Dear friends and fellow South Africans,
At Sunday's launch of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, I paid tribute to
former First Lady Mrs Zanele Mbeki, who personifies ubuntu-botho. I felt
that as we honoured the life's work of former President Mbeki, we could not
underestimate the influence and support of one of his most trusted advisors;
In honouring her, I said: "The marriage of Thabo and Zanele Mbeki has been a
great partnership in every sense. South Africa owes a debt of gratitude to
our former First Lady, not least for her outstanding work in various
national and international organizations to promote the economic empowerment
of South African women. Foremost among the accolades we could heap on Mrs
Mbeki is her role in founding the Women's Development Bank.
Far from being reticent and remaining out of the public eye, Mrs Mbeki has
shown great leadership in her own right in issues ranging from education, to
social work, foreign relations and community development. Her life's work
speaks of her remarkable intellect and independence. Her skill and strength
of character are displayed in the trustee and directorship positions
bestowed upon her over the years.
But perhaps her greatest strength lies in the coupling of a formidable mind
with a tender heart, as evidenced in her chosen field of study and her work
with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well her
involvement in many charitable organisations. She is a patriot, a champion
of women's rights and a leader in our nation.
I am proud of the role played by our former First Lady. I believe Mrs Mbeki
is one of our unsung heroines, and I felt it would be remiss of us not to
acknowledge her part in the success of our country and the success of her
husband. Let us honour her for standing by her husband in the most trying
political storms and for giving our nation an example of integrity and
It is no secret that I feel the same way about my own wife. By sheer
coincidence, my children are holding a dinner this weekend to celebrate
their mother, Princess Irene Thandekile. Usually politicians deflect the
public eye from their private lives, and I have been no exception. But I
feel the time is ripe for me to put pen to paper to express my gratitude for
my closest friend; my wife.
We were married 58 years ago in Johannesburg. There is no one in this world
I would want to spend that much time with, other than her. I have been
pressurized by my culture to adopt polygamy. But, for me, Irene has
completed the image of a helpmeet; she is a woman of strength, intelligence
and kindness, who has always supported me. There is nothing lacking.
Within five years of marrying me, this beautiful young nurse from
Johannesburg was raising four children. Yet she remained hungry for our
country's freedom and was a political activist in her own right. In 1957,
she intended joining a group of women led by my mother, Princess Constance
Magogo kaDinuzulu, in a march against the imposition of the "dom pas". My
mother was furious to be told by the magistrate that it was not fitting for
her to lead such a march.
It was my mother who eased Princess Irene's transition from urban life to
life at KwaPhindangene, training her in her new role as wife of an Inkosi.
Irene came from a different background to me. Her grandmother was a
descendent of Amakhosi of the Chunu Clan, and she reminded her father,
Zachariah Mlungumnyama ka Joseph Mzila, so much of his mother that he used
to call her "Ma-Mchunu".
Irene has always been cultured and naturally diplomatic, and I was fortunate
to have her accompany me on many of my international travels, even as we
continued to expand our family. Together, we visited Sweden in 1963 to
investigate the social security programmes of Stockholm. In the seventies,
General Olusegun Obasanjo, the President of Nigeria, invited me to Lagos and
sent tickets for Irene and I, and two of my aides. Unbeknownst to me,
General Obasanjo was attempting to arrange a meeting between me and Mr
I had previously met with Mr Tambo in Malawi as the guest of President
Kamuzu Banda. To my surprise, Minister Aleke Banda told me that arrangements
had been made for me and my wife, and Mr Barney Dladla, to go to Mangoche
near Lake Malawi to rest. On arriving in Mangoche, I was told that the
President of the ANC-in-exile would meet me there. Irene took a keen
interest in my work and listened tirelessly, offering remarkably shrewd
wisdom and counsel.
In the early seventies, I was invited to speak at the World Wilderness
Congress in San Antonio, Texas, by a mutual friend, Mr Harry Tennison. Dr
Ian Player and his wife Anne accompanied Irene and I, as part of the
delegation of the Natal Parks Board. The Players became our good friends.
In fact, Irene and I have been blessed with many lifelong friends; which
today is somehow an anachronism. Many of these friendships blossomed in an
environment hostile to interaction across the colour line, and cost everyone
involved. Ironically, that lent an unusual tenacity to our friendships.
In 1968, for instance, we visited the Jewish Club for the first time and met
people like John and Anna Moshal, and Arnold and Rosemary Zulman. Years
later, the Moshal family Trust funded CHIVA, the Children's HIV Association
in KwaZulu Natal, through the "Prince Nelisuzulu Benedict Gift Fund", which
the Moshal family named after our late son. The house of Arnold and Rosemary
Zulman became our home away from home in Durban, because at that time we as
black South Africans were not allowed to stay in hotels.
