Mangosuthu Buthelezi's wife Princess Irene dies after 'long, difficult illness'

Mangosuthu and Irene Buthelezi arrive at KwaPhindangene tribal court in Mahlabathini to vote in 2014.
Mangosuthu and Irene Buthelezi arrive at KwaPhindangene tribal court in Mahlabathini to vote in 2014.
Image: Jackie Clausen/Sunday Times

Irene Audrey Thandekile Buthelezi, described as the "beloved" wife of veteran politician Mangosuthu Buthelezi, has died.

"Following a long and difficult illness, Princess Irene passed away peacefully this morning at KwaPhindangene," the family of the Inkatha Freedom Party leader said in a statement on Monday.

"She leaves behind her husband of almost 67 years, their children Prince Ntuthukoyezwe Zuzifa, Princess Phumzile Nokuphiwa and Princess Sibuyiselwe Angela, and many grandchildren. All are devastated by this loss."

The family asked for privacy as the arrangements are made for the funeral, the date of  which will be announced in due course.

"We thank our many friends and supporters for their love, prayers and condolences in this painful time.

"Our greatest solace is in knowing that Princess Irene Buthelezi has been received by her Lord. By His grace, she rests in peace," the family said.

Buthelezi previously revealed that five of their children had died, and that his wife had generously helped to raise some of the affected grandchildren.

Among the tributes pouring in at the news of the death of the 89-year-old Irene Buthelezi is one from former statesman Nelson Mandela's assistant Zelda la Grange. She commented, "Please convey my sincere and heartfelt condolences. Madiba was so fond of her."

In 2012, Buthelezi shared there was a personal friendship between them that began in the 1950s, when he discovered that Mandela was close to his father-in-law, Zachariah Mzila. He wrote: "Whenever Mandela visited him at the Eloff Street compound where he worked, Mr Mzila's daughter, Irene Thandekile Mzila, would serve him tea and become the target of his gentle teasing."

Despite Madiba's legendary charm, the then nursing student was quickly snapped up by Buthelezi.

In a February 2016 interview, he spoke to the Sunday Tribune of the day they met.

“I was mesmerised. She was full of life, intelligent and kind. She had a quiet sophistication that would have served her well in the diplomatic corps. It did not take me long to ask for her hand in marriage.”

Polygamy did not interest him: “I never lacked anything having only one wife. Princess Irene has been my closest friend, my adviser, my prayer warrior and the love of my life.”

UDM leader Bantu Holomisa tweeted: "Our condolences to Nkosi Buthelezi and his family. This has been a long journey for her, including to look after Zuzi Ntuthuko and his siblings during difficult period in SA’s history . May her soul RIP."

DA MP John Steenhuisen posted: "Condolences to the leader of the IFP in Parliament, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and his family on the loss of Princess Irene. You are in our thoughts and prayers at this time."