In Steadville, we are all covering wounds that refuse to heal
The violence in KwaZulu-Natal has a long and complex history. There’s one tale about an old German gunsmith who lived in the Msinga area refurbishing weapons from historic battles and arming local people, early last century. The loaded apartheid era terms spoke glibly of ‘black on black violence’. A more recent rationale, equally lacking in depth, is political faction fighting. When battle lines are drawn around a long list of social pressures – housing shortages, the growth of shack settlements, huge socio economic inequalities, political factors, ease of availability of firearms…. the list is very long – we seem to lose our appetite for rigorous debate. Ntando P Z Mbatha tackles this perplexing story with moving personal insights as well as rigorous professional research.
In the year 2000 violence claimed more than 50 lives in Steadville, a township near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal. The easy answer is that the place fell into chaos as two factions of the African National Congress (ANC) turned on each other.
But the reports do not give justice to the scourge that the people faced for many years. After a probe by the Provincial Department of Safety and Liaison in KwaZulu Natal in 2008, a significant number of “gang” members were arrested for their involvement in the violence. But more than 80% of the people killed, were ordinary residents who were not part of any so-called factions. Even after the alleged gang leaders were killed or taken into custody the violence continued.
I remember the no-go areas, us girls and boys had to skip school because of fear of being attacked and killed. Some people vacated the area because the violence affected their quality of life.
I remember at a young age going to my school about 3 km away. We would have to run so we wouldn’t be hit by stray bullets. I was a very scared child. This experience shook me up badly. I didn’t see school as this safe haven anymore. At times our older cousins or siblings would fetch us from school, as some form of protection, when yet another shooting spree had erupted.
I started school in Grade 1 in 1994 and I remember vividly running to the school gates, many of us little ones crying. It seemed to quiet down until probably 1998. At that time I was doing Grade 5. I recall being told that our class teacher was involved in this “political violence”. He was such a good teacher, who discovered the storytelling in me. I was very fond of him. I couldn’t understand.
More than a decade later I was doing Grade 12 when my teacher passed away. He had been on the run for many years. But by the time he died his name had been cleared. He spent time with my cousin who lived to tell the story. My cousin who was dying of cancer. They told me the cancer was caused by a bullet that had lodged in his throat.
My teacher’s funeral was the biggest I had ever seen.
Although people were mourning, shedding tears during speeches, it became a celebration of his life. I felt like I had stepped into a funeral during apartheid. We ran to the cemetery from the area where the ceremony was held. We had police escorts. While singing and doing a toyi toyi, some shot their guns into the air. We were told to pick up anything on the ground so that there would be no evidence.
I bent down to pick up one bullet but a young man behind me pushed me out of the way so that he could claim it. It was a stampede. Buses were almost empty. Only carrying older people who couldn’t run. Women who had come to the funeral wearing dresses and high heels were told to take their shoes off and join us marching, singing and doing the toyi toyi along the cemetery road.
It was an emotional experience for me. I knew this man and had been very fond of him. At the same time, my cousin was fighting for his life in a Durban hospital. We feared the worst.
There had been many funerals before this and certainly more would follow after.
There were peace talks that took place in the community and in jail cells, according to an interviewee who preferred to remain anonymous. He said: “I almost got killed twice. In the year 2000, gunshots were hailed at me, but I managed to escape unharmed. It was immensely difficulty for us to live in that era because everything happened right in front of our eyes. We then fought back to defend ourselves. I had to do whatever it took to ensure that I was safe. I knew what my enemy was planning, I therefore had to protect myself; at that time, protecting myself meant I had to carry a gun with me every time, and probably fire when necessary.”
This interviewee asked not to be mentioned.
At the turn of the Century Steadville was experiencing more and more violence. Innocent people dying all the time. As an adult doing professional research it has been strange reading about my own experiences in the detached language of journalists and others:
“ANC factional violence, which led to a spate of assassinations and the arrest of more than 30 members on serious criminal charges, led to the collapse of the entire leadership structures of the ANC in Northern KZN over the past two years.”
– Fred Kockort and Zoubair Ayoob – News24 2002.08.07
A fact sheet released by the ANC provincial leadership revealed that some senior ANC officials were implicated in the violence of Steadville. This report, that was handled by the then Chairperson of the ANC in KZN – Sibusiso Ndebele, linked some senior ANC leaders to drug trafficking, hiring hit-men, arms smuggling and collusion with senior policemen who had stalled investigations of the murders. (Reference) This was also confirmed by Captain Charmain Struwig after the shooting and killing of Duma Stanford Luvuno in March 2007. Struwig stated that “Steadville flares up from time to time in an ongoing struggle between two criminal groups – the Ndawo group and the Zwane group – who have been fighting for dominance in the suburb”. 19.03.2007. –
To this day, trying to get stories of people who were either involved or affected by this, is all in vain. People still live in fear, not knowing whether this violence may start up once again.
We are all covering wounds that refuse to heal. Still living in fear and still preparing ourselves for the day this could begin again.
