exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
In this article Laura Phillips argues that the organised Jewish community's philanthropic relationship with Mangosuthu Buthelezi and King Goodwill Zwelithini is problematic due to both being implicated in some of the most brutal parts of recent South African history. She contends that when securing support for Israel is a primary motivation of local outreach efforts, South Africa's Zionists will inevitably find themselves with compromised allies.
IN a recent article for DafkaDotCom (20/09/2018) Benji Shulman commends the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) for its close relationship with the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelithini, and presents SAFI’s initiatives in rural KwaZulu Natal as an example of how the Jewish community should act to advance its own interests when engaging in philanthropic activity. A month after the publication of Shulman’s article, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) and the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) paid tribute to Mangosuthu Buthelezi on his 90th birthday.
"... though Buthelezi and King Zwelithini claim to promote development in rural KwaZulu-Natal, they are implicated in some of the most brutal parts of recent South African history".
Extending their good wishes to the Zulu Prince, the SAJBD explained they had gathered to celebrate the Board’s long-standing relationship with Buthelezi and their joint development efforts in underprivileged communities. In response, Buthelezi thanked the “Jewish Community” for its good wishes and then lambasted the South African government for downgrading the South African Embassy in Israel.
Shulman, SAFI, and the SAJBD present these relationships as demonstrations of the Jewish community’s commitment to building a better South Africa. The warmth and close affiliation between Zionists in today’s organised Jewish community, and Zulu Royalty, builds on a long and intertwined history between Israel and Bantustan leaders that predates 1994. While on the surface these relationship may seem unproblematic, they paper over very inconvenient facts for SAFI, SAZF and SAJBD: though Buthelezi and King Zwelithini claim to promote development in rural KwaZulu-Natal, they are implicated in some of the most brutal parts of recent South African history.
As political head of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and Chief Minister of the former KwaZulu Bantustan, Buthelezi was responsible for the bloody death squads that resulted in over 20 000 murders between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Though Buthelezi had a relatively good relationship with the ANC up until the early 1970s, by 1973 he had made connections with the apartheid state, already receiving briefings from state intelligence. With the establishment of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 and increasing challenges to the Bantustans, Buthelezi secured South African Defence Force (SADF) support for the IFP’s paramilitary unit, sending 200 IFP supporters to the Caprivi strip for combat training. Assisted by the South African state, the Caprivi-trained unit assassinated ANC and UDF supporters across the Transvaal and KwaZulu, while driving a programme of aggressive Zulu nationalism. The worst of Buthelezi’s violence culminated in the early 1990s, in the infamous Sebokeng and Boipatong massacres, led by the IFP in collaboration with the National Party. Though the IFP finally agreed to stand in the first democratic elections in 1994, Buthelezi nearly derailed the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) by refusing to accept the principles of negotiation and insisting on separate representation of the KwaZulu Bantustan, the IFP and the Zulu Monarchy.
"Why do some Zionist leaders in SA's organised Jewish community ... cultivate relationships with these men?"
While King Goodwill Zwelithini has had an uneasy relationship with Buthelezi, he, too, is responsible for the ethnic violence of the late apartheid period and the hardening of Zulu nationalism in recent years. The King has also made news headlines for his inflammatory xenophobic statements, his insistence on virginity testing, his reintroduction of circumcision in Zulu communities and, most recently, his desperate attempts to hold on to the Ingonyama Trust. The Trust was set up in the dying days of apartheid as a strategy to ensure chiefly control over the land, and preventing rural black residents from holding secure tenure. As the head of the Trust, Zwelithini controls over thirty percent of the land in KwaZulu-Natal and has effectively turned the rural black land owners into tenants, threatening to evict all those who oppose the King and the Trust. With this power, Zwelithini has commodified Ingonyama Trust land, making deals with mining and agricultural companies without the consent of residents. The Trust collects enormous rents from commercial entities while dispossessing people from their land.