Another unusual friendship that spanned more than half a century was our
friendship with Mrs Helen Suzman. She and her husband, Dr "Mosie" Suzman,
accommodated Irene and I in their home, just as the Zulmans did.
Irene was equally generous in her hospitality, opening our home to the
President-General of the ANC, Inkosi Albert Mvumbi Lutuli and his wife, who
were brought to our home by an American friend, Ms Louise Hooper, and on
other occasions by Dr Wilson Zamindlela Conco, who chaired the Freedom
Charter gathering. Dr Conco would park his car in my garage, and my car
would be parked in front of my home. Inkosi Lutuli rested during the day,
and we talked through the night.
My father-in-law, Mr Zachariah Mzila, and his wife Tabitha, were close
friends with the young lawyer, Mr Nelson Mandela. I introduced him to my
late cousin, King Bhekuzulu Nyangayezizwe Cyprian ka Solomon. We had
occasion to enjoy the hospitality of Mrs Winnie Mandela at their home in
Orlando in the fifties. When my father-in-law passed away, I approached
Mandela, as a lawyer, on behalf of my in-laws to wind up his estate.
As a young girl, Irene often stopped at the Bantu Men's Social Centre in
Eloff Street Extension to watch her father, Zachariah Mzila, playing a game
of draughts with Nelson Mandela. Mandela often visited her home and Irene
served him tea. To this day Mandela tells a favourite joke; that whenever
Irene greeted him, she would hold her mouth and smile.
It is by now common knowledge that Mandela and I stayed in constant
communication throughout his time in prison. He wrote to me directly, and at
times through Irene. Our correspondence spanned decades.
With this history, it was particularly difficult for Irene when the ANC's
mission-in-exile launched its vicious attack on me through Alfred Nzo in
June of 1980. The decades long campaign of vilification that followed hurt
my family deeply.
But we were accustomed with pain, as grief and loss had come early to our
marriage. In 1966, at the tender age of nine, our daughter Mabhuku
Snikwakonke was tragically killed in a car accident. Mabhuku had been
particularly fond of her older sister, Mandisi Sibukakonke, and they used to
play together in the front yard. Her death was jarring. Her brother and two
older sisters suffered; but my wife took it particularly hard.
It is tragic that our eldest daughter, Phumzile, relived this heartache when
her son, Alpheus Nkosinathi, was killed in a car accident at the age of 24.
The pain of burying a child is unbearable. We never could have guessed that
38 years after Mabhuku's death, we would bury Mandisi and her brother,
Nelisuzulu, in the same year.
Both Mandisi and Nelisuzulu fought a disease which could not be won, with
feisty courage and spirit. Their mother and I watched over them in anguish
as they succumbed to HIV/Aids. The following year, in January of 2005,
President Nelson Mandela's son, Makgatho, also died of Aids and the family
had the courage to speak out. We honoured them and shared their grief.
Just three years later, they returned our support when my beloved daughter,
Lethuxolo Bengitheni, was killed in a car accident just weeks before my 80th
Birthday. Lethuxolo was my right hand, and she was close to her mother. I
recall the excitement with which she would discuss with Irene my various
victories and successes, and how they consoled one another over the slings
With the death of Mandisi, Irene and I assumed the responsibility of raising
our grandson. With Lethuxolo's passing, we promised our support and
protection to Nontokoza, our granddaughter. Irene is an affectionate
grandmother, always available to all our grandchildren, and they know her as
closely as their own parents.
We have suffered many losses, including the death of my mother, her parents
and her three brothers. But grief has brought our family closer together. I
thank God that Irene and I can still delight in the achievements of our
children. I had the privilege, as the Chancellor of the University of
Zululand, to personally confer a degree on our last born, Sibuyisele Angela
Siphetho, the second of our children to graduate from that University.
Irene has walked with me through countless valleys, giving to my life a
flavour of joy and richness even in the darkest hours. Her strength and
resilience are remarkable. But over 58 years, the memories that stand out
the most are not of hardship; but of laughter. Irene has a delightful sense
of humour, and her smile lifts my heart.
I recall how, in the nineties, I was made an honorary member of the Chefs'
Association of South Africa. When I proudly related this to my wife, and
showed her the certificate presented to me, she lowered her eyes and smiled.
I asked her why she was laughing at me, as she so clearly was, and she
explained that she had been married to me for over 40 years and had never
seen me cook a single meal! I reminded her that I can fry an egg, and she
burst out laughing.
Her gentle spirit has comforted me and encouraged me to greater patience.
Whether she is teaching a young woman to bake or listening to a
granddaughter's frivolities, her heart is wholly in it. It pains me to see
poor health afflict her, as I know how she longs to give of herself to
I have often felt that in the long stretch between birth and dying, we need
someone to hold our hand and experience it all with us. Loving the person
whose hand we hold colours every experience in the hues of purpose, peace
and joy. May my beautiful wife do me the honour of holding mine a little
Yours in the service of the nation,
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi
Province Or State