As multi-party negotiations on a new constitution for South Africa get under way at last, there is a widespread impression that what is really in prospect is a two-party deal between the Government and the ANC. Of the many groups this leaves out of account, Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement is the most significant. In preparation for this new phase, Inkatha has transformed itself from a ‘national cultural movement’ into the Inkatha Freedom Party.

This transformation was to have been the great theme of this year’s Inkatha national conference, held in July – but the Inkathagate scandal (delicately referred to by IFP spokesmen as ‘the funding controversy’) erupted just as the conference opened in July, so that the delegates were overwhelmed with newspaper stories of secret payments from the Security Police to fund Inkatha rallies. The conference was, as a result, a somewhat poignant affair.

One was continually assured that the scandal would have no impact on the average Inkatha member, visualised as a middle-aged Zulu woman from somewhere like Mtubatuba. Clearly, the scandal had had no effect on the numerous rooidoeke who wandered around in menacing fashion. Wearing their red bandanas and carrying their much-discussed traditional weapons (spears and knobkerries were de rigueur), they all sported T-shirts extolling the virtues of peace, democracy and negotiation.

At long last Chief Buthelezi made his entrance into the vast tent housing the delegates, preceded by a praise singer, ululations and an honour guard of Inkatha Youth. There is a tendency for whites to feel uncomfortable at such displays of adulation, but it’s important to remember that you won’t find much difference in the way Mandela is treated, and that back in Luthuli’s day his followers used to sing hymns about him, substituting his name for God’s. In fact, the numerous whites present hardly seemed fazed – the large contingent from the IFP branch in Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s plusher suburbs, beamed.

Buthelezi welcomed a number of distinguished guests, including Gerrit Viljoen, Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and de Klerk’s No 2, the dashing young Roelf Meyer, who was to replace Magnus Malan as Minister of Defence in the post-Inkathagate shake-up, Clive Derby-Lewis of the far-right Conservative Party, and the notorious Amichand Rajbansi, whose peccadilloes as Leader of the (Indian) House of Delegates had led to his removal from office. Why invite such figures? The unhappy truth is that Inkatha and its leader hunger after recognition. In the Seventies Buthelezi ran far ahead of Mandela in popularity polls among black South Africans and he was good currency on a wide international circuit. But as the ANC’s diplomatic stranglehold grew, only the doors of the Right stayed open – and Buthelezi was eager for any international acceptance he could get. This is why the Kwazulu cabinet room is studded with photographs of Buthelezi with Thatcher, with Reagan, with Franz-Josef Strauss, with the Pope. The same logic drives the IFP into the crazy situation where they value the presence of Treurnicht’s CP at their conference.

In his pre-circulated speech, Buthelezi studiously avoided all mention of the funding scandal. Gerrit Viljoen was less circumspect and sought to bluster his way through a defence of the secret subventions. Then came Derby-Lewis, the whole point of whose speech lay in its opening. ‘I bring the greetings of the Afrikaner nation,’ he said, ‘to the Zulu nation.’ Tumult ensued with Viljoen and his party furious that they were not taken to represent the Afrikaner nation, while IFP officials denied that their party represented only Zulus. Great mention was made of the Party’s Sotho and Xhosa membership while the whole Sandton section stood up to display white IFP support.

Talking to some of the latter afterwards, I found that they varied between the strikingly right-wing and the naively good-hearted, although neither description would fit the little band of whites who play a disproportionate role near the top of Inkatha’s politics; chief among them is Buthelezi’s speech-writer, Walter Felgate, who increasingly fronts the Party in negotiations and on TV. The presence of these whites has led to some predictable jeers, but the situation of the ANC is very similar. At activist level, you can meet ANC whites who are the equivalent of the Sandton IFP – either naively good-hearted or ideologically extreme – while at top level you find whites who are tough-minded, practical and just as influential. This continuing reliance on white intellectuals is still the common stuff of black trade unions and parties, except in the case of the PAC and Azapo – both of whom look as if they feel the lack of it pretty keenly.

Inkatha is undoubtedly bitter. On the one hand, the Party has seen most of its policy positions vindicated. In the Eighties it campaigned against sanctions, for a free enterprise system, and for the politics of negotiation rather than armed struggle – though it refused to negotiate until Mandela and other Robben Islanders were released. Meanwhile it defended its reliance on Buthelezi’s Kwazulu bastion (and thus on the bantustan framework) as a necessary compromise. It has now seen the ANC abandon the armed struggle, accept negotiations, move towards a mixed economy and agree to the phased lifting of sanctions. In addition, the ANC has established a close relationship with several bantustan governments, explicitly promising to preserve civil service jobs (and thus the administrative structure) of those that befriend it.

Despite this de facto policy convergence, there has not been any improvement at all in relations between the ANC and the IFP, which convinces Buthelezi and his movement that the ANC is not really interested in compromise. The fact that the ANC can be so tolerant of Transkei or Kangwane and happily accept subventions and hospitality from Venda, while still demanding the dissolution of Kwazulu, suggests to Inkatha that it has been targeted as an enemy, irrespective of principle. The result is a profoundly suspicious and defensive posture, with Buthelezi repeatedly pleading for peace and compromise but making it clear that he will fight to the death if he doesn’t get it. Meanwhile the IFP watches with bitter cynicism as its former friends in the diplomatic and business communities now rush to join the queue to press flesh with the ANC. Looked at from their point of view, the movement’s acceptance of hidden government subsidies for a few rallies seems fairly trivial – especially since the sums involved pale in comparison with those the ANC receives from various sources.

