Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter
Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Last Friday, as I was preparing to host a dinner for the Archbishop of Cape Town in Ulundi, I was reached with the news that Dr Fredrick van Zyl Slabbert had passed away. It came as a double blow, for I had just heard that my cousin had died and I was about to leave to pay my respects to my family.
I am no stranger to walking in the valley of the shadow of death. But with each friend and loved one that passes I am left with a sense of deep sorrow.
Having been granted such good health and such a long life, it has been my lot to outlive many people who seemed an irreplaceable part of my life.
I knew Dr van Zyl Slabbert well and bore the greatest respect for his incisive intelligence and distinguished career. But I also marveled at his integrity and that, perhaps more than anything else, drew me to him as a kindred spirit. He was a gentleman through and through, and one of the few people I have seen walking the corridors of politics and living his entire life by principle.
I first met Dr van Zyl Slabbert when he was a young lecturer at Stellenbosch University. Some decades ago, there was a study group called Synthesis in which I was invited to participate. It had a few businessmen and intellectuals, such as Dr van Zyl Slabbert. We would meet and discuss current affairs. This was in the dark days of Apartheid in the seventies. I was struck even then by his sharp intellect and humility.
We became good friends, to the extent that when he was elected as the Leader of the Progressive Federal Party he would address some of Inkatha’s conferences in Ulundi. We participated in many protest meetings in Durban and Johannesburg with members of our two organisations.
The government at the time released a transcript of a private conversation which Dr van Zyl Slabbert had with the then Prime Minister PW Botha, in which he was quoted as saying "He thinks he is the only bull in the kraal".
But even this did not affect our good relations and the genuine friendship which we kept to the end of his illustrious life.
A 1985 cartoon of the two of us by Jock Leyden of "The Daily News" sums up the kind of relationship that we enjoyed in the liberation struggle.
Being a true democrat, Dr van Zyl Slabbert never bowed to intimidation. His principles were strong enough to ensure that he feared no one and expected nothing from anyone. It is for this reason that when, as the Minister of Home Affairs, I sought to redraft the Electoral Act, I appointed Dr van Zyl Slabbert as the Chairman of the Commission, which then took his name.
The van Zyl Slabbert Commission brought together some of the best domestic and international minds. They were a group of genuine democrats drawn from across the political spectrum, because I recognized that the Electoral Act is the contract between the politicians and the people, and thus cannot be written by the politicians alone.
The van Zyl Slabbert Commission recognized that the present electoral system lacks accountability and proposed a system akin to the Local Government model, which combines constituencies and proportional representation.
Cabinet rejected the Commission’s recommendations, but committed itself to implement them at a later stage.
It would be a fine tribute to his legacy if the urgency of implementing the van Zyl Slabbert Commission’s recommendations were rekindled at this point.
While the messages of praise and condolence that poured in from politicians after his death were all well-deserved, a greater sign of respect for the contribution Dr van Zyl Slabbert made would be heeding his well-considered advice.
Dr van Zyl Slabbert was also heavily involved in the process which produced the Immigration Bill which I piloted through Parliament. I shall never forget the great and decorous presence with which he hosted the first international migration conference ever held in South Africa. The many participants from all over the world who came to Cape Town enjoyed the unexpected boon of being entertained at a function at the Castle of Good Hope.
That was ten years ago. Both before and since, I have attended more conferences than I could ever mention in which Dr van Zyl Slabbert made the most incisive inputs. He had the capacity of getting to the core of the issue and of speaking bluntly and strongly. The country will sorely miss his contribution and I shall forever mourn such an honest and noble friend.
Throughout almost sixty years in politics and public life I have come to appreciate the need to take moments to surround myself with men and women who share my faith. In many ways, I am continuously in the heat of battle.
The people who pray for me are my treasured armour bearers.
I was therefore particularly grateful, having just endured the news of two deaths, to spend some time with the bishops and archdeacons of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa as we welcomed our Metropolitan, the Most Reverend Archbishop Makgoba, during his visitation to Ulundi this weekend.
In May of 2006, our Archbishop’s predecessor, the Most Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane, conferred on me the Church’s highest provincial award for distinguished lay service. The support of my Church gave me considerable encouragement then, for it came at a difficult point in my life.
Under my leadership, the Executive of our Party had just convened a Special General Conference to gain the collegial wisdom of our members as to whether I should continue to lead the IFP. Even though I had been unanimously re-elected by a General Conference just two years previously, there was great debate outside our Party and in the media about whether I should continue to lead.
It would have been reasonable and appropriate for me to ignore the debate and be guided by the mandate of my supporters. But I have never placed my own interests above the interests of the country, and I felt we should fully consider what would be best for South Africa. Our Special Conference ended with another unanimous request that I continue to lead the IFP.
Now, four years later, the IFP again faces an elective General Conference and there is much speculation in the media and outside our Party about its future leadership. But this time there are also rumblings from within our Party and there have been clear indications that ambition is fuelling a succession debate.
I am quite ready to have that talk. As I told my Party in 2004, I would willingly exit politics if I no longer had a mandate to lead and if my departure were in the best interests of our country. It gives me great comfort to know that, in the end, God will determine how I spend the remaining years of my life. My faith has always given me the strength to persevere in times of turmoil.
I was humbled on Sunday to hear this sentiment expressed by the Bishop of Zululand, the Right Reverend Dino Gabriel, who honoured my contribution to liberation, democracy and the fight against HIV/Aids by conferring upon me the Order of Saint Michael and All Angels.
This was an unexpected honour for which I am deeply grateful. I have found, once again, that spending time with men and women who share my faith has lifted my spirits and inspired me to keep working and keep serving this nation. We may have removed any mention of God from our Constitution, but He remains at the centre of human destiny.
Who am I then to question why the great patriot, Dr Fredrick van Zyl Slabbert, has departed this earth while I still plough on? He made a contribution worth many lifetimes. It seems, I have yet to finish mine.
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP
Contact: Ms Liezl van der Merwe, 082 729 2510