Mandela and I by Mangosuthu Buthelezi

The IFP leader looks back over his relationship with the former president

Dear friends and fellow South Africans,

On the 18th of July 1978, Nelson Mandela spent his 60th birthday on Robben Island. In celebration of the man whom the London Times called "the colossus of African nationalism", Mr Walter Sisulu and Mr Ahmed Kathrada delivered speeches, while governments and individuals across the world sent messages of support. These messages were addressed to Mrs Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who also gave an interview to the New York Times.

Mandela himself received only eight messages from family and friends. One of those messages was from me, and Mandela responded warmly. We had maintained a friendship that began in the fifties, when I discovered that Mandela was close to my father-in-law, Zachariah Mzila. Whenever Mandela visited him at the Eloff Street compound where he worked, Mr Mzila's daughter, Irene Thandekile Mzila, would serve him tea and become the target of his gentle teasing.

I was in Durban at that time, completing my studies at the non-European section of the University of Natal, and I attended meetings of the ANC in Nichols Square, together with people like Tambo, Sisulu, Luthuli, Monty Naicker, Yengwa and Mandela. My political activism at the University of Fort Hare, where I had belonged to the ANC Youth League, had seen me rusticated from that institution. Mandela himself, who was a founding member of the Youth League, had been expelled from Fort Hare before I arrived.

When my father-in-law passed away, I asked Mandela to wind up his estate, as a lawyer and family friend.

Following the Rivonia Trial and Mandela's incarceration, we continued to correspond. Some of Mandela's letters had to be smuggled out by his visitors. At other times, he wrote to me through my wife, Princess Irene. There are two letters that I remember well. The first is his letter of condolence upon the passing King Cyprian Bhekuzulu ka Solomon. As the King's traditional Prime Minister, confidante and cousin, I was pained by his death in 1968.

The second letter that stands out in my mind was written just before his release, in which he laments the violence between our organisations and urges that we meet immediately upon his release. I agreed wholeheartedly, knowing that the message of reconciliation needed to filter down to the grassroots from the top.

My advocacy of non-violence, which I maintained throughout the ANC's People's War, had caused a schism between Inkatha and the ANC's mission-in-exile, when I refused to engage the armed struggle. I had been vilified for my stand, but I remained the champion of non-violence. I therefore welcomed Mandela's eagerness to end the bloodshed.

I regret, however, that a year passed before Mandela and I met, due to pressure he received from some ANC leaders. When traditional leaders in the Eastern Cape asked Mandela why we had not yet met, considering our well-known friendship, he admitted that ANC leaders from KwaZulu Natal had "almost throttled" him.

But Mandela remained clear on his intention to stop the violence. On the 25th of February 1990, Nelson Mandela addressed thousands of supporters at King's Park Stadium in Durban and said, "Take your guns, your knives and your pangas, and throw them into the sea." It was a message that many ANC supporters were loath to hear. But it was a call to return to the path of non-violence on which the liberation movement was founded.

When we did meet, on the 29th of January 1991, Mandela and I issued a joint statement committing ourselves to sharing a podium at joint rallies, to bring ANC and IFP supporters together and begin the process of reconciliation. Unfortunately, due to pressure from ANC leaders, again Mandela could not fulfil that commitment.

Based on the interim Constitution, a Government of National Unity was formed after the April 1994 elections, and President Mandela appointed me as Minister of Home Affairs. Whenever both he and Deputy President Mbeki were out of the country, President Mandela appointed me as Acting President of the Republic. I filled this position 22 times, and Mandela often jokingly referred to me as "Mr Acting President".

In 2004, when my son, Prince Nelisuzulu Benedict, passed away, I took the unprecedented step of acknowledging in public that my son had succumbed to HIV/Aids. Shortly thereafter, Mandela's own grandson died and he emerged with enough courage to say that HIV/Aids had claimed another life. No other leader had spoken so forthrightly about Aids. Not only did Aids carry a stigma, our culture did not allow us to talk about matters of sex.

But Mandela and I sought to de-stigmatise HIV/Aids so that more people would be tested, seek treatment and be willing to disclose their status to prospective partners. We gave the leadership in this fight, and I believe we saved lives.

For me, there is one pivotal moment in which Mandela's integrity was displayed. This was in 2002, when he publically admitted, "We have used every ammunition to destroy (Buthelezi), but we failed. And he is still there. He is a formidable survivor. We cannot ignore him."

The ANC has tried for years to remove me from the political landscape. President Zuma himself advised me, face to face, to step out of leadership. But only Mandela has had the integrity to admit that the ANC wants to "destroy" me. I am sure that if anyone knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of so much antipathy, it is Nelson Mandela.

But Mandela also knows, more than anyone else, what it is like to be loved as an international icon. As we all get caught up in the spirit of Mandela Day, I hope that the lessons of peace and integrity truly create change.

Yours in the service of our nation,

Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP

Issued by the IFP, July 18 2012

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