The damage done by Inkathagate was less about money, however, than about the revelation of collusion between Inkatha and the security police at a point when the air was already thick with ANC allegations of collusion of this kind in township violence. This is an area in which very little can be said with confidence, particularly since many of the agencies claiming to monitor the violence are in practice highly partisan organisations. The Defence and Aid Fund, for example, appeals for help for ‘ANC victims’ of township violence, but when IFP members get massacred they are merely ‘alleged’ supporters of Inkatha. What one can say is that there is an enormous battery of evidence indicating that violence has been initiated by Inkatha members as well as multitudinous reports suggesting Police-Inkatha collusion. How far up the hierarchy of either the security forces or Inkatha such collusion goes is impossible to know. But collusion there clearly is, and there can be no doubting the ferocity of the Inkatha impis on the warpath – or the hatred which is felt for the movement in the Reef townships.

For many this is the end of the matter. Inkatha, they would say, is merely a state terrorist organisation: indeed, so integrally part of the state that there is no point in negotiating with it when one can negotiate with its master. There are also those who say that on these grounds Inkatha ought to be suppressed, or even exterminated. Clearly, this is a dangerous – and a colonialist – way of thinking.

The attempt to write Inkatha off as a puppet of the state disregards the fact that it has a genuine constituency. It still enjoys large-scale support in Natal and has a considerable following even on the Reef – it should not be forgotten that Zulus are the largest single ethnic minority in Soweto. Moreover, it has an organisational infrastructure which means that it can sometimes muster its troops (literal or metaphorical) more effectively than the ANC. For all the disclaimers of the IFP leadership, the mobilisation of an impi of several thousand to surround the hotel where the 15 August Peace Pact was being signed was an impressive demonstration of Inkatha’s ability to dominate even the streets of central Johannesburg when it wants to.

Inkatha claims to have the largest membership of any black organisation in South African history. This was undoubtedly true for much of the Seventies and Eighties: the ANC of the Fifties never accumulated much of a mass membership, and until 1990 Inkatha had little real competition. It claimed 984,177 members in 2013 branches in 1984, almost 1.6 million members in 3000 branches in 1989, and today the figure of two million members is generally quoted. IFP officials claim that Inkathagate has hurt the movement only among the white liberal intelligentsia.

No doubt the launching of the IFP, and with it the creation of branches outside Natal, will have seen some membership increase, but the two million figure is patently absurd. In any case, most of its membership is in Kwazulu – where membership is often brought about by administrative coercion. Nothing has alienated educated Zulus from Inkatha so much as these enforced recruitment drives, although the intelligentsia has a more general dislike of Inkatha’s adherence to hierarchy, monarchy and tradition. The Party also suffers from being perceived as a one-man band: any mention of it is immediately followed by a discussion of Buthelezi’s tetchy personality and both supporters and opponents of the IFP quite normally phrase their position in terms of their attitude to Buthelezi. So over-personalised is the movement that there is real doubt as to how well it would survive Buthelezi’s disappearance.

Opinion polls regularly show IFP support at 5 per cent or less – but this may be deceptive. Rural South Africa remains unpolled and the IFP’s largest following is in rural Natal, while on the Reef some IFP supporters, knowing that they are part of a hated minority, probably hide their allegiance. Even so, Lawrence Schlemmer’s mid-1991 survey of opinion in the major metropolitan areas found that IFP support among hostel-dwellers was, at 71 per cent, higher than the ANC achieved in any of the townships surveyed. The IFP has now launched a Hostel Dwellers’ Association which obviously has a large potential: there are two million hostel-dwellers in South Africa, twice as many as there are COSATU members – and the IFP’s call for an upgrading of the hostels has far more appeal to them than the ANC’s call for the dismantling of the hostel system.

The 15 August Peace Pact was in some degree a realisation of Inkatha’s hopes, for it was staged essentially as a tripartite deal between the Government, the ANC and the IFP. This is how Buthelezi would like South Africa to be ruled: a troika consisting of de Klerk, Mandela and himself would convey a relationship of parity between the ANC and IFP. Knowing that such a notion is dismissed out of hand by the ANC, the IFP has a second-line ambition should a troika be unobtainable: to pull sufficient electoral support across the country to become an indispensable, if junior coalition partner. This strategy underlies its expansion into the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Given that the future electoral system seems certain to be some variant of proportional representation, even its 12 per cent support level on the East Rand could produce valuable seats.

As constitutional negotiations get under way, the IFP will push for a strong form of federalism, and hope to draw on the support not only of de Klerk but of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana (In the event of a strongly federalist solution Lesotho may apply for re-incorporation into South Africa.) If all else fails, however, Buthelezi will wish to be assured of a secure federal base in Kwazulu-Natal – though even there the IFP position will be strongly contested by the ANC. The history of federation elsewhere in Africa suggests that those in power at the centre can seldom resist the temptation to plunder and reduce such federal arenas. In such an eventuality, Kwazulu-Natal would threaten to become South Africa’s Biafra.

The ANC, for its part, remains wedded to the notion of a unitary state and sees federalism as a half-way house towards ethnic homelands and the like. In addition, the ANC is still fixated by the example of Verwoerd: possessing unlimited power at the centre, he was able to impose his grotesque experiment in social engineering on the whole country, keeping Africans in rural areas, keeping Indians out of the OFS, moving people around at will, and even creating new states. The ANC has its own plans for ambitious social engineering and its élites are keen for their full share of power and its fruits. Common sense suggests they must yield to some degree of federalism – the country is so big and so riven by racial, linguistic and religious divisions that another set of centralising Prussians in Pretoria is about the last thing it needs. As yet, all outcomes remain open: the fearsome violence on the Reef and in Natal will do nothing to make easier the task of compromise and conciliation, but it has, by the same token, pointed to its clear necessity.

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