Friday, 30 December 2016

Anarchist Battle Honours 1903 - 2015


ANARCHIST BATTLE HONOURS (a work in progress)

By Michael Schmidt

1903, 19 August: Battle of Czarevo, Thrace. A small force of the Leading Combat Body of the Macedonian Clandestine Revolutionary Committee (MTPK), some 2,000-strong under the anarchist Mikhail Gerdzhikov, armed with antique rifles defeated a Turkish garrison of 10,000 well-armed troops, established a revolutionary liberated zone in the Strandzha Mountains of Thrace, centred on the Czarevo Commune (today Vassiliko), and though it was suppressed after 20 days, precipitated the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

1906, 1 – 3 June: Battles of Cananea and Veracruz, Mexico. The Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) anarchist Práxedis Guerrero commanded the operation. Some 93 copper mills across the two states went on strike, company buildings were burned, the hated rurales, the rural police, were put to flight and the prisons were opened. The strikers were defeated by Mexican troops, supplemented by 275 Arizona Rangers and a private army sent by the American capitalist Rockefeller.

1910, 30 December: Battle of Janos, Chihuahua, Mexico. A mere 32 well-armed Mexican Liberal Party (PLM) cavalrymen under the anarchist Práxedis Guerrero took the town. Although they were soon defeated by a force of 600 Federal Army troops and Guerrero was killed, this event sparked the Mexican Revolution and was followed by PLM victories in Mexicali, Guadalupe and Tijuana.

1914, mid-July: Battle of the Federal District, Mexico. Anarchist and other guerrillas of the Zapatista Liberation Army of the South (ELS) – which peaked at 27,000 guerrillas – linked to the Industrial Union of North and South America (UIANS), moved out from their base in Morelos and drove the forces of General Victoriano Huerta’s US-backed military dictatorship to the gates of the capital. Huerta resigned and went into exile.

1918 – 1919, January – January: Liberation of Eastern Ukraine. The armoured train of the Free Combat Druzhina – the term referring to a band of warrior equals – under independent anarchist Black Guard commander Maria Grigorevna “Marusya” Nikiforova, installed revolutionary Soviets consisting of anarchists, Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries in the cities of Kharkov, Aleksandrovsk and Yekaterinoslav. Their actions installs a social revolution in the eastern Ukraine and lays the groundwork for the rise of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU).

1918, October 5: Battle of Dibriviki, Ukraine. Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) defeats the Austro-Hungarian Army.

1919, March 15: Liberation of Berdyansk, Ukraine. Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine forces (RPAU) capture the port city of 47,000 residents from Deniken’s White Army. 

1919, March 29: Liberation of Mariupol, Ukraine. Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) forces capture the port city of 45,000 residents from Deniken’s White Army. 

1919, April 29: Battle of Vámospércs, Hungary. The anarchist-communist Leo Rothziegel leads his 400-strong Red Guard and 800 armed workers into Hungary to support the revolution there. But Hungarian Communist Party (MPK) leader Béla Kun sent them to fight the French and Romanian forces and at the Battle of Vámospércs, Rothziegel was killed.

1919, September 26: Battle of Peregonovka, Ukraine. Some 8,000 infantry and cavalry lead by Nestor Makhno’s 500-strong Black Squadron of the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) – then totalling 110,000 guerrillas organised in four corps – routed the White Army expeditionary corps under General Anton Denikin, including the 1st Simferopol Officer’s Regiment (cavalry) under Major-General Gvosdakov, the Labinsk Officer’s Regiment, and the Litovsk Regiment and including canon and machine-gun detachments, resulting in the collapse of the White’s western front and the saving of revolutionary Moscow from White reaction.

1919, October 5: Liberation of Aleksandrovsk, Ukraine. Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) forces capture the city of 52,000 residents from Wrangel’s White Army. 

1919, October 28: Liberation of Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine. Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) forces defeat Symon Petluria’s Ukrainian nationalist army and liberate the city of 220,000 residents.

1920, November 9: Battle of the Perekop Isthmus, Crimea. Red Army and Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Ukraine (RPAU) forces lead by Nestor Makno’s Black Squadron breached the “impenetrable” Isthmus, defended by 750 machine-guns, 180 cannon, 48 tanks, several armoured trains and several thousand elite White troops, driving back the Kuban Cossacks under General Fostikof and digging in, allowing the Red Army to capture the Crimea. The rout lead to the total evacuation of all of General Pavel Wrangel’s 100,000-strong White Army from the Crimea and the final collapse of White reaction in Russia.

