From that moment on, they would have to make do with historical records, transcripts of interviews, published articles, books and old letters. There is a vast treasure trove of documentation on the life of Mandela and the times in which he lived. But any academic will tell you that a one-on-one interview is the Holy Grail of research.
Even if one has pored over every resource with a meticulously fine-toothed comb, there is always the hope that, in person, in a face-to-face meeting, the person who lived these experiences will tell you something they have never told anyone.
And even if the interview covers only well-documented ground, nothing compares to hearing it first-hand, listening to the cadence and inflections of the original story.
So it is that when researchers and academics unravel the story of Africa’s oldest liberation movement, the African National Congress, they invariably make contact with my office. Why, you might ask, do they search out the leader of the IFP to talk about the ANC? The answer is simple. I’m an original resource.
Dr Pixley ka Isaka Seme, the founder of the South African National Native Congress, was my uncle. He convened black South Africans of all ethnicities in Bloemfontein on January 8, 1912 - 107 years ago - where they declared their intention to stand together for dignity, equality and freedom.
I didn’t just hear about my uncle from other relatives. He was part of my everyday life as I was growing up. He was married to my aunt, Princess Phikisile Harriet kaDinuzulu, my mother’s sister.
In the late 1940s, the Semes built a homestead in the Mahashini area. I was doing matric at Adams College and Dr Seme frequently sent for me to come to his house.
He had undergone an eye operation and was struggling to keep up with his political correspondence. So he would send for me and I would sit at his desk, taking dictation. He signed each transcribed letter himself, before moving on to the next one.
So it was in Dr Seme’s study, listening to his voice, that I became familiar with the figures and intricacies of our liberation struggle.
I became privy to the personalities and speaking styles of the great leaders who now populate history books. I read their personal letters to the founder of the ANC and wrote down his responses, instructions and ideas.
It was a formative time in my political life. But it also taught me the values of a good work ethic. It taught me a life-long lesson to respond to every letter and email I receive, because everyone deserves the dignity of a response.
It taught me to listen carefully, hearing what is said rather than what I think is being said. It taught me how to disagree without being disagreeable; how to persuade rather than bully; and how to maintain the integrity of an opponent while exposing the flaws in their thinking.
All these years later, as I sit in Parliament, I often wonder where these standards of political discourse have gone. On the 107th anniversary of the ANC, many will ponder how different the organisation is from the original liberation movement; how corruption has eaten away at the core, undermining the strong foundations of the past; how present leaders are so different from the men and women of integrity who built the name of the ANC.
Many will ponder the moment of divergence. Was it a single moment? Perhaps the moment they abandoned the founding principle of non-violence to embark on an armed struggle? Or were there many moments of small compromises? The overlooked indiscretion, the sanctioned deviation, the allowance for greed and ambition?
There is no question that today’s ANC is a very different animal to the organisation I joined at the University of Fort Hare. It is different to the organisation led by my mentor, Inkosi Albert Luthuli, with whom I spent long hours in conversation about politics, faith and justice.
It is different even from the liberation movement that became a governing party under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
Today’s ANC is divided. It is split into factions, some supporting an ousted leader. It is struggling under the weight of abuses of power that are bleeding into the public spotlight. And it is following the lamented path of its sub-Saharan neighbour while insisting that this is different, this is radical economic transformation.
Of course I worry about my country. I have fears for a future that I myself will never experience. But my children and grandchildren, and all the people I have served for almost 70 years will have to navigate that future. For you, I have sleepless nights.
I have done all I can, and I will keep doing more than my fair share even in the twilight of my life, because the future we were building all those years ago must not be lost. We dare not forfeit the gains won by that generation.
I am proud to serve alongside this generation of leaders in the IFP as we press on towards the prize of social and economic justice. Not economic disaster, but economic empowerment. Not social division, but social cohesion.
What we want for our country is what the founding fathers of our liberation movement wanted for South Africa. It hasn’t been achieved by the party that evolved from the 1912 foundations. But it will be pursued, relentlessly, by those who remember the beginning. I was moulded by the founding father of our liberation movement. I still carry the original vision, believing it can be achieved.
I know I am not alone. There are thousands upon thousands of IFP members who share my vision. And there are millions more in our beloved country who are yet to find a home in the party that speaks their language. Ours is the language of peace and justice. It’s the language of hope.
* Buthelezi is the president of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.The Independent on Saturday