Obituary: Lonely life of an adored princess
Irene Buthelezi, who as a young woman caught the eye of Nelson Mandela, was always loyal to her Zulu prince
Princess Indlunkulu Irene Audrey Thandekile Buthelezi, who died in March at Mahlabathini in KwaZulu-Natal at the age of 89, was the wife of IFP leader and Zulu prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi for almost 67 years.
Partly in line with royal etiquette and partly due to her own nature, she kept a low profile and avoided media attention. But she was a strong woman with a mind of her own.
Soon after their marriage in 1952, she led a group of women to the native commissioner’s office in Nongoma to hand in their passes in support of the ANC-led defiance campaign.
Buthelezi had just been installed as acting chief and her deliberately public act of defiance against the apartheid regime may well have resulted in him not having his chieftainship confirmed.
However, she persuaded him it was necessary to lead by example.
His official installation as chief was delayed until 1957 partly, it was understood, because of her open participation in the anti-pass law campaign.
In public the relationship between them was very formal and correct.
He referred to her as Mndhlunkulu, princess, and she called him Shenge. She was always conscious of her position in society and her responsibilities as consort to Buthelezi who as prince and KwaZulu chief minister had a high international as well as local profile.
She met the important people she had to meet with the required level of respect, grace and dignity. But with close friends in the privacy of her home the reserve and deference she showed in public were replaced by lively comment and sharp observations.
Alan Paton remembered her “definitive statement” on Buthelezi’s task in life: “The government dumped the dirt on Gatsha’s doorstep,” she said. “They didn’t give him a broom to sweep it away.”
She was down to earth, never took herself too seriously and used a quietly ironic sense of humour to prick the bubbles of those she thought were being pompous or foolish.
She wasn’t beyond lightly ribbing Buthelezi himself. When he announced proudly that he’d been made an honorary member of the Chefs’ Association of SA she didn’t hide her amusement. When he asked what the joke was she said she’d been married to him for more than 40 years and never seen him cook a single meal.
She was popular with the women of Inkatha. She was never aloof, listened to their problems and offered solutions as well as sympathy.
Irene Audrey Thandekile Mzila was born in Johannesburg on February 12 1930. A descendant of amakhosi (tribal leaders) of the Chunu clan she was, like Buthelezi, of royal blood.
She matriculated at Orlando High School where she was taught by well known educationists of the day such as Professor Khabi Mngoma and ABC Motsepe, the father of Patrice Motsepe.
Nelson Mandela was a friend of her father Zachariah Mzila. They used to play draughts together at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Eloff Street, and when Mzila died the young lawyer Mandela wound up his estate.
Buthelezi liked to tell of how Mandela would joke with him about being served tea by Mzila’s giggling daughter.
“I must have been very funny,” Mandela would quip.
She was a beautiful young woman and Mandela always had a soft spot for her. He wrote to her from Robben Island, using the letters also as a vehicle for communicating with Buthelezi.
A famous ladies’ man, Mandela may well have been attracted to her, but the cosmopolitan, educated and articulate young Buthelezi was considered a prize catch himself.
Mzila was a senior clerk at the Witwatersrand Labour Association depot, and the induna in charge of the compound which had suites to accommodate amakhosi. Buthelezi was staying there with his uncle in 1949 when he met Mzila’s daughter and they fell for each other.
She was working as a nurse at St Aidan’s Hospital in Durban when they got married in 1952.
Buthelezi, whose path to the chieftainship had been blocked by the fact that he wasn’t married, was installed as acting chief soon afterwards and she was received into the clan.
An urbanite through and through, she loved the activity and vitality of city life and found the transition to rural life when she had to move to the Buthelezi clan homestead at Kwaphindangene in Mahlabathini very hard.
Suddenly finding herself involved in a ruling hierarchy with all the duties, formalities and protocol this entailed made the difficulties she experienced even more daunting.
She never found life in the country easy and took advantage of every opportunity to keep in touch with city life, accompanying him when possible on his frequent visits to cities in SA and abroad, and when at Mahlabatini arranging visits to Durban whenever she could.
More often than not she was at home looking after their eight children while he travelled abroad meeting world leaders. She may have been a princess but her life was often lonely and far from glamorous. It was also very tragic.
In 1966 their nine-year-old daughter Mabhuku was killed and she and her small son Phumaphesheya seriously injured when the car she was driving crashed into a donga.
Another car accident took the life of their daughter Lethuxolo in 2008. In 2004 their son Nelisuzulu and daughter Mandisi died of Aids.
This was at the height of Aids denialism but she strongly and openly aligned herself with Buthelezi’s decision to go public about their death from Aids.
In 2012 they lost a third child, Phumaphesheya, to Aids.
Princess Irene is survived by her 90-year-old husband and three children.