Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP, President of the Inkatha Freedom Party, pays tribute to his wife of 67 years with these emotional words.
“Find rest, O my soul, in God alone… Trust in Him at all times…” – Psalm 62
How do I say farewell to the love of my life? I cannot count the times we said goodbye to each other. Seven decades are marked by goodbyes. The quick kiss on the cheek as she left to drive the children somewhere. The litany of instructions to rest and eat well and look after myself as I left for an international trip.
As many times as we said goodbye, I never got used to it. It was hard being apart. But as many times as we said goodbye, we said hello. And that sparkle in her eye let me know that I was home.
No man could have asked for a better wife than Indlunkulu Irene Audrey Thandekile. How then do I say farewell? The only way I can; believing not only that this is our last goodbye, but that there will be another hello, spoken in the presence of our Lord. That beautiful day will surely heal the wound that has felled me now.
I am deeply grateful to the many friends who have surrounded our family in this time of grief. Thank you for the support you are giving to me and to our children, Ntuthukoyezwe Zuzifa, Phumzile Nokuphiwa and Sibuyiselwe Angela. Thank you to the friends of our grandchildren for standing beside them and weeping. And thank you to my colleagues who serve our country alongside me. Your condolences and, more so, your prayers are greatly appreciated.
Indlunkulu Irene Audrey Thandekile fulfilled every promise she made to me when we married on the second of July 1952. For almost 67 years she loved and cherished me, in the moments of greatest triumph and in the pits of despair. She raised our children, providing them with the finest gift a mother can give; the assurance of unconditional love. She poured out her attention on our grandchildren, taking pride not only in their accomplishments, but in their character. Her presence made our home a welcome refuge, a place of comfort, acceptance and love.
She was the epitome of a homemaker, always in the kitchen, dishing out biscuits and advice in equal measure, listening intently with her beloved Tootsie on her lap. She shared long conversations around the kitchen table with friends and family, often giggling at some private joke, and making everyone feel special.
But that was not the whole of her. There was a depth to her that I find hard to express. It was in her faith, in the way she turned to the Lord when she was angry, disappointed, surprised, excited or uncertain. She shared her life with her Maker, and He in turn blessed her with endless courage, fortitude and wisdom.
So often she would meet someone I was acquainted with, spend a few moments with them, and report to me exactly what she observed in their character. I was angry when she told me, quite frankly, that she didn’t like someone. But I quickly learned to listen to her instincts because she was always proven right. Husbands throughout the ages have discovered and rediscovered how God blessed women with an extra sense.
Her good judgement played an important part in my career. Princess Irene was shy of the public spotlight. Yet she was quite capable of holding the attention of Heads of State and foreign dignitaries. She always impressed our hosts when we travelled together throughout the world.
I vividly remember our first international trip in 1963, when we visited Scandinavia at the invitation of the Swedish Lutheran Bishop Helge Fosseus. More than once we were together in the United States. In Africa we travelled together to Ethiopia, as well as visiting President Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and President Julius Nyerere in Tanzania. In 1976 President Olusegun Obasanjo sent plane tickets for Princess Irene and I, together with my Secretary and an aide, so that we could be in Nigeria on the day that Transkei took independence.
One of our trips that stands out in my mind was to Maseru, when Mama Nokukhanya Luthuli asked me to accompany her to receive a posthumous award on behalf of her late husband, from the Organisation of African Unity. It was a blessing to have Irene at my side. Her quiet strength somehow bolstered my own fortitude to do whatever was required of me.
When we married, Indlunkulu Irene knew that she would become the wife of an Inkosi. For a city girl from Johannesburg, who was training to be a nurse, she faced a big change in circumstances. I will forever be proud of how she embraced the responsibilities cast upon her, not only then, but when I became Chief Minister of KwaZulu, then Minister of Home Affairs, and even Acting President of the Republic. Whatever role she was called upon to fulfil, she expressed gracious warmth and professionalism.
People often commented that Indlunkulu Irene knew more about Zulu culture than those born and bred in the Zulu Kingdom. I know that I have my mother to thank for that, for Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu embraced Princess Irene as a daughter and guided her through all the learning of protocol and cultural nuances. The two of them got along so well that I was never concerned when my duties took me away from home. Right up until my mother’s passing in 1984, she and Princess Irene were fast friends.
Friendship was important to my wife. When she made a friend, it was for life. So often I would come home to see Irene sitting in the kitchen with the late Peta Hulett, with my assistant Bongi Maphanga, or with her wonderful carer, Monica Khumalo. She was equally generous in her attention to family friends, as she was to my aides, protectors and staff. And they in turn expressed the utmost respect for Princess Irene.
So many times in my long political career, I thanked God for blessing me with such a magnificent partner in life. There were many times too that I wished I could shield her from what life with me entailed. For it demanded a thick skin and unshakable resolve. I didn’t want any of my family to spend their lives defending me in the onslaught of political propaganda. But because they know the truth and because they love me, challenging lies has come with the territory of being a Buthelezi.
I can forgive much, but it was difficult to forgive the ignorant or malicious whenever I found my wife in tears. I wonder sometimes when people sit and write such terrible things, whether they think about how many lives are affected and how much heartache they will cause.
Of course, sorrow was something Irene and I were familiar with. I can never express the depth of my admiration for her, for living through the deaths of five of our children, and remaining hopeful about life. She mourned, but was never bitter. She grieved, but still she showed love. Her love was expressed not only in words and thoughtful acts, but in the amount of time she spent praying for me, for our children and our family. She prayed us through all the ups and downs.
To say that Irene was my anchor is not enough. Where is home now that she is gone? I will listen now to our favourite music, and close my eyes, and imagine that she is still here. Her smile will be in the music.
I know that life must go on. I know that I will be supported by family and colleagues and friends. But even as I do what is still required of me, I will be biding my time. I will be looking forward; because at some point ahead our goodbyes will forever be silenced with that happy word, “Hello”.
Until then, may my beautiful wife, Indlunkulu Irene Audrey Thandekile Buthelezi, rest in peace.