Our Unsung Heroines

Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Online Letter

Dear friends and fellow South Africans,

At Sunday’s launch of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, I paid tribute to former First Lady Mrs Zanele Mbeki, who personifies ubuntu-botho. I felt that as we honoured the life’s work of former President Mbeki, we could not underestimate the influence and support of one of his most trusted advisors; his wife.

In honouring her, I said: "The marriage of Thabo and Zanele Mbeki has been a great partnership in every sense. South Africa owes a debt of gratitude to our former First Lady, not least for her outstanding work in various national and international organizations to promote the economic empowerment of South African women. Foremost among the accolades we could heap on Mrs Mbeki is her role in founding the Women’s Development Bank.

Far from being reticent and remaining out of the public eye, Mrs Mbeki has shown great leadership in her own right in issues ranging from education, to social work, foreign relations and community development. Her life’s work speaks of her remarkable intellect and independence. Her skill and strength of character are displayed in the trustee and directorship positions bestowed upon her over the years.

But perhaps her greatest strength lies in the coupling of a formidable mind with a tender heart, as evidenced in her chosen field of study and her work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well her involvement in many charitable organisations. She is a patriot, a champion of women’s rights and a leader in our nation.

I am proud of the role played by our former First Lady. I believe Mrs Mbeki is one of our unsung heroines, and I felt it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge her part in the success of our country and the success of her husband. Let us honour her for standing by her husband in the most trying political storms and for giving our nation an example of integrity and strength."

It is no secret that I feel the same way about my own wife. By sheer coincidence, my children are holding a dinner this weekend to celebrate their mother, Princess Irene Thandekile. Usually politicians deflect the public eye from their private lives, and I have been no exception. But I feel the time is ripe for me to put pen to paper to express my gratitude for my closest friend; my wife.

We were married 58 years ago in Johannesburg. There is no one in this world I would want to spend that much time with, other than her. I have been pressurized by my culture to adopt polygamy. But, for me, Irene has completed the image of a helpmeet; she is a woman of strength, intelligence and kindness, who has always supported me. There is nothing lacking.

Within five years of marrying me, this beautiful young nurse from Johannesburg was raising four children. Yet she remained hungry for our country’s freedom and was a political activist in her own right. In 1957, she intended joining a group of women led by my mother, Princess Constance Magogo kaDinuzulu, in a march against the imposition of the "dom pas". My mother was furious to be told by the magistrate that it was not fitting for her to lead such a march.

It was my mother who eased Princess Irene’s transition from urban life to life at KwaPhindangene, training her in her new role as wife of an Inkosi.

Irene came from a different background to me. Her grandmother was a descendent of Amakhosi of the Chunu Clan, and she reminded her father, Zachariah Mlungumnyama ka Joseph Mzila, so much of his mother that he used to call her "Ma-Mchunu".

Irene has always been cultured and naturally diplomatic, and I was fortunate to have her accompany me on many of my international travels, even as we continued to expand our family. Together, we visited Sweden in 1963 to investigate the social security programmes of Stockholm. In the seventies, General Olusegun Obasanjo, the President of Nigeria, invited me to Lagos and sent tickets for Irene and I, and two of my aides. Unbeknownst to me, General Obasanjo was attempting to arrange a meeting between me and Mr Oliver Tambo.

I had previously met with Mr Tambo in Malawi as the guest of President Kamuzu Banda. To my surprise, Minister Aleke Banda told me that arrangements had been made for me and my wife, and Mr Barney Dladla, to go to Mangoche near Lake Malawi to rest. On arriving in Mangoche, I was told that the President of the ANC-in-exile would meet me there. Irene took a keen interest in my work and listened tirelessly, offering remarkably shrewd wisdom and counsel.

In the early seventies, I was invited to speak at the World Wilderness Congress in San Antonio, Texas, by a mutual friend, Mr Harry Tennison. Dr Ian Player and his wife Anne accompanied Irene and I, as part of the delegation of the Natal Parks Board. The Players became our good friends.

In fact, Irene and I have been blessed with many lifelong friends; which today is somehow an anachronism. Many of these friendships blossomed in an environment hostile to interaction across the colour line, and cost everyone involved. Ironically, that lent an unusual tenacity to our friendships.

In 1968, for instance, we visited the Jewish Club for the first time and met people like John and Anna Moshal, and Arnold and Rosemary Zulman. Years later, the Moshal family Trust funded CHIVA, the Children’s HIV Association in KwaZulu Natal, through the "Prince Nelisuzulu Benedict Gift Fund", which the Moshal family named after our late son. The house of Arnold and Rosemary Zulman became our home away from home in Durban, because at that time we as black South Africans were not allowed to stay in hotels.

Another unusual friendship that spanned more than half a century was our friendship with Mrs Helen Suzman. She and her husband, Dr "Mosie" Suzman, accommodated Irene and I in their home, just as the Zulmans did.

