A scion of Zulu royalty in one of South Africa’s most influential ethnic groups, Mr. Buthelezi (pronounced boo-teh-LAY-zee) built a political base during apartheid that tapped into Zulu nationalism and opposition to then-jailed Mandela and his African National Congress. Mr. Buthelezi broke with the group in the 1970s and carved out an enigmatic political brand that juggled apparent contradictions and multiple identities.
Mr. Buthelezi fiercely denounced South Africa’s White-rule system but was seen by many Black critics, including members of Mandela’s ANC, as complicit in apartheid by becoming prime minister of KwaZulu, one of the Black “homelands” set up to further entrench segregation and divide Black South Africans along tribal lines. During the 1980s, Mr. Buthelezi increasingly ran KwaZulu according to his own whims, cracking down on opponents and doling out patronage and jobs to allies.
While Mandela remained jailed at the Robben Island prison, Mr. Buthelezi also adopted a statesman’s role seeking to squeeze out the ANC — meeting with leaders such as President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mr. Buthelezi presented a pro-business alternative that rejected the ANC’s demands for international economic boycotts, saying the sanctions hurt Black South Africans most of all. Mr. Buthelezi also gained stature among White South Africans by opposing the ANC’s calls for armed resistance to apartheid.
He did not, however, shy away from fighting any challenges to his iron-fist control of the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom Party, which claimed to have more than 1 million members at his peak.
He would at times put aside his Western-style suits and take on the mantle of a Zulu warrior, wearing leopard skins and brandishing spears to fire up supporters. “Violence is not alien to us. War is not alien to us,” he told more than 8,000 people at a 1986 ceremony honoring Shaka Zulu, an exalted Zulu king from the early 19th century.
A contest between the ANC and Inkatha for political control of KwaZulu and elsewhere touched off years of internecine bloodshed, which included horrific retributions known as “necklacing,” in which a tire filled with gasoline was placed around the victim’s neck and set blaze. Thousands of people were killed in clashes from 1987 to 1991.
At the same time, apartheid was heading toward its end. Mandela was freed in 1990 after 27 years in custody, and the ban on the ANC was lifted, opening the way for talks with the government of President F.W. de Klerk to draft a new constitution and phase out White rule. Suddenly, Mr. Buthelezi was worried about being left on the sidelines.
With his mix of charisma, connections and firebrand self-confidence, Mr. Buthelezi worked his way into the dialogue, saying he represented issues outside the ANC’s main agenda such as free-market principles and tribal and ethnic rights. He also had numbers on his side. Zulus account for nearly a quarter of the nation’s Black population.
“Too weak to rule Black South Africa himself, and he is too strong for someone else to run it without him,” wrote journalist Michael Massing in a 1987 profile of Mr. Buthelezi in the New York Review of Books.
Still, Mr. Buthelezi refused to cool his opposition to the ANC. He threatened a Zulu boycott of the country’s first elections open to all voters in 1994, raising deep fears that apartheid would be replaced by a country politically splintered and at risk of more unrest.
Just days before the voting, Mr. Buthelezi made a stunning turnabout: backing the election and saying he would run for president. The decision brought an outpouring of relief from world capitals and financial markets — as well as a scramble to update the ballots.
“I think Mr. Buthelezi looked over the brink and blinked,” South African affairs scholar Robert Schrire told The Washington Post at the time.
The election also left Mr. Buthelezi humbled. The ANC won in a landslide, and Mandela became the country’s first Black president; Mr. Buthelezi’s Inkatha took 10.5 percent of the vote. The results were attributed in part to backlash over deals made by Mr. Buthelezi to control KwaZulu, including revelations in 1991 that de Klerk’s government had secretly channeled money to Mr. Buthelezi’s forces in their battles against the ANC.
But Mandela recognized Mr. Buthelezi was better in the fold than outside. He was appointed minister of home affairs, a position he kept until 2004 under Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki. De Klerk served as deputy president from 1994 to 1996.
South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created to examine policies and abuses during the apartheid decades, concluded as part of a 3,500-page report in 1998 that Mr. Buthelezi participated in human rights violations during Inkatha’s attacks against the ANC. Mr. Buthelezi challenged the findings, and his name was taken out of the report as part of a court settlement in 2003.
Mr. Buthelezi’s complicated legacy was evident even in tributes after his death. A statement from the Nelson Mandela Foundation said the two leaders represented a type of reconciliation that “had no need of forgiveness, nor of forgetting the past, nor even of learning to like one another.”
“It was,” the statement added, “simply about determining to get on together.”
Mr. Buthelezi was also pragmatic in his assessment of why he backed off his showdown with the ANC. “We did it,” he told Reuters in 2003, “to end a low-intensity civil war.”
Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi was born Aug. 27, 1928, in Mahlabathini, South Africa. His father was a Zulu chief, and his mother was a princess and descendant of King Cetshwayo, who led Zulu forces against the British during an 1879 war. Mr. Buthelezi played the monarch in the 1964 film “Zulu,” which chronicled a British contingent facing a Zulu siege.
Mr. Buthelezi studied at the University of Fort Hare from 1948 to 1950 before being expelled for joining political protests with the ANC’s youth wing. He later received a degree from the University of Natal.
He rose through various territorial posts, including winning a seat in the KwaZulu legislative assembly in 1972. In the mid-1970s, he began rebuilding the Inkatha movement as his power base. He stepped down as party leader in 2019.
He married Irene Mzila in 1952 and declined to take additional wives as permitted under Zulu customs. She died in 2019. They had eight children. Survivors include a son and two daughters.
For years, Mr. Buthelezi wore a ribbon to draw attention to HIV and AIDS, which he said claimed the lives of three of his children. (Two others died in car crashes.) He was among the first public figures in South Africa to talk openly about family members who died because of HIV-related health problems, which became a politically charged debate after Mbeki questioned the scientific evidence that HIV caused AIDS.
“People [were] always trying to hide the death because there was some kind of stigma,” he told the South African broadcaster SABC. “I was trying to get rid of the stigma.”