By Siyabonga Sishi
ULUNDI, South Africa (Reuters) -Thousands of mourners gathered in South Africa's eastern town of Ulundi on Saturday for the state funeral of veteran politician and Zulu prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Buthelezi, a controversial figure during the apartheid liberation struggle because of his bitter rivalry with the African National Congress (ANC), died last week aged 95.
The founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) served two terms as Minister of Home Affairs in the post-apartheid government after reconciling with his governing ANC rival, Nelson Mandela.
By the time Buthelezi decided to bury the hatchet, 20,000 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes in fighting between his supporters and those of the ANC, as a result of which critics dubbed the Zulu prince a warlord.
In a sign of residual hostility, a group IFP supporters tried to drown out President Cyril Ramaphosa's eulogy, by singing struggle-era songs and chanting: "He is not our president".
"Today is not a day to point fingers and cast blame," Ramaphosa said, before Buthelezi's coffin was brought out, draped in the national flag, for a 21-gun salute. "Let us look forward to the future with a ... focus on what unites us."
Some of the mourners were dressed in traditional Zulu outfits made of leopard and other animal skins and held shields crafted from cow hides. South African media reported that two giraffes and six impalas were slaughtered and skinned as part of the ritual preparations.
Buthelezi founded the IFP in 1975 and it became the dominant force in what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Like the ANC, Buthelezi was critical of white minority rule, which had relegated Zulus and other Black South African nations to downsized 'homelands'.
But his Zulu nationalist movement became entangled in bloody conflicts with the ANC in the 1980s and 1990s. The ANC was dominated by members of the rival Xhosa nation, and its leaders saw Buthelezi's on-off willingness to work with the apartheid authorities as a betrayal of all Black South Africans.
The two parties made peace when Buthelezi decided to participate in South Africa's 1994 election, the first national poll since the end of white minority rule, which brought Mandela to power.
KwaZulu-Natal became the stronghold of former president Jacob Zuma, a Zulu whom Ramaphosa's ANC faction ousted after several corruption scandals. Zuma denies any wrongdoing.
"(Buthelezi) was not a man who let a burning issue slide ... and yet he (had) an understanding of the immense difficulties we face in rebuilding this country," Ramaphosa said. "He ... defended the institutions of our democratic order."
The Zulu chief stepped down as IFP leader in 2019. He underwent a procedure for back pain in July but was later readmitted to hospital when it did not subside.
(Reporting by Siyabonga Sishi; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Mike Harrison and Ros Russell)