The burial of controversial Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was connected to a wave of fatal violence that signalled the end of apartheid in South Africa, was attended by thousands of people on Saturday, some of them were dressed in traditional warrior garb. People attended a tiny stadium in Ulundi, the former Zulu kingdom’s capital in eastern South Africa, to pay their respects to the party’s founder, Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who passed away on September 9 at the age of 95. In a eulogy, President Cyril Ramaphosa remarked, “The sun has set on an era and on a life that witnessed and had an impact on much of our country’s modern history. Before it was positioned on the pitch under a black canopy, mourners in black escorted a coffin draped in an animal hide and an IFP flag across a crimson carpet. Mourners sat around it; some wore traditional leopard skins and held spears and shields made of cow hides; others wore white IFP t-shirts with the late leader’s face on them. He viewed us Zulus collectively as a single entity. In order to attend the service, Bonga Makhoba, 31, claimed to have travelled 150 km (90 miles) and spent the night in his car.

“I just respect him, and I just want him to… rest in peace.”

The ceremony began in the morning and lasted until well into the afternoon. While other mourners honoured “Shenge,” as Buthelezi was called after his clan name, the IFP Women’s Brigade sang “he has led us this far” in Zulu.

Former presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki were among the attendees, who were seated in front of an altar beneath white marquees. Ramaphosa’s old boss Nelson Mandela and Buthelezi were rivals while they were leading talks to abolish white rule in South Africa. He had a protracted feud with the African National Congress (ANC), which was in power. Up until 1975, when he split out to found the Inkatha movement, the party had been as his political home. Born into a royal family, he represented the fierce and self-assured Zulu character to some while frequently acting as a warlord to others. Buthelezi was frequently seen as a supporter of the racist government in his capacity as premier of the “independent” homeland of KwaZulu, a construct of the apartheid administration. Allegations of working with the white administration to incite violence and undermine the ANC’s liberation movement plagued him, which he vehemently rejected.

About 12,000 people were killed in clashes between Inkatha supporters and opposing liberation organisations as tensions between the ANC and IFP grew in the lead-up to the democratic elections in 1994. When commenting about the violence, Ramaphosa acknowledged that he and Buthelezi “did not always agree,” but added that it was “not the day to point fingers and cast blame.” In Ramaphosa’s words, “South Africa might be a vastly different place today” if Buthelezi had not decided to vote at the last minute. In the national unity administration headed by Mandela, he was subsequently named minister of home affairs.

With a reputation for being an engaging speaker, Buthelezi went on to have one of the longest terms in the country’s legislature. His slim build and unique rectangular spectacles made him easily visible. His legacy is still debated despite the fact that he was regarded as a cultural guardian for the more than 11 million Zulus. Editor of the City Press newspaper Mondli Makhanya suggested that Buthelezi’s monument say “Chief apartheid collaborator and mass murderer.” For his admirers, who worshipped the ground he walked on, he is regarded in high esteem as a hero, according to The Sowetan, a daily paper that sprang from the liberation war. He would, however, “remain an abhorred figure in the eyes of those who suffered brutality and violence at the hands of his party henchmen.” Such critique was dismissed by the Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Foundation as “unspeakably evil” and “old lies”. Current IFP leader Velenkosini Hlabisa called Buthelezi a “giant of Africa” who was “unjustly vilified” for standing up for his beliefs during the funeral. “Everybody has their past but Buthelezi to me, he was the best,” said Fisokhule Buthelezi, 45, a distant relative wearing a black IFP beret, who sat on the stands.

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