Irene was equally generous in her hospitality, opening our home to the President-General of the ANC, Inkosi Albert Mvumbi Lutuli and his wife, who were brought to our home by an American friend, Ms Louise Hooper, and on other occasions by Dr Wilson Zamindlela Conco, who chaired the Freedom Charter gathering. Dr Conco would park his car in my garage, and my car would be parked in front of my home. Inkosi Lutuli rested during the day, and we talked through the night.

My father-in-law, Mr Zachariah Mzila, and his wife Tabitha, were close friends with the young lawyer, Mr Nelson Mandela. I introduced him to my late cousin, King Bhekuzulu Nyangayezizwe Cyprian ka Solomon. We had occasion to enjoy the hospitality of Mrs Winnie Mandela at their home in Orlando in the fifties. When my father-in-law passed away, I approached Mandela, as a lawyer, on behalf of my in-laws to wind up his estate.

As a young girl, Irene often stopped at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Eloff Street Extension to watch her father, Zachariah Mzila, playing a game of draughts with Nelson Mandela. Mandela often visited her home and Irene served him tea. To this day Mandela tells a favourite joke; that whenever Irene greeted him, she would hold her mouth and smile.

It is by now common knowledge that Mandela and I stayed in constant communication throughout his time in prison. He wrote to me directly, and at times through Irene. Our correspondence spanned decades.

With this history, it was particularly difficult for Irene when the ANC’s mission-in-exile launched its vicious attack on me through Alfred Nzo in June of 1980. The decades long campaign of vilification that followed hurt my family deeply.

But we were accustomed with pain, as grief and loss had come early to our marriage. In 1966, at the tender age of nine, our daughter Mabhuku Snikwakonke was tragically killed in a car accident. Mabhuku had been particularly fond of her older sister, Mandisi Sibukakonke, and they used to play together in the front yard. Her death was jarring. Her brother and two older sisters suffered; but my wife took it particularly hard.

It is tragic that our eldest daughter, Phumzile, relived this heartache when her son, Alpheus Nkosinathi, was killed in a car accident at the age of 24.

The pain of burying a child is unbearable. We never could have guessed that

38 years after Mabhuku’s death, we would bury Mandisi and her brother, Nelisuzulu, in the same year.

Both Mandisi and Nelisuzulu fought a disease which could not be won, with feisty courage and spirit. Their mother and I watched over them in anguish as they succumbed to HIV/Aids. The following year, in January of 2005, President Nelson Mandela’s son, Makgatho, also died of Aids and the family had the courage to speak out. We honoured them and shared their grief.

Just three years later, they returned our support when my beloved daughter, Lethuxolo Bengitheni, was killed in a car accident just weeks before my 80th Birthday. Lethuxolo was my right hand, and she was close to her mother. I recall the excitement with which she would discuss with Irene my various victories and successes, and how they consoled one another over the slings and arrows.

With the death of Mandisi, Irene and I assumed the responsibility of raising our grandson. With Lethuxolo’s passing, we promised our support and protection to Nontokoza, our granddaughter. Irene is an affectionate grandmother, always available to all our grandchildren, and they know her as closely as their own parents.

We have suffered many losses, including the death of my mother, her parents and her three brothers. But grief has brought our family closer together. I thank God that Irene and I can still delight in the achievements of our children. I had the privilege, as the Chancellor of the University of Zululand, to personally confer a degree on our last born, Sibuyisele Angela Siphetho, the second of our children to graduate from that University.

Irene has walked with me through countless valleys, giving to my life a flavour of joy and richness even in the darkest hours. Her strength and resilience are remarkable. But over 58 years, the memories that stand out the most are not of hardship; but of laughter. Irene has a delightful sense of humour, and her smile lifts my heart.

I recall how, in the nineties, I was made an honorary member of the Chefs’ Association of South Africa. When I proudly related this to my wife, and showed her the certificate presented to me, she lowered her eyes and smiled.

I asked her why she was laughing at me, as she so clearly was, and she explained that she had been married to me for over 40 years and had never seen me cook a single meal! I reminded her that I can fry an egg, and she burst out laughing.

Her gentle spirit has comforted me and encouraged me to greater patience.

Whether she is teaching a young woman to bake or listening to a granddaughter’s frivolities, her heart is wholly in it. It pains me to see poor health afflict her, as I know how she longs to give of herself to others.

I have often felt that in the long stretch between birth and dying, we need someone to hold our hand and experience it all with us. Loving the person whose hand we hold colours every experience in the hues of purpose, peace and joy. May my beautiful wife do me the honour of holding mine a little while longer.

Yours in the service of the nation,

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP.

Contact: Liezl van der Merwe,

Press Secretary to Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP, 082 729 2510.