When I began to conduct my research I was told to be careful. One lady even cancelled our appointment because she thought someone had sent me. She was suspicious of my agenda and my alliances. People don’t want to expose those who started the violence and why, or even try to get those involved behind bars.
All I wanted to do was tell the story of Steadville. Tell my story. The history of that area cannot be written completely without all the stories, even those that still cause hurt and anger. It needs to be completed.
In an interview with Musa Khumalo he said: “Growing up at the time was difficult because there was no freedom of movement. I felt caged because most people I knew were involved. I went to school in town. Waiting for a taxi was a nightmare. They would pass remarks because I was not involved, therefore was called a traitor. People would stab each other at the taxi rank, you constantly had to look over your shoulder. Fortunately, I never got hurt.”
Siphokazi Madondo whose brother was killed, had this to say:
“Growing up in Steadville had always been a battle of its own with the violence we grew up with. I don’t think anybody remembers how it started. Personally, I think it started way before 2000 and by 2000 it had escalated to something that we had known to be hell. We got to eat, sleep and breathe it. Literally, getting to town for basic needs became a struggle; not knowing when the shootings might start or when they’ll cut our power supplies to carry out their violence escapades. This violence affected me, along with almost the entire community. I lost my brother Nhlakanipho “Mbijo” Madondo, one person I knew who wasn’t involved in the violence that almost destroyed Steadville. A soccer player, well known for his talent, everyone knew he was not involved, which is why it became so difficult for the family to understand what had happened to him. The way he passed is still baffling to me and my family.
His passing left me with hatred, anger and vengeance towards his killers. I never had peace in my heart after that and would wish terrible things for his killer. I would even wish to come across them so as to do harm to them as much as they hurt him, my family and I. I distanced myself from any community activities and the people of Steadville because half the blame I put on them for not doing anything and yet they’ll praise my brother on how he was such a good person.
“Justice did fail us. The killers got to still graze the streets of Steadville while my brother was six feet under, with the case dragging on for years. Personally, I think the police could have done a better job in investigating and asking the community for help in the matter.
“Apparently there were witnesses but police chose to ignore certain aspects and the case got to be dismissed because there wasn’t enough evidence. I have healed, with time even though the wound is still there. I chose to embrace the great times we had and that alone did help with my healing. People of Steadville will and can heal with time if they are given the opportunity to do so, perhaps through speaking out and the government’s involvement. A memorial stone with the names of all the victims of this violence, may be erected. This might just help with the healing process for many in Steadville.”
Although people at the moment do not want to speak out, if there was a structure set up for them, legally, so that they would know that they are fully protected, perhaps they would speak up, and heal. The healing process may not be guaranteed but this leaves room for possible closure.
I fear that continued investigation and research could take me down a dangerous road. Confronting individuals who were involved, those who called for the hits. But it is more important to me to uncover the stories of people who were deeply affected, the ordinary community members.
I understand that through this discovery, there may be an element of getting intertwined into the survivors’ lives. A detachment would prove almost impossible. I grew up in this place, under these conditions. By taking all that on board I still feel compelled to write, document and tell the stories of Steadville… closing the knowledge gap in this rich history.
My experience was not the first time the area been steeped in conflict. There is a history of internecine fighting, that surfaces from time to time. In the 1980s and 1990s the focus was on the tensions between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
Many people in Steadville believe that the violence of the new Millennium is due to unresolved issues between these two parties during the transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa.
In those years, scores of people lost their lives due to a violence that was believed to have been a battle for political power. Each accused the other of creating ‘no-go areas’ in KZN – areas controlled by one group and out-of-bounds to the other.
And far too little emphasis was placed on the role of agents provacateur, forces aligned with or working for the apartheid state that fanned seeds of dissent into murderous battles in many places.
The ANC claimed that the entire area north of the Tugela River (the old Zululand) had become out-of-bounds to ANC supporters (Jeffery 1997). Jeffery argues that this violence may be due to a number of other factors such as housing shortages and the growth of shack settlements; poor social conditions; poor economic circumstances; political factors; faction fighting, especially in the Msinga region; and ease of availability of firearms (Jeffery 1997). This violence spread throughout KZN, and in Ladysmith, mostly in Steadville and Ezakheni. A hostel was built (the exact year is at the moment unknown to the researcher) which housed IFP members and this area was used mostly as a battle ground. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa report has reported that Bonga Nyathi who was an ANC supporter, was shot dead by members of the South African Police on 12 April 1994. This was during political unrests between the ANC and IFP supporters where it was alleged that the ANC supporters were trying to prevent IFP hostel dwellers from attacking the Steadville community. Such attacks continued in the area even after the country attained democracy.
The violence has left people in wheelchairs, legs amputated, and young people (prospective breadwinners in their homes) in jails. Wounds have been left unhealed especially for families who lost their loved ones. There is no form of compensation or repatriation for families and survivors.
Few platforms to speak out about these atrocities and and even less intervention by the government.
These are just some of my reflections as we honour Youth Month.
You can follow Ntando P Z Mbatha on Twitter @nthandz09BACK TO TOP