Thousands of people, some dressed in traditional warrior garb, attended the funeral Saturday of South Africa's Zulu leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, linked to the wave of deadly violence that marked the country's escape from the apartheid regime.
Mourners gathered at a small stadium in Ulundi, the former capital of the Zulu kingdom in eastern South Africa, to remember the founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who died on September 9 at 95 years old.
“The sun has set on an era and a life that witnessed and impacted much of our country's modern history,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his eulogy.
Earlier, family members dressed in black led the coffin covered with animal skins and IFP flags down a red carpet before placing it under a black curtain on the ground.
Around the building were mourners, some wearing traditional leopard skin shirts and holding spears and shields made from cowhide, others wearing white IFP T-shirts emblazoned with the late leader's portrait. Bonga Makhoba, 31, said he drove 150 kilometers (90 miles) and slept in his car to attend the ceremony: “He treated all of us Zulus like human beings. That's why I'm here."
"I respect him, and I want him to rest in peace."
During the ceremony that started in the morning and lasted until late afternoon, the IFP Women's Brigade chanted "he brought us this far" in Zulu while other mourners paid their respects to "Senge ", as Buthelezi was known by his clan name.
Among the guests sitting under white tarpaulins in front of the altar were former presidents Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki. Buthelezi was an opponent of Ramaphosa and his former boss, Nelson Mandela, when the two men led negotiations to end white rule in South Africa. For years, it has been locked in a bitter rivalry with the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
This party was its political home until it split to form the Inkatha movement in 1975.
Born of royal blood, to some he embodied the proud and fiery Zulu spirit, while to others he often acted like a warlord.
A controversial legacy
As prime minister of the “independent” homeland of KwaZulu, a political creation of the apartheid government, Buthelezi was often seen as an ally of the apartheid regime. He was dogged by accusations of collaborating with the white government to incite violence and derail the ANC's liberation struggle, a charge he firmly denied.
Violence between Inkatha supporters and rival liberation groups claimed some 12,000 lives as unrest between the ANC and IFP increased before the 1994 democratic elections.
Ramaphosa admitted he and Buthelezi "did not always see eye to eye", but speaking about the violence, he said this was "not the day to point fingers and blame".
“South Africa could be a very different country today” if Buthelezi had not made a last-minute decision to take part in the vote, Ramaphosa said.
He was later appointed Home Minister in the government of national unity led by Mandela. Admired as a charismatic orator, Buthelezi became one of the country's longest-serving lawmakers, widely known for his slim figure and distinctive rectangular glasses.
But although he is considered a cultural guardian for more than 11 million Zulus, his legacy remains controversial.
Buthelezi's epitaph should read: "Main collaborator of apartheid and mass murderer", wrote Mondli Makhanya, editor of the City Press newspaper.
The Sowetan, a daily newspaper born out of the liberation struggle, wrote that "to his supporters, who revere the ground he walked on, he is appreciated as a hero. "
However, he “will remain a despised figure in the eyes of those who suffered brutality and violence at the hands of his party henchmen.”
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi's organization has dismissed the criticism as "unspeakable crimes" and "old lies".
At the funeral, current IFP leader Velenkosini Hlabisa described Buthelezi as a "giant of Africa" who was "unfairly vilified" for remaining steadfast in his beliefs.
“Everyone has their past, but Buthelezi, for me, was the best,” said Fisokhule Buthelezi, 45, a distant relative wearing a black IFP beret, sitting in the stands.
After the ceremony, the body was transported to be buried in the family plot.