi was a voice of moderation in trying to improve the lives of his people, Tambo did nothing to stop the murderous purges in ANC camps in Angola and elsewhere where conditions were described as inhumane (Ellis, p. 228).
Buthelezi did not promote sabotage and the cowardly murder and maiming of defenceless, innocent citizens. He also resisted the application of disinvestment and sanctions because it would hurt the very people for which the political struggle was being waged. Since 1994 his tenure as minister of Home Affairs deserves commendation in the light of
ANC’s efforts to discredit and undermine his ministry (see chapter 67 of The Prince and I by Mario Oriani-Ambrosini).
It is within those contexts, that the legacies of Tambo and Buthelezi should be assessed.
Sent into The Mercury and published, 1 November 2017.