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True friend: Buthelezi’s 50-year relationship with SA Jewry



Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who passed away over the weekend at the age of 95, will be remembered for many things. His role, specifically during the traumatic final decade of white minority rule, remains a matter of much debate, and his legacy is inevitably a complex one.

For South African Jewry, however, he’ll be remembered as a loyal friend and supporter as well as a valued partner in building a better society, particularly in his native KwaZulu-Natal.

From the time of his appointment as chief minister of the newly formed KwaZulu homeland in the early 1970s until his death more than 50 years later, Buthelezi regularly engaged with Jewish leadership, speaking on numerous important communal platforms.

He further acknowledged the important role Jews had in combating the injustices of apartheid, consistently denounced antisemitism, and was a staunch advocate for maintaining and building on the South Africa-Israel relationship, even when it became increasingly unpopular to do so.

In one of his first reported public speaking engagements with the Jewish community, an address to about 500 members of the Durban Jewish Club in August 1972, Buthelezi stressed the themes that would feature in his future interactions with the community.

Acknowledging how Jews had been persecuted for centuries and yet had triumphed in spite of it, he appealed to his audience to do all they could to help black people uplift themselves as Jews had done for so long.

Paying tribute to those Jewish South Africans who had “stuck their necks out for the dispossessed and the powerless”, he expressed his belief that like him, the Jewish community was “convinced that South Africa cannot survive very long if her wealth is built on the shaky and rotten foundations of denying us human rights”.

Buthelezi would later often recall the many Jewish leaders he met and befriended as he became increasingly involved in the liberation struggle from his time as a student at the University of Fort Hare onwards. Like him, they were “working toward the same goals of political franchise, equality, and social justice in South Africa”.

Buthelezi consistently denounced antisemitism in all its forms, and in later years, was the most senior South African leader to take a strong stand against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS)-inspired boycott action against Israel. Among other things, he sharply disagreed with the African National Congress’ decision to downgrade the South African embassy in Israel, calling it “short-sighted and regressive” as well as being “in opposition to our country’s role as a mediator for peace”.

Buthelezi visited Israel for the first time in August 1985, at the invitation of then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Both as a committed Christian and a political leader confronted by a time of great turmoil and difficulty in South Africa, the visit was deeply meaningful to him. He was especially moved by his private meeting with Peres, who asked that he come back to see him at the end of his visit to tell him how the trip went.

“As we talked, he leaned towards me and said, ‘We’re brothers in suffering.’ It was a poignant moment, for I realised then that he understood my struggle for South Africa,” Buthelezi later recalled. About two decades later, Buthelezi was again invited to Israel by Peres to celebrate the latter’s 80th birthday. It was there that he first met Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, with whom he also developed a strong connection.

In October 2018, a special event co-organised by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), South African Zionist Federation, and SA-Israel Forum was held at Yeshiva College shul for South African Jewry to pay tribute to Buthelezi on his 90th birthday. Speaking on that occasion, SAJBD National Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev described the veteran leader as a warm and loyal friend of the Jewish community whose door had always been open whenever it needed his counsel or assistance.

“Whether it was during the dark days of apartheid or in the hopeful new era of non-racial democracy that replaced it, Prince Buthelezi has always been willing to engage with our community, build bridges, and forge partnerships in creating a better society for all,” Zagnoev said.

Zagnoev further noted how through the partnerships built between Buthelezi and the Jewish community in KwaZulu-Natal, it had been possible to implement numerous important projects in the field of education and HIV-AIDS prevention.

Many individual members of the Jewish community were also among Buthelezi’s close friends and supporters. They included anti-apartheid lawyer Rowley Arenstein; famed liberal opposition parliamentarian Helen Suzman; long-serving Inkatha Freedom Party senator and MP, Dr Ruth Rabinowitz – whom he affectionally dubbed his “Julu”; and Arnold and Rosemary Zulman. Buthelezi and his wife, Irene, spent many evenings in the latter’s Durban home during the apartheid years and they retained their close connection even after the Zulmans had emigrated to the United States.

Speaking at the 90th birthday event in his honour, Buthelezi placed special emphasis on his friendship with the Zulmans. “These days, someone can be called a friend simply because they follow you on Facebook or they liked your profile. When I speak of having friends in the Jewish community during apartheid, I’m talking about people who opened their homes to my wife and I. The home of Arnold and Rosemary Zulman in Durban was our home away from home. Even though they have migrated abroad, Arnold Zulman has travelled all the way from the United States to comfort us when we buried some of our deceased children. He was at my side in Ulundi on 27 August this year when I turned 90. This is what I’m referring to when I speak of the meaning of true friendship”.

Buthelezi further noted how Zulman had built the first Com-Tech High School in KwaZulu-Natal, in Umlazi township.

The Jewish community’s connections with Buthelezi continued after his official retirement from political life. In 2022, Susan Abro, the president of the Council for KwaZulu-Natal Jewry; SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn; and other Jewish communal leaders were among those who attended the launch of the Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi Foundation. Recently, in response to the SAJBD’s letter wishing him well in light of his recent illness, Buthelezi sent a warm letter of appreciation, in which he thanked the Jewish community for its “consistent kindness and friendship”.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Gary Selikow

    Sep 14, 2023 at 3:41 pm

    RIP Umtwana. One of Africa’s greatest statesmen ever and the greatest President South Africa never had . A mountain fell on 9 September 2023. Bayethe!

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