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Fort Hare gives us platform to heal old wounds

Prince Buthelezi’s ZK Memorial lecture on the occasion of the 100 year anniversary of University of Fort Hare last week, is a historical account delivered through a moving personal reflection, humor and sheer brilliance. Through to the life of a man in whose memory he was speaking, his speech covered a wide spectrum from issues, from family, religion, academic to political. Thanks to Chief Buthelezi, those of us who have never met ZK Mathews now know a thing or two about his character - a principled disciplinarian, a political giant, a man of faith, a diplomat, patriot and respected leader of our people. Judging by the reaction of the audience at the University’s Sports Complex in Alice, Umntwana kaPhindangene made us proud. A close friend to ZK’s son, Joe Mathews, Prince Buthelezi was more than a student of the Professor, he was a son. Buthelezi recalls ZK’s funeral in in Gaborone in 1968 as if it was yesterday. (By Tembinkosi Bonakele)

Prince Buthelezi is one of the most passionate alumni of the university, dawning the university’s legendary blazer at prominent occasions. His visible public support for the university of Fort Hare is probably comparable to only one other member of his generation, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The latter sends a contingent of students every year to his Alma matta, and will be delivering a keynote speech at the official celebrations on the 20th of May in Alice.  When the Vice Chancellor, Dr Tom was asked about the Plan B in case Prince Buthelezi was unavailable to deliver the ZK Memorial lecture, his answer was “our Plan B is Prince Buthelezi”, which I found very reckless as there could be all sorts of reasons why Dr Buthelezi may become unavailable. After Prince Buthelezi’s delivery, I understood Dr Tom’s stance very well.

And yet, the choice of Price Buthelezi to deliver a memorial lecture at the centenary birthday of Fort Hare, in honor of its first graduate and the ANC’s Cape Province leader, is not without an irony. In the podium, Buthelezi was flanked by the university’s Chancellor elect and former ANC Eastern Cape leader and stalwart, Rev Makhenkesi Sitofile, ANC Chairperson and speaker of the National Assembly Baleka Mbete, SACP Secretary General and Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Ndzimande. In the front row facing him was the ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe, Treasurer General, and Dr Zweli Mkhize as well a whole host of provincial and regional leaders of the ANC. At the same spot where Prince Buthelezi spoke I have watched our great leaders inspire us at various occasions over the years, Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Govan Mbeki, Albertina Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki, to mention but a few. But Buthelezi?    

The IFP patriarch did not once mention the IFP in his speech. He proudly spoke about his and his ANC Youth League generation’s political activities, which led to his russification from the university.  It was as if the IFP never happened, the ‘low intensity war’ with the ANC never happened. He spoke extensively about, sometimes justifying, the participation of ‘revolutionaries’ in the apartheid government institutions in what was clearly a well calculated argument. As a one Facebook post noted, he used the platform to justify his own political choices. One could not help but reflect on our recent history, which, regrettably is written in blood. Not so long ago the University of Fort Hare would have been a no go area for Chief Buthelezi. After all, one of the most enduring songs in the ANC rallies at the height of the tensions between the IFP and ANC went something like, Mangosuthu! Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi wena uyimpimpi, Uyimpimpi Mangosuthu! wena uyimpimpi... (Mangosuthu you are a traitor). During those days, hardly a day passed without news of marauding gangs of the IFP butchering our comrades in what appeared like a strategy conspiracy to plunge the country in a civil war, ultimately to defeat the liberation struggle. To many of us, Buthelezi was a Savimbi of South Africa. In Robert Sobukwe’s biography, How Can a Man Die Better, Benjamin Pogrund narrates an incident where Buthelezi was pelted with stones and chased away from Robert Sobukwe’s funeral. Buthelezi was a man to hate.

On the occasion of ZK Mathew’s lecture, Prince Buthelezi was relevant, and delivered on what he was required to do spectacularly. And yet, as Buthelezi started, “As I stand here, I feel the weight of a 100 years of history…” one realized just how complex this history is. The former Fort Hare Chancellor and alumni, OR Tambo aptly summed it up as “…the culmination of a drama of interpenetrating and, at times, contradictory forces…moulded by the peculiarities of the history of this region of southern Africa, and the struggles authored by that history.” There has never been an official end to the so called black on black violence in South Africa. The nation has never got an opportunity to heal. The tension between blacks during the liberation struggle is mirrored in ZK’s very own family, whose son was an ANCYL firebrand who later became an IFP stalwart, who in turn gave birth to one of the ANC’s respected senior ministers. Fort Hare gave us a platform, and ZK Mathews an opportunity, to heal the divisions of the past within the black community, which is a necessary condition for the healing of the entire nation.     


Tembinkosi is the Commissioner of the Competition Commission and a former SRC President at the University of Fort Hare. He writes in his personal capacity.

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