'I get upset when people say I'm only thinking of Buthelezi. At three score years I have no personal ambitions. I've never been motivated by ambitions for myself,' he said.
Chief Buthelezi was speaking at a breakfast yesterday organised by the Foreign Correspondents' Association. It was an opportune moment to be exposed to his thinking as the perception has gripped much of South Africa this week that Inkatha, in partnership with the far right, has been blocking agreement in multi-party talks on a date for the country's first democratic elections.
In fact, the government and the African National Congress (ANC) see the potential of Inkatha and its radical white allies to generate mass violence as the biggest obstacle to securing a peaceful political settlement.
In a lengthy prepared text, Chief Buthelezi set out his bedrock political beliefs. 'My party stands for ground-up democracy and all our political endeavours centre around getting the voice of the people heard'; 'democracy is to the IFP (Inkatha) a system of government where the people themselves are given the right to decide'; 'constitutional decision-making should not be left to the autocrats'.
Why, then, did he insist that the constitution be drawn up by the 26 self-appointed parties taking part in negotiations? What was wrong with the government and ANC proposal for the constitution to be drafted by an interim government elected by the people? 'Such a process would merely pave the way for the ANC alone to decide on the structure of the future constitution of this country,' he said.
It was an extraordinary admission by a man who has always held - in contradiction of every poll - that his party commands at least as much support as the ANC. But it did not fully answer the question. The proposal of the government and the ANC, he went on, was 'blatantly undemocratic'. The key to South Africa's problems lay in federalism and a constitution entrenching substantial devolution of powers to the regions - namely KwaZulu and Natal - had to be set in stone now so an elected government would not be in a position to tamper with it.
When it was put to Chief Buthelezi that the ANC had gone some way to meeting his concerns on federalism and that the government fully shared his position, he laughed. 'To say the ANC has moved is like saying a woman is a little pregnant,' he said. As for the government, he had received a letter from President F W de Klerk on Thursday arguing the similarities of their positions. 'Pure Alice in Wonderland,' he said.
Pressed to explain why, if he was in favour of the people's voice being heard, he objected to elections, he replied: 'As a black person I see people being killed ever day. . . . We have the ANC's private army, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), all over Natal . . . For you to suggest we hold elections in these circumstances indicates to me how little you care about the plight of my people.'
Private armies engaging in political violence, in short, were preventing elections from taking place. But, was not the KwaZulu police a private army? The KwaZulu police that has been implicated by Amnesty International and others in numerous political killings, and functions under his leadership within a one-party 'homeland' system?
'The KwaZulu police is an institution created by the laws,' he replied. The apartheid laws, which earlier he had called tyrannical? 'This is a big fuss about apartheid laws . . . It is deliberate propaganda to equate the KwaZulu police with MK.' As for individual members of Inkatha, or the KwaZulu police, who might have engaged in political violence, their actions were purely defensive.
But if he did not get his way in negotiations would he perhaps go on the offensive? 'I've worked for non-violence all my life. I did not believe in armed struggle. I've never supported the armed struggle. But what will be, will be. If it is the only option, I will have to lead my people to the dark waters . . .'
Some have already been there. It was exactly one year ago that journalists learnt that 45 men, women and children had been massacred the previous night in Boipatong township. Yesterday the trial continued of 32 Inkatha supporters accused of the killings.