Buthelezi has led the once-feared Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) since its inception / © AFP
Mangosuthu Buthelezi, head of the once-feared Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), on Saturday stepped down as party leader after 44 years.
Buthelezi, 90 led the party from its inception, a reign marked by bloody territorial battles with ANC supporters in black townships during the 1980s and 1990s that left thousands dead.
As prime minister of the "independent" homeland of KwaZulu, a political creation of the apartheid government, Buthelezi was often regarded as an ally of South Africa's racist apartheid regime.
He was dogged by allegations that he collaborated with the old government to fuel violence to derail the ANC's liberation struggle -- a claim he furiously denied.
"I will not stand for re-election," he told a congress of his party meeting in the town of Ulundi, north of Durban to elect new leadership.
"My time as president of IFP is finished, I am handing over the baton this afternoon," he told delegates making reference to a "long" and "difficult" journey he has travelled.
"It was not my own decision to remain as party president for many years, but (we are) democrats, when my party unanimously asked me to lead, I accepted," he said.
Buthelezi was a minister in the ANC-led government between 1994 and 2004.
Born of royal blood, he was to some the embodiment of the Zulu spirit and for years was defined by his bitter rivalry with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), a party that was his political home until he broke away to form the IFP in 1975.
Buthelezi, who turns 91 on Tuesday, is the oldest-serving lawmaker in South Africa's parliament.
He is also listed in the Guinness World Records as having made the longest speech to a legislative assembly with an address in March 1993 over 11 days, with an average of two-and-a-half hours each day.
On Saturday, he spoke for nearly two hours.
The IFP draws its support base from country's largest ethnic group, the Zulus, and the party was formed as a cultural organisation.
In the first non-racial elections in 1994, the IFP won 43 seats -- but its showing dwindled to just 14 seats in the last vote in May.