Twenty years ago this week, violence had overtaken the province of Natal against the backdrop of failing negotiations between the National Party government, the ANC and the IFP. The peace talks were aimed at bringing KwaZulu, then a bantustan led by chief minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi, into the fold of the elections. But while Buthelezi, ANC president Nelson Mandela, National Party leader FW de Klerk and King Goodwill Zwelithini wrangled over power, at least 15 people a day were officially recorded as having died in political violence. It seemed the province was packed with AK-47s and 9mm pistols as members of the ANC and IFP warred in their village and township communities. Meanwhile, rumours of a third force circulated around them. Kaya FM broadcaster and Dreamfields founder John Perlman was a senior writer for the Independent group at the time. He spent a week here trying to make some sense of a story of terrible bloodshed. This was his account:
Even on a quiet day, the building in the centre of Bhambayi stands as a grim reminder of the deep, dangerous gulf between peaceful intentions and peace itself.
At the turn of the century, it housed Mahatma Gandhi’s printing press and was the heart of the settlement where he lived and worked on his philosophy of passive resistance. Today, the graceful old building is a roofless ruin, daubed inside and out with the slogans of war: AK-47, Umkhonto we Sizwe, AWB.
That, sadly, reflects reality. While most of Natal took a brief break from brotherly hate last Friday, Bhambayi by mid-afternoon was convulsed in a recurring nightmare. It started with a volley of rifle fire from the “green” side, IFP territory, and the “reds” of the ANC immediately responded.
The battle all around us was chaotic as gunshots rang out from every side and bands of ragged fighters, including women, rushed past carrying pangas, spears and sticks in one hand and shields and fighting blankets in the other. The “greens” – until two years ago ANC members themselves – began weaving their way through the rundown shacks, closing in on enemy territory. The “reds” gathered in numbers to fight back.
It was only the presence of three armoured police vehicles, including men from the Internal Stability Unit, which prevented carnage. But as the security forces went about their work, the stark limits of how much they can do became painfully clear. As grim-faced men filed slowly past the armoured cars, they made no effort to conceal their axes, sticks and spears. The guns, however, were quickly stowed out of sight to use another day. Nobody greeted the peacekeepers with thanks; nobody even waved.
Not every place in Natal is as relentlessly fratricidal as Bhambayi, but currents at play there wash over every single place in the province. The state of emergency may help to dampen some fires. But people in the province say the place to start is with the warlords, the gun-runners. The men whose role in the conflict is to plan and plot. Why, they ask, have there been no arrests, no raids?
More importantly, the security forces cannot be expected to deal with a conflict that simply cannot be reduced to IFP versus ANC, and which grows more complex by the day. Events like the Joburg shootings add another layer of bitterness to a situation already steeped in vengeance and grudge.
Sipho Mlaba, an IFP leader in Mpumalanga who has fought successfully for peace, says: “One young boy came to me yesterday and said: ‘Are you still saying to us there is peace when our people are dying like this in the Transvaal?’”
ANC leaders in the province are acutely aware of this. “They were made to be boys; when they thought, they were men,” said one.
“And they were killed in front of women, humiliated in front of women. They will not be able to tolerate that the ANC can exist in their areas.”
In Natal itself, each incident of violence deepens bitterness and drives unaligned people to take sides.
“Any person from the township who goes into the hostel gets killed,” said one KwaMashu woman. “Now we’ve decided that any person from the hostel who comes into the township will be killed. Then it is 50-50.”
Even in the places where there are no violent clashes, people talk of tension and grievance infusing daily life. “Some of my teachers are ANC,” said one young man. “They know my father is IFP, so they are keeping me down.”
These are the issues that come up when ordinary people talk of politics, not the great debating points, like federalism, regional powers or even a Zulu kingdom. And often the quarrels are as much over tradition and attitude as they are over political ideas.
“You get these young comrades in the townships who come to older men in the hostel and tell them they must stay away,” says an IFP leader. “They show no respect. Can you imagine how much hurt that causes?”
Similarly, you don’t often hear people criticising their opponents for their policies. Instead, ANC followers talk of the IFP faithful as ignorant, uneducated, misguided.
IFP supporters, in turn, caricature the ANC as destructive, disruptive and dominated by unruly youth.
“I used to be a UDF member,” said a young man, “but I changed because we were just burning buses and throwing stones. The children are in charge of politics, but in the IFP, we are united and disciplined.”
Perhaps the bitterest conflict of all is over the Zulu king, where ANC supporters angrily insist that Zwelithini is their king too.
“Where I come from, 31 people were killed and they were all loyal to the king,” said one supporter from Empangeni.
“He can say anything, swear at us, but he is our king,” said a senior Umkhonto commander.
“I could never point a gun against him because he is our king.”
One thing both sides agree on is that neither side will back off from a fight because “that thing is in us. We grew up in rural areas where we would take our sticks and fight until one surrenders”, says Meshack Radebe, an ANC leader in Mpumalanga.
“Even now, if I go back to Greytown, I will take my sticks with and just fight someone I know to see if I can still beat him.”
Phindi Duma, an ANC Women’s League member who runs a shelter for KwaMashu refugees, says: “We said we will take women and children and the sick who can’t fight and defend their houses. The men must stay behind. That is what is expected of them.” But one KwaMashu woman, whose 17-year-old son was in the township helping to hold the line, didn’t see it like that: “I’m not proud, I am afraid,” she said.
She, like many others, feels as if she is caught in a storm. “I’ve never been safe,” says Simbonginkosi Mzimela, principal of a high school in Mpumalanga, with a rueful smile. “The left say I belong to the right, the right say I belong to the left.”
Hostel dwellers, too, are victims of this. One man in KwaMashu said the local “big shot” called a meeting to say anyone who went home for Easter should not bother to come back. “It is the only place I can stay,” he says, “I had friends in the township, but there is no trust now.”
On both sides of the conflict, there is a deep-rooted belief that the best way to end the conflict is to pound the enemy into submission.
“People are saying let’s drive them out once and for all,” says one ANC leader. “The IFP say the same thing.”
But the biggest problem facing the peacekeeping forces is that many people in Natal have a hard-nosed view of justice and an even tougher attitude to security.
“When people do get arrested, they are outside the next day,” said one young man. As for disarming people as a first step towards peace, one young combatant in Bhambayi put the prevailing view quite simply: “It is not okay to take our weapons because I am likely to be attacked at any time.”
If anyone from outside wants to persuade the people that laying down arms is a better route, then the people of Natal and KwaZulu will need some ironcast guarantees – guarantees that personal safety and justice can be secured without taking matters into your own hands.