BY PRINCE MANGOSUTHU BUTHELEZI MP
PRESIDENT OF THE INKATHA FREEDOM PARTY
A few years ago, Britain’s Transport Minister John Baird sent a text message to friends announcing: “Thatcher has died”.
This brief text was quickly forwarded and spread, till it reached someone at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where a gala dinner was being held to honour Canada’s military. All the guests were informed, and Prime Minister Harper sent word to his Ottawa office to prepare an official expression of condolence.
The only problem: Thatcher was still alive. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, that is. “Thatcher”, Minister Baird’s beloved cat, had tragically passed on.
This embarrassing moment for Canada was gleefully picked up by the media. The incident was funny and was received with light-hearted good humour. This played out quite differently to the 1940 incident, in which the accidental premature obituary of Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, in the Chicago Defender, caused Garvey to suffer a fatal stroke.
Clearly premature obituaries can be very damaging.
They happen more often than you’d think. Last Friday night I found myself in the good company of Thatcher, Garvey, Hemingway, Reagan, Queen Elizabeth and Mark Twain, who famously responded to his own premature obituary with the words: “The report of my death is greatly exaggerated”.
I was preparing to be interviewed on SABC 3 News to comment on the passing of Kgosi Lucas Mangope, the former leader of Bophuthatswana. But, as newsreader Peter Ndoro introduced the segment, his mind played a trick on him, and he announced with great sadness the passing of “Bophuthatswana leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who died at the age of 94”. Without missing a beat, he then said, “We are joined on the line by IFP President Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi…”
I was quite flummoxed! I could only respond, “I beg your pardon?” This was, after all, meant to be a “live” interview. So pronouncing me dead posed a serious problem.
In hindsight, it is easy to laugh at this gaffe, as so many did on social media. But when you’ve been in politics as long as I have, you know when something is going to be a problem.
Within hours my office and my family were receiving calls, expressing genuine concern that I had passed away. The callers hadn’t seen the News, but they’d picked up something from somewhere about Buthelezi having died. This caused deep distress, particularly among rural people with no access to social media and no way of confirming the facts.
It was a difficult weekend.
Although I attended the commemoration of the Battle of Isandlwana on Saturday and introduced His Majesty the King, according to my duty as traditional Prime Minister to the Zulu monarch and nation, some people only heard the rumour of my passing on Sunday. So the concrete evidence of my being alive and well didn’t entirely solve the problem.
I was relieved when Mr Peter Ndoro made a public apology on SABC 3 News on Monday night. Hopefully it went some way to dispel the rumour. But short of calling a press conference just to say, “Actually, I am alive”, there is little one can do in a situation like this except wait and let the truth resettle over the rumours.
In Zulu culture, some believe it is a good omen when one’s death is mistakenly announced or dreamt about. It predicts a long and healthy life.
Only time will tell. But for now, I can assure you: I’m still alive.