Chief Buthelezi, IFP leader has announced his retirement from politics.This is the story of How We Met.


JANI ALLAN: At the time I met Chief Buthelezi, in 1982, he was still flavour of the month – that was before political pragmatism took over. I remember an interminable lunch for the opening of the Drakensberg Sun Hotel in Natal. There wasn’t an interview scheduled with His Excellency afterwards, but I thought I’d try and busk it anyway. The corridor outside his room was like a Japanese subway, packed with chiselled-faced Zulus. Very stern and very forbidding. My mind kept flashing back to a scene from the film Shaka Zulu where Impi warriors are chanting: “One Zulu is worth a thousand other men.”

I felt embarrassed to be white, to be so terribly white and so terribly ignorant of his culture. Yet it was literally one of those synapse things when I walked into the room and actually met him – you just know somebody, maybe it’s from another life or whatever.

He’s a very controlled person and very measured; an epic character who I’m sure can be exacting – and I know he’s a workaholic – but he’s got the greatest sense of humour. I called him from London once and said to him: “I just saw a guy at Wimbledon station wearing a dress – and it wasn’t even a nice dress.” It’s not the kind of thing a Zulu would laugh at – but he laughed enormously. Buthelezi has a wide-open sort of laugh, like a train coming through a tunnel. And he sometimes says things that are unintentionally endearing, for example when he uses words like “balderdash” and “poppycock”. It’s so Brideshead Revisted.

Most of the time our discussions are political, because it’s hard not to be political in this country (not like in Britain, where you can ignore the rather sedate way everything’s going downhill). As I might as well come from a different planet, he doesn’t exactly ask me for political advice, it’s more really about how he’s feeling. We talk about key issues like hanging and abortion. Those are the bedrock issues from which the rest of a person’s character flows. But despite the fact that everyone thinks that I’m an IFP member, I do not have any political affiliations. I support Buthelezi the man because he makes me believe that heroes still exist.

I’m always amazed how he straddles two cultures. Last year he took me for lunch in Pretoria. We went with all his bodyguards to a restaurant where the food looked so beautiful it should have been framed, not eaten. Needless to say, it was a great treat for me. Whenever I go out with somebody, I always think, “please let them not hold their knife like a pencil!” That’s fatal. But Buthelezi was impeccable. He also invited me to commemorate Shaka Day, where the lunch was traditional food like putu (maize), which is eaten with one’s fingers. When I went to the celebration it was like walking behind Mick Jagger. He’s like a pop star, he is adored by his people. I’ve heard that people approach him on their knees. I just go, “hug, hug”.

Whenever I’ve been near him I think I’ve smelled Aramis Devon, which is excellent. He dresses exquisitely – very Italianate: crocodile shoes, a little bit flashy. I think he thinks I’m stylish but I’m sure he also thinks I’m too thin.

He was in London just after my court case and he said: “I can’t believe what they did to you.” It’s white people who go: “I wonder what the real story was?” Black people instinctively think it was a set-up. I received supportive faxes from him, which were enormously kind; and when my mother died he was the first person who phoned me.

Sometimes I can see why journalists get incredibly irritated when he closes his eyes as he launches into a big speech. But I know it’s because he’s so bored with these jumped-up people who haven’t done their research. His speeches are so long because it’s African style to talk at length. I’ve seen blacks sitting in the heat for hours and hours hanging on to every word while I’ve been battling to stay awake.

I have the weirdest range of emotions with regard to Buthelezi. I feel very protective and at the same in awe. He gave me a perfect (my puppy couldn’t fit in it) terracotta-coloured, ostrich-skin handbag for my birthday. It was extraordinary because I think he picked it himself. There is never, ever any impropriety, yet he can make you feel so special. It’s a fine line to tread. He doesn’t flirt with women but they adore him.

I’ve thought about our friendship a lot over all these years – he’s a Christian like me and we play by the same book of rules, yet I often wonder what on earth two people who come from totally different worlds have in common? He is arguably the most criticised man in the South African press and I don’t for one minute pretend to know him, know him, know him. How could I? But to me he is a prince in every sense of the word.

CHIEF BUTHELEZI: I was immediately impressed with Jani when I saw her at my opening of the Drakensberg Hotel, 15 years ago. She had a column in the Sunday Times in South Africa which many people enjoyed, and it was quite exciting for me to meet her in person after reading her work for so long.

I had an idea of her humour from her writing and I’d always appreciated that very English brand of wit. She has a razor-sharp mind. She is a very intelligent person, and I thought: “Now here is a good example of beauty and brains.” We got along like a house on fire immediately. My wife, who was also at the function, equally enjoyed listening to her conversation.

I subsequently met Jani again over the years in London; sometimes she interviewed me and the friendship slowly grew. She’s a very special person and highly cultured, so it was always a pleasure to speak to her, with her powerful brain and the way she expresses herself.

When Jani talks to me I always take it as from someone who is a sister in the Lord and who is concerned about my welfare. In that capacity we speak very freely to each other. She tells me what she thinks and so forth. I wouldn’t say I take her political advice. We do however have some ideas that overlap: for instance on capital punishment and abortion laws. I think in a situation like South Africa and with the kind of society we have, it was too early to remove the death penalty. When murderers know they can kill people and nothing can happen to them, it’s a matter of sheer common sense that prison will not deter them.

I’m a Virgo and one of the aspects of my culture is that Zulu people are very shy. If I wasn’t a politician I think I would have been a musician. Jani and I have similar musical tastes. I often play the Songs of David and I find listening to Chopin is very good for my whole well-being when I work, which can be up to midnight every night. I am not a connoisseur as far as eating is concerned, but I enjoy relaxing with friends like Jani and eating a good meal. The only thing is, I suffer from gout, which limits my range of food to chicken and fish.

The one thing I regret about Jani is that she smokes so much. She’s lessening her life by so many hours every day. It’s something I lament – but I’m tolerant. I always say if those over 21 want to kill themselves, that’s fine – but even as a passive smoker you can contract cancer. Smokers can commit suicide if they want, but why take me along?

When Jani was going through her trial with Channel 4, I felt very, very sorry for her. Being vilified by the press is something I know about, and in that respect I have great empathy with her. I used to be very popular – I was once honoured as Man and Newsmaker of the Year. But the winds of favour changed sharply and some newspapers now sarcastically refer to me as the most litigious politician. Criticism is something that one expects in politics and one is fair game. But there are limits and I have human rights too. Very often in their hatred and efforts to placate the ruling party in this country, the press has gone very far at my expense and quite a number of times I’ve had to take the papers to court. So I understood Jani’s experience, because I’ve had a taste of it: the press would link me to Terreblanche too, though I’ve never even spoken to him. In that sense Jani is a tough cookie. A lesser soul than her would have completely gone to pieces. She is very strong in spirit and I admire that.

Very often in the morning I cry when I pray, because there’s so much I should be doing and I don’t know if I can accomplish it all. But I always believe that one must never abandon hope. I pray for other people who pray for me, and I’m sure Jani’s one of them. I’m loyal to my friends, even though I’ve been deserted by so many.

Jani is a very sensitive and emotional person. I don’t think I’ve got the same fine sensitivity or compassion that she has. But finding ourselves on the same wavelength as Christians is more profound and meaningful to me than anything else. Over the years we’ve warmed towards each other as Christians. That bond, apart from the friendship, rises above all different political ideas. It’s more of a spiritual link.