Interview: Walter Felgate

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
He talks about his action-packed life and the reasons behind his decision to abandon Inkatha for the ANC.

When we first met you were a mature student at the University of Natal. How did you get there?
I started off at Pretoria University doing medicine but then fell in love, got married, went to Ndola in what was then Northern Rhodesia and then returned to the South Coast of Natal with my young pregnant wife, badly in need of a job. I ended up as a clerk on the railways selling tickets for seven years. In my mid-twenties I became a Methodist preacher and joined the Liberal Party. I found myself opposing the church establishment over racial questions so I left the white Methodist circuit and went to preach in the Indian Methodist mission near the racecourse in Durban. Down the South Coast I built up a ski boat business. At 28, I went to study social anthropology at Natal University. I fell in love with the subject and went to study the Tsongas on the Mozambique/Natal border. After a year on the South African side of the border, De Wet Nel, the minister for Bantu administration, prohibited me from entering any black area. I decided that to complete my research I would have to go to the other side of the border. In 1965 I went via Lisbon to southern Mozambique. This brought me into headlong conflict with my professor, Eileen Krige.

What did you fight with your professor about?
The Tsongas were totally different people on each side of the border. On the Mozambique side they were cash-cropping dagga on a large scale. In order to study them properly, I participated and got quite involved in the whole business. Hundreds of bales of dagga were being shipped to buyers coming up from Cape Town. There was prime dagga and ordinary dagga. It was all carefully graded. It was really a quite sophisticated business. Eileen Krige was fascinated by it all and wanted to have the research published but I refused because I knew that this would bring down the wrath of the authorities on the people I’d being studying. I won and my thesis was never published.

Didn’t it handicap your academic career?
Well, not too badly. I was a lecturer in social anthropology at Rhodes from 1968 to 1971. That was quite enough for me; I hated the stuffiness of it all. I went to Joburg and worked for the Chamber of Mines and the HSRC doing research on the “boss boys” as they were called on the mines.

What did that involve?
I gravitated to Rio Tinto Zinc (RTZ) and then in order to study how the boss boys worked (they were the key people on the mines), I worked incognito in a compound manager’s office as a participant observer. After this I moved to the personnel department, became director of personnel and a consultant to the head of RTZ, Sir Val Duncan in London. The big problem for RTZ then was the Phalaborwa mine and the company decided to review labour practices and social responsibility there. I set up a panel in order to do this. It consisted of Benny Khopa from the Black People’s Convention, Beyers Naude, Mangosuthu Buthelezi (to whom I had been introduced by Naude), Wolfgang Thomas, Loot Douwes-Dekker and Lawrence Schlemmer. It was a fascinating group and we devised an extremely progressive labour and welfare programme. But in 1975 I fell out with RTZ over their policy of developing the Rossing mine in Namibia. I argued that this would help prop up the South African regime there. They were not willing to see that. I got a good package from RTZ because they did not want me to disclose various company secrets. In effect, they bought me off.

What did you do then?
I had joined the Christian Institute. It was very radical in its general thinking but had no relations with the liberation movements; I argued that we had to have that. Thanks to my links in Mozambique I knew Frelimo and through it I met Oliver Tambo. I spent a lot of time moving between Durban, Maputo and London in contact with the liberation movement. I also moved in another triangle consisting of Naude, Tambo and Buthelezi. Johnny Makhatini, who was then running ANC foreign affairs, arranged a Ghanaian passport for me so that I could travel abroad without using a South African passport.

What was your main objective in those years?
The key thing to me was to avoid black versus black confrontation. There were several black movements emerging — Biko’s black consciousness movement, Motlana, the ANC, Buthelezi — any division between them would only hinder the cause of liberation. The ANC knew that its great weakness was that it was not organised on the ground as Biko and Buthelezi were. It wanted to bring both Biko and Inkatha under ANC control. Remember that Biko was caught en route to Cape Town where he was going to meet the ANC. Tambo had pulled out of two earlier planned meetings because to meet with Biko would be to acknowledge him as an independent leader of great significance. The ANC were understandably hesitant about this.

Where did Chief Buthelezi fit in?
He wanted a similar endorsement from the ANC. There was supposed to be a meeting between Buthelezi and Tambo in Sweden in 1978. Again Tambo pulled out at the last minute, so Buthelezi pulled out as well. Finally they met in London in 1979. Buthelezi was quite thrilled. His objective was to break the myth of the heroic exiles. He was perfectly aware that they were very human characters, not the iron-clad heroes they seemed back home. He took tapes of his own meeting in Jabulani so they could hear the applause to show them that he had mass support inside the country — which, indeed, at that time he did.

