The street where no one knew your name

The dividing line of Khumalo Street. Cresencia Buthilezi's son was killed during the political violence of the 1990s in Thokoza. Many of the victims of the political violence that occured in and around Khumalo Street in Thokoza during the early 1990s were never identified. 100414. Picture: Chris Collingridge 548

The dividing line of Khumalo Street. Cresencia Buthilezi's son was killed during the political violence of the 1990s in Thokoza. Many of the victims of the political violence that occured in and around Khumalo Street in Thokoza during the early 1990s were never identified. 100414. Picture: Chris Collingridge 548

Published Apr 25, 2014


Johannesburg - Death came quick to the Colgate man. It struck him so unexpectedly that as he lay dead on the pavement outside the Naledi supermarket in Thokoza, his hand still clutched a box of Colgate toothpaste.

Who the Colgate man was and who killed him we don’t know.

All that is left is a fading photograph of a middle-aged man with his other hand tucked serenely under his face.

If it wasn’t for the trickle of blood pooled by his head, he could be mistaken for a drunk, sleeping it off.

That image was snapped by a policeman over 20 years ago, and Colgate man’s photograph is not alone.

There are other crime scene photos, taken to help investigators identify the dead and track down the killers.

Each photograph tells of the brutality of a war waged just a few kilometres from white suburbia.

Here are corpses felled by gunshots, burnt in necklacings, bludgeoned by rocks and then dumped in open fields or left on township streets.

Around them loiter policemen who would trek into the townships riding in armoured margarine-yellow Casspirs and Nyalas to pick up the latest crop of dead.

Unlike photographer Ken Oosterbroek or activist Sam Ntuli, these are the unknown casualties of the war that raged between the IFP and the ANC on the East Rand during the early 1990s.

In the turmoil of war, relatives failed to arrive at mortuaries to find their loved ones and state officials overburdened by the mass slaughter failed to identify the dead.

Now 20 years after the killing stopped, there are attempts to find some of those that went missing during the violence.

The NPA’s Missing Person’s Task Team’s mission is to find those that disappeared during apartheid.

They search for the missing, whose names emerged during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In Thokoza two incidents stand out.

The TRC lists how Billy Veli Amthenja and his brother Eric Msimango disappeared on November 20, 1993, while travelling from Thokoza to Pretoria.

An IFP march from Johannesburg to Pretoria was happening at the time.

Then there is the case of 14-year-old Lucky Alfred Ndala, who went missing with his uncle on September 4, 1993.

They were last seen heading to a shop.

No one is sure if the Colgate Man’s disappearance was reported to the TRC.

“This was a war zone,” explained Vanessa Barosky, who worked for the TRC and documented the violence on the East Rand.

“The killings were so concentrated in a small area, that it made it worse.”

It is not known how many went missing, but between 1990 and 1994 it is believed that between 2 000 and 3 000 people were killed on the East Rand.

The number of dead was so great, said Barosky, that the state became overwhelmed. In her PhD, in which she focused on a massacre that occurred in Moleleki, near Katlehong, Barosky describes how bodies were piled on top of each other in mortuaries.

Pathologists were so overworked they were completing autopsies in 15 minutes.

Police investigations into who the dead were and attempts to find their killers were also inadequate.

“There is one incident where a constable didn’t know what photographs to take, there was no consistency between wounds and photographs of the bodies, she says. “I am sure a lot of people were not identified and went missing.”

There were other challenges.

“The number of deceased to be fingerprinted meant that weeks could pass before fingerprinting was attempted.

“Many dockets report that the deceased were too decomposed, dried out or otherwise affected by mortuary conditions to be fingerprinted,” NPA spokesman Nathi Mncube said in a statement.

“A high percentage of the deceased were also burnt to death, rendering both visual and fingerprint identification impossible.”


Khumalo Street is the long arterial road that cuts through Thokoza, and once it was a kind of no man’s land, with the Zulu hostels, the IFP strongholds, on the one side.

As a young reporter I drove down Khumalo Street with the Flying Squad, two years after elections, when the killings were more or less over.

I remember the shells of houses, scorched black by petrol bombs, walls still pockmarked by gunfire.

The citizens then stared hard at the cops; there was no love there.

Now, on this once infamous road, a metro police officer in uniform gets a haircut from a street barber.

Opposite the Zulu hostels on the top end of Khumalo street, Cresencia Buthelezi runs a spaza shop.

“Thokoza is a nice place now, there is no more trouble. You can walk here at night and nothing will happen to you,” she says.

But like many in this community, Buthelezi carries the scars of those times.

On September 27, 1993, she arrived at the Natalspruit Hospital to find her son Muzi dead. The 24-year-old had been missing for a couple of days.

He had been involved in protecting the community she said.

“Some boys came and said he had been shot and that he was in hospital,” Buthelezi recalls.

It was also sometime during that September that the Colgate Man experienced his sudden death.

Just off Nkaki Street, which runs from Khumalo street is the U Save supermarket. Twenty years ago this was the Naledi supermarket. The few notes linked to the photograph reveal that the body was found at the Naledi supermarket, a case number shows that this was in September.

The facebrick paving the Colgate man’s body once lay on is now gone.

It is difficult to work out exactly were he was killed.

No one in the area recalls this single death, in a time when the bodies were clogging mortuaries.

Finding the Colgate Man’s final resting place might be easier.

The unidentified dead are usually buried in the cemetery that serves their municipality.

The Thokoza cemetery lies about half a kilometre from Khumalo street.

Here the small staff complement struggle to fight back the late summer onslaught of weeds and knee-high grass.

Sam Ntuli’s dark granite tombstone is the most famous person here, the staff say. Ntuli was a community leader who was gunned down on Khumalo street in September 1991. Not far away there is a stadium named after him.

In the section near Ntuli’s tombstone are the graves of others that died in the early 1990s. A higher number of the dead in this section, died young.

Among a line of graves that belong to young men, who died within weeks and months of each other, is that of Bhekuyisa Buthelezi, he died on October 23, 1991.

His name appears on the memorial for those who fell to the violence in Thokoza.

Not far from Buthelezi’s grave, along the boundary fence, the ground is broken by a line of mounds. This, staff say, is the pauper section. Each mound is a grave, but they hold no headstones.

If the Colgate Man was sent to the Thokoza Cemetery this might be where he lies, sharing a grave with two other corpses. But finding him is nigh on impossible. According to the NPA, Thokoza Cemetery’s records were all destroyed in a fire in the late 1990s.

So for the family of the man who died all that time ago on a pavement outside the Naledi supermarket, he will forever remain in that limbo reserved for the missing.

The Star

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