The South African President emerged from his mission with partial, possibly short-lived, success only after backing down on an earlier commitment to assist as guest of honour this weekend at celebrations to mark Shaka Day, an annual event in commemoration of the founder of the Zulu nation.
'Security reasons' was the explanation Mr Mandela gave for his volte-face at a press conference last night following the Nongoma talks. Few political observers were in any doubt, however, that Mr Mandela had chosen to hand Mr Buthelezi his small victory in order to prevent a resumption of hostilities between African National Congress and Inkatha Zulus.
King Goodwill's decision to invite Mr Mandela to the Shaka ceremony had provoked the wrath of Mr Buthelezi, who felt slighted by the King's failure to consult him before issuing the invitation. Mr Buthelezi, Minister of Home Affairs, has always described himself as the Zulu monarch's 'traditional prime minister' - the man the King is supposed to consult before taking any political decision.
According to royal insiders, the King had deliberately sought to humiliate Mr Buthelezi. Having reluctantly served as Mr Buthelezi's political instrument during the fraught negotiations leading up to the April elections, the King has since expressed a desire to rise above politics and remove the perception that he is his uncle's stooge. A senior Zulu prince said in June that the King was 'no longer dancing to Buthelezi's drumbeat'.
The reason why the King has recently felt in a position to stand up to his uncle is that, since the elections, Mr Buthelezi no longer controls either his security - through the KwaZulu police - or his funds. The word from Zulu royal circles after Mr Mandela decided, shortly after taking office in May, that the King's private guards would henceforth be members of the national army and that his money would come straight from Pretoria was that the King was going around cheerfully declaring to his confidants: 'I'm free, I'm free at last]'
The King's new confidants, notwithstanding his stated desire to come across as just as apolitical as Queen Elizabeth II, are Zulu princes whose sympathies lie with the ANC. Together they have been plotting Mr Buthelezi's downfall - or, at any rate, seeking to isolate him and diminish his political status by denying him his claim to speak for the 'Zulu nation'.
Hence the rage which Mr Buthelezi privately feels and his acolytes publicly express. A senior Inkatha official broke with royal protocol in the most intemperate manner when he accused King Goodwill on Sunday of having made 'stupid assumptions' if he believed he could beat the man who had 'worked cleverly over the years to enhance his support'.
The outcome of last night's talks suggested Mr Buthelezi had won the battle, but not yet the war.Reuse content