Although he is a staunch opponent of apartheid, Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi has few friends among black antiapartheid activists in South Africa. The African National Congress, which espouses socialism, accuses him of being a capitalist. The United Democratic Front calls him arrogant and intransigent. The Azanian People's Organization, a militant group that excludes whites, denounces him as an enemy. He has been called a "traitor," a "sellout" and a "puppet."
Yet both black and white foes of apartheid know that without Buthelezi's consent a solution to South Africa's political problems is virtually inconceivable. Buthelezi, 56, is the political leader of the country's largest ethnic group, the 6 million Zulus, a proud people whose ancestors warred at length with the British in the 19th century. He thus represents a quarter of South Africa's black population and a force that outnumbers the white population by more than 1 million. As chief minister of KwaZulu, the impoverished, mountainous territory that the Pretoria government set aside for Zulus in Natal province in 1973, he rules the largest of the ten "homelands." Finally, as leader of Inkatha, Buthelezi heads South Africa's largest political association, with a dues-paying membership of 1 million. He is pragmatic, articulate and dynamic. When Buthelezi speaks, both blacks and whites listen, yet what he has to say sometimes pleases neither audience.
To many blacks, Buthelezi's message, one of compromise and negotiation, is not militant enough. Since he assumed the leadership of the Zulus in 1957, he has remained committed to nonviolence. "We do not seek cheap popularity by posturing in favor of the armed struggle when we know we do not have even the tools to carry it out," he said recently. "We have not said that we blacks may not be forced one day to take up arms. The point is that there are just no arms to take up at present." Buthelezi rejects foreign economic sanctions and has spoken out forcefully against divestiture, arguing that the costs of such strategies would be borne primarily by blacks. Instead, he seeks foreign investment for KwaZulu.
Critics charge that by taking an active role in the white-imposed KwaZulu homeland, Buthelezi lends legitimacy to the structure of apartheid. The chief argues that to negotiate change he must work within the system. Still, he is adamant in his demand that all South Africans must have their share of political power. As a first step toward that end he promoted a plan in 1982 for KwaZulu and Natal to be governed by a joint executive body composed of equal numbers of whites, blacks, Indians and coloreds. Pretoria rejected the proposal. "We are prepared to shelve a unitary one-person, one-vote system, although obviously it always has been and remains our ideal," Buthelezi says. "We are concerned about making a start where a start can be made. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible." Buthelezi, however, firmly rejects State President P.W. Botha's calls for a system under which each ethnic group would be responsible for its "own affairs." Such an arrangement, Buthelezi counters, would result in a division, not a sharing, of power.