This is all well known. Journalists and scholars have reported on the violence and unconstitutional behaviour of Buthelezi and Zwelithini for decades. Why, then, do some Zionist leaders within South Africa’s organised Jewish community continue to cultivate relationships with these men? And why does the SAJBD, SAZF and SAFI actively help them shore up power by turning, for example, the Zulu King into a gatekeeper for prized resources in rural KZN? In recent decades a number of scholars have written about the role of ‘development aid’ as a political instrument to shape and influence what used to be referred to as ‘the third world.’ During the apartheid years, the South African state pumped money into the Bantustans, ostensibly to ‘develop’ these beleaguered rural territories. In reality however, state officials were concerned with creating a pliable collaborationist class that would support the apartheid project. Similarly, ‘development’ is being weaponized today by some Zionist organisations and representative organisations in South Africa. SAFI’s outreach arm, the Milk & Honey Trust, plainly state their aims:
"It is our intention to effectively win back hearts and minds by building a bridge between Israel and the broader South African community. After all, there is no better way to change perceptions than by making a practical contribution to the lives of ordinary people.”
Zwelithini and Buthelezi are clearly more than happy to play along. While offering vocal support for Israel, Zwelithini presides over renovated medical clinics in rural KwaZulu-Natal. And a statement from the SAJBD explained that “[Buthelezi’s] ties with KwaZulu-Natal Jewry have been particularly rewarding, resulting in joint projects that have seen initiatives in the field of HIV Aids prevention and the implementation of education upliftment programmes in underprivileged areas.” Though these philanthropic initiatives appear noble, they are clearly closely tied to Zwelithini and Buthelezi’s political support for Israel.
"In many ways, the current ties of pro-Zionist organisations and representative organisations to these former leaders is an extension of Israel’s earlier relationship with the Bantustans."
Zwelithini and Buthelezi’s support for Israel is not new though. These two former Bantustan leaders, along with their counterparts in several other Bantustans have had a long-standing relationship with Israel. Over the course of the 1980s, several Bantustan leaders – from Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana to Patrick Mphephu of Venda – visited Israel. Though never formally recognizing the Bantustans, Israel effectively granted de facto legitimacy to apartheid’s ethno-states, by, for example allowing the establishment of a Bophuthatswana Trade Mission in Tel Aviv. At the same time Bantustan leaders like Mangope rhetorically positioned their pseudo-states as analogous to Israel, suggesting that Bophuthatswana, like Israel, was a “young country that has achieved independence as a result of their cultural and historical ties to the land.” As historian Arianna Lissoni has argued, “‘homeland’ ruling elites identified their political formations not with the Palestinian occupied territories but with Israel itself…”.
In many ways, the current ties of pro-Zionist organisations and representative organisations to these former leaders is an extension of Israel’s earlier relationship with the Bantustans. But surely this is not something of which SAFI, SAZF or the SAJBD should be proud? In fact, the affinity of former Bantustan leaders’ with Israel should hold up a mirror for South African Zionists. Instead of embracing Buthelezi, Zwelithini or the late Mangope’s support for Israel, it is time to ask what are the ideological underpinnings binding such relationships? Though philanthropy and upliftment are often driven by noble motives, charity is never offered in a political vacuum. When securing support for Israel is a primary motivation of local outreach efforts, South Africa’s Zionists and their allies are going to find themselves with deeply compromised bedfellows.
 See, Jabulani “Mzala” Nxumalo, Gatsha Buthelezi: Chiefs with a Double Agenda, Zed Books: London, 1988; Benedict Carton, John Laband and Jabulani Sithole (eds), Zulu Identities: Being Zulu, Past and Present, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press: Pietermaritzburg, 2008.
Laura Phillips is a PhD student in the History Department at New York University and holds a Research Associate position at SWOP Institute at Wits University. Her research focuses on the Bantustans and their legacy in post-1994 South Africa.