Mhlabunzima Maphumulo was born on 6 September 1949 and not much is known on the location of his birth or his childhood. At the age of 24, Maphumulo inherited the role of Chief of the Maphumulo tribe from his father. The territory which his chieftaincy encompasses contained 35, 000 people at the time.
In December of 1975, Maphumulo made his intentions of forming a royalist party, that he would name the Inala party, known. He believed that chiefs and other traditional authorities were being pushed aside within the national politics and he felt that this was not a good thing and so sought to counteract it.
In 1986, as tensions rose in the region because of various apartheid measures and conflict affected most of the region, his territory enjoyed relative peace. Violence continued to rise, and by 1989, 10,000 refugees from the other regions could be found in Maphumulo’s territory. He was considered to be a peacekeeper and a negotiator in these events and this is best exemplified by his activism which led to the creation of a Judicial Commission of Enquiry pertaining to the problems and the violence of the region.
He became the first President of Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (CONTRALESA). He led CONTRALESA to align itself with the ANC. He was a very strong believer in a unified South Africa and believed that if a chief chose to side with CONTRALESA, that chief’s people would follow:
‘Once a chief has identified himself with us, then we know that the whole tribe or the majority of the people in that area are now with the progressive force.’ (Van Kessel, 1997)
Some believed that this was an admirable move by him, but others (those who believed in the independence of the various chieftaincies and kingdoms from the State of South Africa and who supported the ideas of Chief Buthelezi) disagreed strongly with this position and threatened Maphumulo with violence if he did not rescind his support for the ANC. His tribal home ended up being burned down because of this disagreement and he and his family were forced to flee for survival.
In 1990, an assassination attempt was made against him. A motorcade, which should have been transporting him, was attacked and ambushed at gunpoint resulting in many deaths and injuries. Yet, he continued to fight for the rights of traditional leaders under the umbrella of a unified South Africa.
On 25 February 1991, Maphumulo’s house was attacked and he was assassinated at gunpoint. His death shocked many and his funeral was attended by 30,000 people.
This article was written by Savannah Seara-Robitaille and forms part of the SAHO Public History Internship
• South African Democracy Education Trust. (2004) The Road to Democracy in South Africa: 1970-1980. Johannesburg: Unisa Press.
• Van Kessel, I., & Oomen, B. (1997) “ ‘One Chief, One Vote’: The Revival of Traditional Authorities in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” African Affairs, 96 (385): 561-585.