At the time you said that while Biko was alive the ANC had to remain friendly with Chief Buthelezi because they could fear an alliance of two against one. Once Biko was dead, they were free to have a fight with Buthelezi.
There may be some truth in that but it was more complicated really. After Biko’s death the black consciousness movement was split all over the place for a while but it was perfectly clear they would produce other leaders before long. Buthelezi for his part felt that the ANC was nothing like what it was cracked up to be.

How do you mean?
He took the view that the ANC would not survive in the shape that it was. He thought it was basically impossible to fight an armed struggle from abroad and was very aware that the movement had held no conference and had no elected leadership. In effect, it was a small clique in exile and the armed struggle was very ineffective. His basic belief was that the white regime was extremely strong and that ultimately it would drift towards a federal or possibly confederal solution. Black leaders would face a situation in which their only option would be to participate. This would make the homelands very important. Even in the late 1980s Buthelezi thought the ANC was a hopeless cause. This was his great historic mistake and once he turned out to be wrong, he was at a loss. He has never fully regained the political initiative.

But isn’t this the period in which you began to work with Chief Buthelezi?
Yes. I started working with him in 1978. I met with Tambo after the collapse of the meeting in Sweden. Oliver gave me the choice. He said I must help bring about the demise of Inkatha. I said that was impossible: I was a member of the Christian Institute and I saw my duty more as bringing the two movements together rather than working to destroy one or the other. He interpreted my refusal to choose as not taking his side. Until then to be loyal to Inkatha also meant being loyal to the ANC. Thus I found myself at Buthelezi’s side. I did not want to destroy anybody. I’d never had to choose before and I saw myself as fully involved in the liberation struggle.

Yes, that’s right. I’d bought Ravan Press and Zenith Printers from the Christian Institute and from 1975-77 I also published the newspaper The Nation for Buthelezi. I had a close working relationship with him from about 1976 on. I was working part-time until 1979 for Ravan, Zenith and H&H publications. In 1979 we got a big publishing contract with the KwaZulu schools. But in 1980 Oscar Dhlomo took the contract away and gave it to some Afrikaans publishers instead. This was part of a big falling-out I had with Inkatha in 1979-80.

What was the rest of your quarrel about?
I had known Buthelezi as my friend and comrade since 1976. I had written lots of speeches for him and we were on very close terms. But gradually I found that he had become more formal, more autocratic, more aloof and difficult. He would keep me waiting two or three hours at a time to see him. I got very fed up with this sort of behaviour and decided I would have no more to do with him. So I ran a book selling business in Richards Bay until Dhlomo, who was then secretary-general of Inkatha, persuaded me to return to the colours in 1981.

What was your job then?
I became a KwaZulu civil servant under contract as part of the chief minister’s department. I moved to Ulundi but almost immediately I had another big falling out with Buthelezi. The same sort of difficulties, lots of red tape and formality. My relationship with him was never easy.

But nonetheless you were his main speech-writer?
Yes, and his demands were extraordinary. In the average year I would produce between 1 million and 1.4 million words. The Chief wanted a speech for every single appointment. Often 35 or 40 pages long. It was only later that this was shrunk to about 12 pages. He had a lot of appointments and that meant an awful lot of speeches. I lived in Ulundi working night and day on speeches. It was an inhuman lifestyle even though I engaged two other writers and had two secretaries. I never really fitted in with Zulu society there. I never liked all the bowing and scraping and the elaborate etiquette of it all. If you were in favour then you would find yourself up at the top table near the Chief. If you had done something that he did not like, then mysteriously you’d find yourself on the bottom table all over again.

Aren’t these just the normal problems of whites who get involved in black politics?
Yes, but at that time Buthelezi’s strategy revolved around the need for institutional and white support. He felt he didn’t need to do much more to get black support. In 1979-80 there were more signed up members of Inkatha in Soweto than the ANC had ever had in the whole of South Africa. One branch in Lindelani, near Durban, alone had 90,000 members. Buthelezi set out to displace the ANC believing that it would fail completely and that he would be the only one left for the National Party government to deal with. He was really positioning himself for that deal with the NP and did not want to push them too far. That analysis turned out to be wrong.

