The admission last week that South Africa's white-ruled government secretly funded political rallies of the Inkatha Freedom Party confirmed suspicions about a tacit alliance to undermine political support for the African National Congress.
While both the government and Inkatha have attempted to distance themselves from the scandal, it is not news that successive white-ruled governments have always given support to Inkatha, while the Zulu-based movement has largely absented itself from the mainstream anti-apartheid struggles led by other groups since the late 1970s against white rule.
As South Africa moves precariously toward political power-sharing and its first multi-racial and genuinely democratic elections, it is clear that the ruling National Party will have to seek an alliance with a black political party with a significant national following if it is to retain political influence on how the nation will be governed in the future.
For several years, Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, Inkatha's leader, has been the most obvious choice of a political partner for National Party -- and not only for his consistent opposition to economic sanctions, armed struggle, demonstrations, strikes, boycotts or other challenges to white rule. In a nation where ethnicity is an important factor, Chief Buthelezi's following as a traditional leader among one of the nation's largest ethnic group cannot be dismissed.
Perhaps the time has come for the Inkatha's leader to drop his considerable pretense and officially join South Africa's ruling National Party.
"The National Party has been trying to open itself to conservative blacks recently," said Steven McDonald, Africa specialist for the Washington-based Aspen Institute. "Buthelezi has lost any possibility of gaining any additional support in the black community, and Inkatha has been actively recruiting whites to join."
The South African government has paid Chief Buthelezi's salary for many years as paramount minister of the KwaZulu homeland, pumped money into the rubber-stamp KwaZulu Legislative Authority, and armed and trained the brutally corrupt KwaZulu police. That paramilitary organization has worked in tandem with armed and organized Inkatha warlords and urban hostel-dwellers who have ruthlessly attacked opponents.
The South African government also admitted giving $525,000 to the United Workers Union of South Africa, which is closely aligned with Inkatha and is seen as a counterweight to the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions.
Although Chief Buthelezi attempted to charm American audiences during his recent visit to the United States by saying that he stands for democracy, free enterprise and a free press, the chief's track record strongly suggests otherwise.
There is no democracy in KwaZulu, where Chief Buthelezi rules through Inkatha, the sole party, with an iron hand. The thin-skinned chief brooks no criticism from the press, frequently threatening reporters, launching innumerable lawsuits against independent newspapers and, in one case, simply buying one newspaper outright.
Chief Buthelezi and his cronies control the all the free enterprise in KwaZulu, and membership in Inkatha is virtually required to find employment, obtain housing or establish a business -- compelling thousands to join the party and inflating Inkatha's 2-million strong membership figure.
Chief Buthelezi's political base has always been in his rural Natal. But despite his efforts, Inkatha's following has remained confined there. Several recent polls show that his popularity even in that coastal province fronting on the Indian Ocean has waned in recent years. Indeed, the government aid to Inkatha was prompted by concerns that Inkatha was being politically marginalized by the ANC.
In fact, published reports show that government funding to Inkatha was disbursed for political rallies in Natal as a show of strength after ANC leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison in February 1990. While Mr. Mandela drew crowds of at least 90,000 in Durban, Chief Buthelezi's rallies shortly afterward there drew only about 15,000, with many supporters being transported to attend.
Taken in tandem with other published reports alleging special squads of the security forces siding with Inkatha in township fighting or having a hand in random killings aimed at stirring conflict between the ANC and Inkatha supporters, both Chief Buthelezi and President F. W de Klerk have now been discredited as unreliable and underhanded political figures in the transition to a new democratic order.
Chief Buthelezi is not, and has never been, the most powerful black man in South Africa. If he had ever constituted a threat to white political domination, he would have been banned, imprisoned, exiled or killed along with tens of thousands of other activists.
He has always pursued his own political agenda. Neither he nor Inkatha have been part of the mainstream movement which successfully brought the government to a political crisis in the mid-1980s and helped force the question of multi-racial democracy in South Africa.
Despite such attempts by Chief Buthelezi to legitimate Inkatha as flirtations with the ANC and the Black Consciousness movement, the adoption of ANC colors and symbols, the movement's political credentials have been found lacking outside his rural Natal stronghold.
When the white-ruled government carved out 10 so-called black homelands to disenfranchise the black majority of its landed birthright, KwaZulu was formed with Chief Buthelezi at the helm as the paramount minister.
While he never sought formal independence from South Africa for his "homeland," Chief Buthelezi has ruled as a monarch from KwaZulu's impressive, South African-built capital of Ulundi -- the site where the Zulu nation was militarily vanquished by the British at the end of the last century.
Not surprisingly, as black political ferment continued into the mid-1980s, conservative South African white leaders heaped plaudits on Chief Buthelezi and Inkatha.
Even cabinet ministers, some of whom he met with regularly, spoke eloquently of a day when the old battlefield enemies, the Afrikaners and the Zulus (the nation's largest white and black ethnic groups, respectively) would come together to rule South Africa.
In that vein, Chief Buthelezi became the only black political leader of note offering to compromise the principle of one person, one vote -- the very foundation by which majority rule will become a reality.
"He [Chief Buthelezi] never was the national figure that he was put out to be," said Millard W. Arnold, Africa specialist with the Carnegie Endowment. "What this scandal has done is assure that he will never become such a figure. He's a very powerful regional figure, he has been and will remain so. The only reason he is a political figure in South Africa is because of the numerical size of the Zulu people."
"Chief Buthelezi is a tragic as well as complex figure," said Thomas G. Karis, professor emeritus at City University of New York. "During the 1970s, he maintained informal relations with ANC leaders outside the country and identified himself with the ANC's traditions, while differing on the issues of armed struggle and economic sanctions. He might have been a national and unifying figure, if he had been able to avoid personally divisive rivalry with the ANC and other political movements."
The ANC broke with Chief Buthelezi publicly in 1980, when then-ANC president Oliver Tambo said Chief Buthelezi had emerged "on the side of the enemy."
What Chief Buthelezi seeks to do is use Inkatha as an instrument to exert the primacy of Zulu nationalism over the mainstream anti-apartheid movement, ultimately reserving a separate deal that will allow him to exercise control over all of Natal, and bestow him with considerable political power through sheer numbers.
The ANC, of which Chief Buthelezi was a member as a schoolboy, is clearly an obstacle to those plans. The ANC is arguably the nation's most widely-supported political party, with heritage of strong Zulu support (late Chief Albert Luthuli was one of several ANC presidents) and capable of completely marginalizing Inkatha and Chief Buthelezi in any future election.
Perhaps Soweto physician Dr. Nthato Motlana said it best a few years ago when he said that Chief Buthelezi had "left the nation to join the tribe."
S. M. Khalid is a reporter for The Sun.