Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP)


IFP Logo

The Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) is a South African political organization, established by Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, which encouraged a resurgent Zulu nationalism and created a platform for Buthelezi to advance his political ambitions.

Buthelezi used the name Inkhata which was rooted in a previous Zulu cultural movement called Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe (Inkatha Freedom Nation) which was formed in 1928 by King Solomon Dinizulu.

 In 1975, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi formally launched the Inkatha Cultural Liberation Movement to fan Zulu nationalism and pledge allegiance to him. This movement was later constituted as the non racial political party, IFP. The headquarters of the IFP were in Ulundi, the former capital of the apartheid era KwaZulu homeland.

Inkatha (definition)

The grass coil is placed on the head to carry and ease the weight of a heavy burden. It is powerfully woven together to prevent it from crumbling and breaking. Inkatha was kept in a secret hut of the Zulu royal house and it was a belief that Zulu kings derived their powers to rule from Inkatha. The British destroyed it when they raided Ulundi and burnt the royal palace during the kingship of Cetshwayo ka Mpande in the 19th century. Therefore, Inkatha has great significance in Zulu culture as it represents the spiritual and political powers of Zulu kings.

Buthelez's IFP

The dawn of apartheid in the 1940s marked major changes for all Black South Africans. In 1953, the South African Government introduced the homelands, and during the 1960s the Government's objective was to form a tribal authority and provide for the gradual development of self-governing Bantu national units. The first Territorial Authority for the Zulu people was established in 1970, which defined the Zulu homeland of KwaZulu. On 30 March 1972, the first Legislative Assembly of KwaZulu was constituted by South African Parliamentary Proclamation. Chief Mangosutho (Gatsha) Buthelezi, a cousin of the Zulu king, was elected as Chief Executive.

Buthelezi, who was a former member of the ANC but a fervent Zulu nationalist, was a shrewd, proud and prickly individual with great staying power. He used his exceptional political skills to launch a platform that formally rejected the homelands system, but also used it as a cover for building a mass movement. In this climate, Buthelezi formally re-launched the Inkatha cultural movement on 21 March 1975, at KwaNzimela, in Northern KwaZulu.

Several founding members of Inkatha had either been former members of ANC, or members of the new urban middle class. The latter saw the need for a strong organisation to advance their class interests, but did not accept the idea of an independent Zulu homeland. However, the strength and support for Buthelezi?s political ambitions was the traditional Zulu leadership, which was heavily dependent on the apartheid state for its privileged status.

Unlike King Solomon's Inkatha, the new organisation was only open to Zulus and citizens of Kwa Zulu Natal, and articulated a progressive agenda for freedom from its inception. It was only in the 1980?s that membership was extended to all Black South Africans, including men, women and youth.

When membership was extended, branches opened in KwaZulu, Natal, the Transvaal, the Orange Free State and the Western Cape. Soon the Inkatha Cultural Liberation Movement had between 150 000 and 200 000 members. To promote supra-ethnic national­ism Buthelezi established the Black Unity Front for nationalists, both inside and outside the homelands system.

In 1977, Gail Gerhart, an American scholar wrote that:

To argue that Buthelezi is a net asset to the regime because he lends credibility to the Bantustans is seriously to undervalue his role as propagandist for nationalism. Buthelezi is in fact the strongest evidence that black initiatives can lead to the backfiring of the best-laid plans of the apartheid strategists.

Educated Blacks viewed Buthelezi with suspicion, and saw him as representing largely the elderly, the traditional, and those in the government's pay.

There is no doubt that Buthelezi was a stumbling block to the realization of the government's homelands strategy. More so than any other opposition, his tough stand against independence for the Zulu people, which formed 20% of the total population, destroyed the governments hopes to construct 'a constellation of black states' out of the homeland system.

However, in 1979 he openly broke with the ANC in exile, its policy of sanctions and the use of the armed struggle to bring down the apartheid system. (The IFP was originally founded with tacit but private support from the African National Congress).

