IFP’s silhouette politics: Resurrecting a dead man via kin and kith

Siyabonga Hadebe

Siyabonga Hadebe

Published Mar 23, 2024


Siyabonga Hadebe

At the launch of the party’s election manifesto in Durban last weekend, news headlines highlighted that the IFP “invokes the memory of Mangosuthu Buthelezi”.

However, they mainly focused on T- shirts, berets, vehicle stickers, flags and banners displayed on the stadium tiers. Undoubtedly, the IFP appears to be a party associated with a dead man: it continues to grapple with overcoming the late Buthelezi's dominant genome ingrained in its DNA.

The IFP’s message has been unambiguous. In its campaign manifesto, released before the May elections, it pledged to prioritise locals over foreigners as a strategy to tackle unemployment.

The IFP only won 3% of the vote in the last national elections in 2019. While removing the ANC from power entirely appears a bit ambitious at this point, this relic of Bantustanism has a reason to believe.

It has seen an upsurge in support, winning control of a number of municipalities in KZN.

To achieve its ambition, the IFP relies on an unfamiliar template, which I term silhouette politics.

Silhouette politics is a strategy of leveraging symbolic representations rather than substantive policies, implying a focus on nostalgia or traditional ties within the party’s approach.

It is also a form of political manipulation or exploitation that evokes imagery of using familial and community connections to revive past political figures or ideologies.

The IFP’s strategy involves resurrecting a dead man from his grave: it cannot move forward and offer alternative solutions. Although the party claims national credentials, it still heavily depends on Buthelezi’s legacy of ethnic nationalism to draw support, especially in the KwaZulu Bantustan.

Buthelezi’s image appears alongside that of its current leader, Velenkosini Hlabisa, on its election posters and T-shirts.

This year’s campaign slogan is “Do it for Shenge”, referencing the late leader.

The cadaver is exhumed, and the dead man’s memory is kept alive through whatever means possible.

This approach entails two methods. Firstly, Hlabisa has been president of the IFP since 2019 but under Buthelezi’s shadow. The coming election will be the first in which the IFP will compete without its founding leader, at least in person. Buthelezi’s image appears in its promotional materials, and his silhouette ensures that the IFP will forever struggle to establish a distinct identity.

Buthelezi led the IFP from its founding in 1975 until 2019 when he stepped down. During his tenure, the IFP's supporters clashed violently with ANC supporters in KZN and Gauteng. With the assistance of the apartheid government, Buthelezi's name became intertwined with the low-scale civil war, the impact of which is still evident throughout the province. Interestingly, both the ANC and the IFP have not spoken loud enough against ongoing politically-linked killings in KZN.

Perhaps embedding Buthelezi’s image benefits Hlabisa, who does not have to shoulder his predecessor’s chequered legacy. At the same time, he is still not ready to create his political image, and this is evident in the party’s decision to feature the deceased as its face in this year’s elections.

This means Buthelezi’s silhouette hovers above Hlabisa’s head, and the IFP appears content with this.

In past elections, the IFP’s long-standing political slogan has been “indoda ongayethemba” (a trustworthy man). This message boldly emphasised Buthelezi’s centrality to the IFP’s existence and outlook. Recently, this slogan transitioned into “trust us” featuring Buthelezi’s silhouette alongside Hlabisa.

For its members, it appears that they are not even aware that they are being asked to put their trust in a deceased person to navigate their political futures.

Going forward, observing how the IFP deals with the prevalence of Buthelezi’s mirror-like Ayatollah Khomeini supreme leader status will be intriguing. This observation becomes more thought-provoking, considering the party’s revival of its late leader’s silhouette through his family.

The IFP’s reliance on silhouette politics, which also involves drawing in family members to uphold Buthelezi’s posthumous influence, highlights the party’s status as a family business bereft of democracy.

It stays loyal to its tribal heritage: the IFP is a kraal of the Buthelezi clan rather than a political party – a weakness characterising other black parties in post-apartheid South Africa.

Firstly, it is reported that late Buthelezi’s children prominently feature in the IFP national lists for the 2024 elections. At 68 years old, Zuzifa Buthulezi is placed at a significant position (#7) on their national candidate list: he can also enjoy his nap alongside other notable ‘sleepists’.

This move, undermining democratic principles, suggests the party is willing to go to great lengths to capitalise on its late leader’s legacy, even if it means prioritising the supreme leader’s relatives ahead of its members.

Zuzifa Buthulezi has not disappointed in affirming the silhouette gameplay. He asserted that the Buthelezi family remains committed to the IFP and has no intention of severing ties with the party established by their father. He also emphasised their readiness to collaborate closely with the party’s endeavours. The party’s rally was more like a Buthelezi family gathering than a political event.

Secondly, Buthelezi’s legacy seems to resonate beyond the confines of the IFP and his family.

Evidence suggests figures on the opposite side of the political spectrum even appreciate his silhouette.

Ethnic-based political ideologies are increasingly dominating democratic South African skies. Like in the rest of the continent, the politicisation of ethnicity and its influence on political office pursuit, electoral contests and governance models promises to define South African politics going forward.

The persistence of ethnic politics poses a considerable challenge for many African countries.

According to numerous scholars, integrating ethnic-based political ideologies into the mainstream could hinder the representation of the masses. Ethnic politics may be an enticing strategy for leaders aiming to maintain power by leveraging emotional appeals and resource manipulation, often without fostering genuine debate or adding value.

The impact of colonial and apartheid legacies, such as language ideology, tribal politics in Bantustans, and deep-seated racial inequalities, is proving quite heavy for post-apartheid South Africa. Ethnic politics, a legacy of Buthelezi's, is proving quite helpful not just for the IFP but also for other parties like Bantu Holomisa’s UDM rooted in the Transkei and Bongani Baloyi’s Xiluba Party in Gazankulu.

The ANC nurtured Buthelezi’s ethnic politics in the post-1994 era by treating him as an eminent individual and acceding to his demands in creating KZN. This means the IFP does not need to be in power to exert its influence: Buthelezi’s silhouette still underlines today’s politics. All political parties also embrace ethnic politics in one form or another.

However, the IFP seems reluctant to adapt its strategy, continuing to rely on ethnic politics despite the emergence of competitors.

Unfortunately, the IFP no longer holds a monopoly on ethnic-identity politics, as the MK Party appears to be attempting to capitalise on Buthelezi’s legacy in the province. Recent polls indicate that the MK Party is also poised to erode the IFP’s stronghold. However, one thing is certain: Buthelezi’s chequered legacy lives on, and this shall continue for many years to come.

The IFP must wake up to the fact that it has no intellectual property to ethnic politics in South Africa.

South African political parties are predominantly caught up in ethnic-based political ideologies, often prioritising a superficial approach of filling stadiums over addressing social justice and emancipation.

Overall, South African political parties, including the IFP, must reassess their priorities and move beyond ethnic-based politics to address pressing societal issues.

Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters.

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