The funeral on Saturday of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi in Ulundi, in the heart of rural Zululand, showed that the decrepit and failing state can still muster its pomp and finery and 21 guns to lay to rest one of the most consequential figures in modern South African history.

Buthelezi, traditional prime minister to the Zulu King and a dynast of its royal house, was also the aged but modern politician who straddled both the country’s past and present.

But what legacy Buthelezi gifts to the future is far from clear and much contested.

What is incontestable, though, is the reminder from the eulogy delivered by the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on the weekend, that the 350-year-old thought of French writer Francois de la Rochefoucauld has modern form and content.

He wrote: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue.”

Ramaphosa’s tribute to Buthelezi, to be fair, did not reinvent the past so much as vastly understate it. For example, he told mourners that he and Buthelezi “at a political level did not always agree.

“We often found ourselves on opposing sides of one or another issue.”

Ramaphosa eulogised Buthelezi, noting that their interactions were characterised by “the spirit of camaraderie, respect, empathy and understanding” including the last-minute decision of Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party to contest the 1994 elections. This though was a spectacular instance of the political condition labelled “selective amnesia”.

After all, in the fateful days preceding April 27 1994, it was Ramaphosa, then secretary-general of the ANC, who accused Buthelezi of “wanting to drown democracy in a sea of blood”.

And another ANC leader of those times, Steve Tshwete, was far more vituperative, variously describing the IFP as “a bandit organisation” and its leader as “a mean-spirited gutter-mouthed politician”.

Ramaphosa also elided — except in the vaguest sense and most generalised terms — the vicious violence which characterised the struggle between the IFP and ANC/UDF in Natal and the Witwatersrand in the 1980s and 1990s at the cost of an estimated 20,000 lives. He characterised the war between the two sides as an event which in which “many people died”.

Two journalists I both admire and like, City Press editor Mondli Makhanya and international reporter John Carlin, had no truck with this soft understatement.

Makhanya wrote on the false hypocrisy of Ramaphosa’s “faux grief for the man who caused so much real grief”.

He also unearthed Ramaphosa’s visit to the site of the Boipatong massacre in 1993, which upended the constitutional negotiations. He wrote: “Ramaphosa … visited the site of the [massacre] in its immediate aftermath and was horrified.”

“We have never seen an incident as horrific as the one we witnessed here,” he reprises from Ramaphosa’s remarks, adding: “Ramaphosa explicitly stated that the IFP had been used by the apartheid government.”

Carlin, for his, part was equally condemnatory. Writing in the Sunday Times of London he labelled Buthelezi as “the smiling villain stained with the blood of thousands of Zulus … a stooge of apartheid who colluded with white nationalists and whose footsoldiers carried out massacres”.

Christopher Hitchens wrote of George Orwell that the great writer discredited the excuse of “historical context” as “a shady alibi that there was in the circumstances, nothing else people could have done”.

But it seems to me as an eyewitness from that era, and later an engaged participant with Buthelezi and indeed Ramaphosa and Nelson Mandela and other figures from the dawn of democracy, that wrenching Buthelezi from the context of those times renders many of his actions as both indefensible and incomprehensible.

Without engaging in the ritual of “whataboutism”, it is salutary to remember that he and the IFP were not engaged in conflict with the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides. Harry Gwala, the Stalinist leader of the ANC in the KZN Midlands, was as bloodthirsty and as implacably immune to reason and compromise as the worst IFP warlord. The IFP was inarguably armed by the SA Defence Force, but the ANC received its weapons from the Soviet Union and its satraps — not much of a choice on the front of villains then.

Staunch Buthelezi defender, Anthea Jeffery, writing of Buthelezi’s passing in Politicsweb noted that “much of the violence of the people’s war was directed against the IFP … by the time [the 1994] election took place, some 400 IFP leaders and office bearers had thus been killed, often in planned attacks”.

While Jeffery, in her praise and defence of Buthelezi, relies on detailed research and statistics, her speculative assertion in the same appraisal that but for this violence the IFP “might otherwise have won the first all-race election” is a vast overreach.

No-one — and I speak from first hand electoral and campaigning experience — can for a moment doubt that the vast enthusiasm and liberating power of the ANC and its leader Nelson Mandela was deeply felt and widely held across the vast swathes of South Africa and its voters.

Yet a lot of the violence was fuelled by the attempts of the ANC to exclude Buthelezi from equal status with Mandela and FW de Klerk and his determined resistance to this exclusion and his fierce quest for personal acknowledgment and status and even a hunger for recognition.

While the ranks of the ANC leadership were determined to brand him an outcast and pariah, alone in its top ranks Jacob Zuma preferred an approach of recognition and embrace of the IFP leader. Little wonder that at Ulundi on Sunday he received the greatest cheer from the thronged mourners.

I think the waspish observation of the long-suffering former wife of German Chancellor Wily Brandt that the statesman was “a bit of saint, a bit of a sinner, a bit of a fool”, is probably the best description for any politician whose long and consequential life contained large “multitudes and contradictions”, to borrow from the poet Walt Whitman.

A few months ago, I was approached by Kyknet, a DStv channel to participate in a programme on Buthelezi and was advised that it would be flighted after his death as indeed it was two Sundays back.

In my notes for this interview, I wrote of Buthelezi’s achievements since 1994, referencing the role he played in politics under democracy rather than the bloody period that birthed it — in both cabinet and parliament: “He was right about Aids and became the first cabinet minister to break ranks with Thabo Mbeki’s denialism; he was right about floor crossing which he denounced as ‘political prostitution’; he was right about federalism but did very little to achieve it by boycotting both Codesa and the Constitutional Assembly; he was right to champion a free enterprise economy but never explained how this tallied with the denial of tens of thousands to the title to their property if they live in the lands controlled by the Zulu king via the Ingonayama Trust; he was right in resisting the ANC’s monopoly of power but ambivalent on the tactics to reduce it.”

Hence the contradictions embedded in his achievements.

Buthelezi was exquisitely polite in his personal interactions and extremely solicitous on matters close to my heart. He offered generous words on my 40th birthday and later on my political retirement; he defended me against his bullying cabinet colleague Essop Pahad, who deliberately conflated robust opposition with unpatriotic treason. He wrote the most empathetic letter of exquisite sympathy on the death of my mother in 2001 and rescued my foreign-born wife’s attempts to obtain SA citizenship from the bowels of the home affairs department — it is a long list.

But his genuine kindness and courtesies on matters personal and our political alliance in 2004 was accompanied in the public space by his never-ending quest to be acknowledged and properly remembered by history. His demand for dignity weighed extremely heavily on him and determined his actions. And, on occasion, clouded them.

Mourners to his funeral on Saturday would have arrived in Ulundi at the Mangosuthu Buthelezi airport, driven along the Mangosuthu Buthelezi highway and arrived, for his funeral service, at the Mangosuthu Buthelezi Stadium.

So in the furthest reaches of Northern KZN he will not be forgotten. But in the wider republic his future place in its history and the success of his party — which was so wrapped in his huge presence in life — remains in flux after his death.