The ANC-Inkatha relationship deteriorated into bitter enmity, with the ANC branding Buthelezi as a counter-revolutionary force. It correctly saw him as more of a threat than the other homeland leaders, who were deemed mere puppets. Buthelezi thought that the armed struggle and sanctions destroyed the chance for peaceful change, yet he told Botha that violence could not be averted 'by marching to anti-communist drums'. Buthelezi argued that violence would not flow from Marxist subversion but from White and Black leaders losing control of their constituencies.

Buthelezi offered a clear alternative to the National Party approach by proposing a multi-racial federation. In 1981, at a commission he appointed a proposal to integrate the white-controlled province of Natal and the KwaZulu homeland. This proposal put forward that the integrated province would be run by an assembly elected by proportional representation, and a multiracial executive who made decisions along power-sharing lines. A single body would also control education, the local economy and welfare services. These proposals were given flesh by a multi-racial Natal indaba in the mid-1980s, and received the backing of both the liberal opposition and business leaders in the province.

This proposal was the last opportunity for the government to avoid losing control over the process of change. If it backed regional integration in KwaZulu-Natal without trying to control it, it could spark similar initiatives in other regions of the country. In turn, these regions could properly elect Black leaders who could be elevated to the national cabinet. However, Botha's response was negative, in accordance with apartheid policy and stated that Buthelezi was welcome to investigate matters that concerned 'his own country', but had no right to deal with matters under the control of the central government.

By the late 1970s, the idea of economically viable homelands system had hopelessly faded. Even the Transkei, the most promising prospect, could meet only 10% of its own food requirements, and provided for only 20% of its budgeted expenses with its own resources. The great majority of people in the homelands were dependent on pensions, and the money migrant labourers sent back to their families mostly flowed back to shops in the common area. Migrant labour therefore generated an ever greater dependency, and exacerbated poverty in the homelands.

During the 1983 Constitutional Reforms, the IFP and the white Progressive Federal Party opposed the changes, and demanded the inclusion of Black people and a Bill of Rights. The IFP campaigned internationally for disinvestments as an incentive for reforms.

In the 1980s, as the opposition to the apartheid regime and homeland regimes grew, Buthelezi tried to forcefully suppressed student and community opposition. This led to open clashes with the UDF and its affiliates. Hostilities between the ANC and Inkatha therefore became endemic around Inkatha strongholds, in Natal and in Gauteng townships. It is alleged by the TRC that Buthelezi worked secretly with the police, security police and state sponsored assassination squads.

During the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, the IFP aligned itself with the Afrikaner Conservative Party. The latter broke away from the National Party in 1983 when P.W. Botha introduced the tricameral parliament reforms to extend limited representation to Coloureds and Indians. The IFP had previously refused to negotiate with the Botha government on the grounds that political prisoners should be released first.

On 14 July 1990, in response to the unbanning of the liberation movements and the talk of negotiations at a special conference in Ulundi, Buthelezi changed track and established the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) as a non racial organisation.  

Buthelezi did not take part in the negotiation process, and only decided to participate in the 1994 democratic elections after a great deal of local and international pressure. Since the first democratic elections, the IFP has suffered steadily declining support over the subsequent two general elections. Buthelezi was appointed Minister of Home Affairs in the first Government of National Unity in 1994.

However, Buthelezi led a walkout of Zulu delegates from the National Assembly in early 1995, and clashed repeatedly with newly elected President Nelson (Rolihlahla) Mandela. Buthelezi threatened to abandon the Government of National Unity entirely, unless his Zulu constituency received greater recognition and autonomy from central government control. In the 2004 election the IFP lost control of the province of KwaZulu-Natal to the ANC.

Buthelezi, although 80 years old, retains his position as head of the IFP, despite Inkatha's continual loss of electoral support. Buthelezi has lost two to HIV-Aids, and has therefore become a strong advocate of public education and state support as a means to stop the spread of the disease.

• Giliomee, H. and Mbenga, B. (2007). New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town
•  Inkatha Freedom Party, historical background [online]. Available at: [accessed 11 March 2009]

Last updated : 24-Jun-2015

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011