From your own record of this situation, it would appear that you were constantly having quarrels with Chief Buthelezi – and indeed with a number of others - and that you frequently withdrew or resigned.
Well, that would not be an adequate characterisation of my relationship with Buthelezi. The point was that you had to have a really strong sense of who you were to stand up to him. He is an extremely overweening and domineering personality. Very few people can stand up to him. Ben Ngubane is just pulp in from of him. Those who work for him are virtually his slaves. You might think that this was just Zulu traditionalism, that the big chief is always the big chief, but it went much further than that. Buthelezi wants to subdue completely those around him and I could not be subdued because he was totally dependent on me.

Many would feel that Chief Buthelezi’s strategy has not worked quite as badly as you say. The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, despite their years of struggle, were unable to displace him.
True — though in fact the ANC did very well in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1994 election. Of course, some of them were foolish enough to believe their own propaganda that they could win. They could never do that given Buthelezi’s advantages, with the KwaZulu government and the traditional structures behind him. But the IFP is crumbling now. The spirit and the spark is no longer there. And in any case, the whole situation has become blurred. There is now not much between the parties on policy.

But has the struggle ever been much about the policy?
Agreed. The struggle has really always been about the attempt to displace a liberation movement and the inevitability of violence in that situation. Policy has always been secondary. What matters now is that Buthelezi had legitimacy in the 1970s and 1980s. He stood for something real. But all that is now gone. Now the IFP is simply Buthelezi. It will not survive him. The IFP has not delivered on its promises in KwaZulu-Natal and for the ordinary man in the street all this posturing about the IFP-ANC conflict has little meaning. But the real crunch that’s coming is the battle over rural democracy. I do not believe the IFP can prevent the election of democratic councils in the tribal rural areas.

But is the poor delivery of the IFP on their promises in KwaZulu-Natal any different from the poor delivery of the ANC government in the country as a whole? And why do you say Cheif Buthelezi lacks legitimacy? He has behind him not only all the old traditional structures as before but the democratic legitimacy of electoral victory in his province, plus being a cabinet minister and frequently the acting President.
I don’t mean that form of legitimacy. What I mean is that he has lost all the elite level confirmation of his position. He has no churches, trade unions, newspapers or NGOs behind him in the way that they are behind the ANC. The ANC may be equally bad on delivery but it does have that immense following wind of support at elite level, not just in this country but outside it. If you go to diplomatic cocktail parties now you’ll find that Buthelezi is not even discussed any more. This effective relegation of him is seeping down into the electorate. His myths are no longer valid, they no longer hold water. On the ANC side, whatever one thinks of the RDP, for example, its myths are backed up by great legitimacy.

If you are a democrat why do you now want to increase the strength of a party that already has over 62 per cent of the vote?
Look, there is no prospect of any real opposition showing in 1999. The ANC could well get two thirds of the vote. There is no point in being interested in opposition politics at this stage. We have a very difficult time ahead of us in this country given our population growth, given Aids, given crime. It is very difficult to keep the economy on an even keel and to control the situation in the country. The only hope of controlling the situation and navigating our way through this period lies with the ANC. In that sense, it represents the only hope for democracy. Sure, we may go down the same road as Zimbabwe but we’ll have to see in ten or fifteen years time whether we can tackle the issues of democracy then. The key issues are now about controlling society and keeping the economy on an even keel, not about achieving the sort of democracy you would like to see.

You want to bring out a book attacking Chief Buthelezi that will be used against him in the 1999 election. Is personal bitterness is a large part of your grievance?
Yes, I’m fed up with having endlessly had to negotiate things at Buthelezi’s behest and then finding all my work thrown out and no one among my colleagues willing to say a word, even though they had agreed with me beforehand. What you don’t appreciate sufficiently is how deeply and bitterly angry I feel with Buthelezi. Not only for having been so obstinate but for the way he has treated me. I have worked back-breakingly hard for him for 20 years and at the end of that time, you find you are discarded because you won’t toe the line. After all the work I did I was never given the proper recognition, never allowed to hold sway. So I would certainly rather be in the ANC now. I feel that within that arena I can be a new factor in the situation, that I can play a role, that I will count. I feel utterly disillusioned. I just want to make bloody sure that there is no chance of the IFP ruling KwaZulu-Natal after 1999. If Buthelezi wins again in 1999, then we’ll all live in a state of siege. If he is allowed to get away with blocking rural democracy then something dark and dreadful will have happened. But he can’t get away with that. His walk through history is now almost over.