Ghost of SA’s violent past haunts our future

Published Aug 10, 2011


Janet Smith

H uman rights expert Dr Russel Ally spoke very gently to Evelina Moloko. “Please, please take your time. Do not feel under pressure. When you are ready to continue you can start again.”

It was February 1997 and Moloko was appearing before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Ally was presiding over the matter of her sister, Maki Skosana, who had been murdered 12 years earlier.

“There were certain rumours that they wanted to kill Maki,” Moloko began “…because she caused the death of certain youths who died due to being blown up by hand grenades. Now, those youths who were allegedly killed by hand grenades were three, and the whole three died next to my place.

“Now, when the hand grenades exploded we were all asleep and Maki was in the house also asleep … We were scared, we did not even look through the window because we thought whoever was shooting outside would also shoot at us if we peeped through the windows or we opened the doors. We ended up not knowing what had happened until the following morning at five.”

The savagery of the security forces was happening in their yard through the heinous device of booby-trapped hand grenades.

Her sister told the TRC that Maki faced the truth the next morning. Skosana told Moloko she recognised the bodies as young members of the Congress of South African Students. They were mostly blown to pieces, left on the ground outside the Skosana house. Then the rumours began “around the location”.

“It seemed that it was common knowledge that Maki had a hand in the killing of those youths,” said Moloko. “I told (her) it was better for her to run away and she told me she was not going to run away because whatever they said she had done, she had not done, she was innocent.”

For the next few days, a group of youths kept guard over Skosana so that she could not flee. The family grew increasingly frightened.

Then came the day of the funeral of the young men killed by grenades, and Skosana, against her family’s will, decided to go. The story of how then-Bishop Desmond Tutu had to step in and save a man’s life after a mob tried to necklace him before the funeral spread through the township.

“It was very hot and I made fire when I got home,” Moloko told the TRC. “Just when I was taking the ashes into the dustbin, three girls went past my place. They were shouting slogans and they were saying that they had burnt Maki…”

She was unprepared for the sight of Skosana, a young mother, dead with a tyre around her neck.

“When you look at your sister’s body, you feel it in your own body,” Moloko told Ally. “I approached her from the feet… but I could not see her face because there was a large rock on her face as well as her chest… I discovered that all her teeth were missing… She had a huge gap on her head, she was also injured and she was actually scorched by fire… Her legs were taken apart…

Broken glass had been shoved into the young woman’s vagina.

Word in Duduza was that anybody who visited the Skosana place would suffer the same fate as Maki.

The TRC’s verdict was clear. Maki Skosana had been wrongly accused of being an informer. Then it condememned the necklace as “a gruesome act of extraordinary violence that cast a blight on the struggle for freedom”.

Although Winnie Mandela had once endorsed it, the ANC had long officially condemned the practice. But while the TRC found the community at Duduza responsible for Skosana’s necklacing, it said it was the UDF and the ANC which would have to accept responsibility for such a gross violation of human rights. The movement accepted.

For years, South Africa hadn’t thought much about necklacing. Then, at the end of June, a man from Port Elizabeth was arrested for the alleged necklacing of two men in New Brighton.

A Port Elizabeth police spokesman admitted there had been six incidents in two weeks. Nomfundo Mogapi, acting director at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said there was now serious concern: “Because of our violent history, people feel violence is the only way to make politicians, officials or police listen to their grievances.”

And if anyone has now helped to raise that spectre, it is former Sowetan columnist Eric Miyeni.

In passionately defending the interests of ANC Youth League president Julius Malema, he was fired by the newspaper on Monday effectively for saying City Press editor Ferial Haffajee would once have been regarded as an informer and a suitable candidate for necklacing.

This came after Haffajee’s newspaper investigated Malema’s money and revealed a trust fund into which business people were allegedly paying. Miyeni’s premise was that Haffajee was working for white capital.

Many who read Miyeni’s column on Monday found it abhorrent.

By late afternoon, Miyeni and Haffajee were all over the radio. His hate had become the issue of the week. The hurt was deepening.

“Julius Malema must never answer a Ferial Haffajee,” Miyeni spat. “Who the devil is she anyway if not a black snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks? In the 80s she’d probably have had a burning tyre around her neck.”

Perhaps he was offensive when he wrote: “I am… inclined to think that people like Haffajee are most likely to be the kind that wakes up in the morning, sees their black faces in the mirror only to feel a wave of self-hatred rising up to nauseate them.”

But our constitution allows that kind of freedom of speech.

The outrage of his necklace remark, however, went beyond an acceptable understanding of his rights as a writer.

News24 online columnist Khaya Dlanga wrote on Tuesday: “This line will make many rounds and it will probably be the only thing people remember Eric wrote.”

Presumably that’s a pity for Miyeni, who is not only out of a job – and not for the first time, for similar reasons – but reviled in circles which matter. It’s a pity because, until now, he’s been highly rated in his field. Nieman fellow Fred Khumalo once called him a “necessary irritant”. Fans and detractors accepted him as such. But never, say those who know him well, would they have expected him to advocate violence like he did this week.

Journalists expect to be targeted by politicians as their natural enemies, but not by their own.

On Thursday, Sowetan general manager Justice Malala and Avusa Publications editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya wrote in Sowetan that “if there is something to be ashamed of in the history of our country and the struggle against apartheid, it is the senseless, abhorrent act of necklacing… it was condemned by all progressive forces in our country”.

Haffajee was considering her legal options around Miyeni, Sowetan’s acting editor Len Maseko resigned his post and Makhanya said there had been further disciplinary action.

Almost every commentator has cited the disciplining of two other Avusa columnists – Kuli Roberts of Sunday World who wrote a racist column about coloured women and former Sunday Times writer David Bullard, who was fired in 2008, also for racism. Deon Maas, who wrote for Rapport, was fired for writing on satanism; Jon Qwelane, now South Africa’s ambassador to Uganda, was taken to court for a homophobic column.

But there seems to be agreement that the incitement to violence in Miyeni’s column outdid the others.

“Eric can even go around talking to them, it’s fine. But it’s not for the Sowetan to provide a platform for the propagation of that kind of hate,” said former City Press editor Mathatha Tsedu.

Addressing the Cape Town Press Club this week, the DA’s national spokeswoman, Lindiwe Mazibuko, said these views emanated from the ANC’s own apparent tolerance of racism, and even hate speech.

“The racism of black nationalism is on the rise, followed by a hot trail of deep sexism, and none of those views are ever repudiated. Terrible things get said again and again, and no one stands up against them.”

Raymond Louw, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail and deputy chairman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said he was concerned about the trend of black journalists being called Uncle Toms (sell-outs) by other black journalists.

“Then I’m reminded of when I was once at a conference in 1988 on the banks of the Chobe River with some Zimbabwean journalists lamenting that they had decided more or less among themselves in 1980 when Mugabe came into power that they should give him a less critical ride. Mugabe took full advantage of that situation and introduced controls and restrictions on media. Before they knew where they were, they were hamstrung.

“That is very different to our situation. Black journalists have not kept their heads down. And that, as Ferial knows, can be very hard, but it is the right way.”

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