1920, 14 March – 5 April, Rühr Uprising, Germany. The 50,000-strong Rühr Red Army (RRA) – which includes communists, left communists and elements of the anarcho-syndicalist Free Workers Union of Germany (FAUD) – responds to the right-wing Kapp Putsch of 13 March by defeating the proto-fascist Freikorps, especially in the key Battle of Essen on 19 March, and taking over the cities of the industrial Rühr. After the defeat of the putsch, the Uprising and its councils was brutally suppressed by the Reichswehr – and even elements of the Freikorps who had supported the putsch. 

1920, 21 – 28 October: Battle of Ch'uongsan-ri, Manchuria. Some 3,000 troops – including anarchists – of the Korean Independence Army (KIA) under the command of the anarchist-sympathetic general Kim Jwa-Jin, of the Shinmin Autonomous Prefecture, destroyed the 28th Brigade of the 19th Division and a reserve detachment of the 50,000-strong Japanese Imperial Army in Manchuria, a stunning blow for the liberation movements that opened up the field to anarchist organising in the region, latter enabling the establishment of an anarchist liberated zone in north-east Manchuria, under the Korean People’s Association in Manchuria between 1929 and 1931.

1921, January: Battle of Julianikh, Siberia, Russia. Between 5,000 and 10,000 guerrillas of the Anarchist Federation of the Altai (AФA) under I.P. Novoselov engaged the forces of the Red Army, but were defeated.

1921, 7  17 March: Kronstadt Uprising, Russia. Calling for a "third revolution" against Bolshevik tyranny, anarchists, Left Social Revolutionaries, Maximalists and dissident Bolsheviks comprising the 10,000-strong Kronstadt Soviet at this vital naval base guarding the approaches to St Petersburg. Selected elements of the Red Army, primed with counter-revolutionary propaganda, assaulted the fortress and summarily executed many of the revolutionaries who were unable to escape.

1923, March 26: Battle of Yambol, Bulgaria. During the fascist seizure of power, a small force of anarchist guerrillas of the Bulgarian Anarchist Communist Federation (FAKB) fought a bitter battle for two hours against Yambol city’s two regiments of troops, only to be crushed by an artillery regiment from a neighbouring town.

1929    1931, 21 July  July: Defence of the Back Dragon Commune, north-eastern Manchuria. The forces of the Korean Anarchist Federation (KAF), Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF) and the Northern Army of the Korean Independence Army under Kim Jwa-Jin combine into a "Black Dragon Army" that defends the free zone   comprised an area of some 350,000km², about three times the size of the free zone controlled between 1918 and 1921 by the Makhnovshchina in Ukraine  against communist, nationalist and Japanese imperialist forces.

1929-1933, Berlin and Upper Silesia, Germany. The Free Workers Union of Germany (FAUD) forms its own paramilitary organisation, Black Ranks (Schwarze Scharen), several hundred strong, to defend its premises, members and marches from attack by the Nazis. 

1936, July 19: Battles of Barcelona and Madrid, Spain. Right-wing military coup d’etat defeated in the streets by ad-hoc anarchist guerrilla forces led by the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI).

1936, November 15: Battle of Ciudad Universitaria, Madrid, Spain. A section of the Durruti Column numbering 1,400 under Buenaventura Durruti, dispatched to the defence of Madrid, leaving 4,600 on the Zaragoza front, defeats Lt.Col. Delgado Serrano’s No.3 Column of the rebel forces, comprising Moroccan troops of the 1st and 3rd Tabors of Regulars of Alhucenas, plus the IV Bandera of the Spanish Foreign Legion (known as “Cristo de Lepanto”), and a 105mm artillery battery, in a battle at the Asylum of Santa Cristina. Their victory helps prevent Army of Africa rebel forces from taking the capital, and secures it for the Revolution.

1937, March 8 – 23: Battle of Guadalajara, Spain. A 20,000-strong force of the People’s Republican Army (including anarchist Cipriano Mera’s 14th Division and the International Brigades’ Garibaldi Battalion) with 40 artillery pieces, 75 armoured vehicles and 80 aircraft defeats Francisco Franco’s 15,000-strong nationalist Army of Africa rebels and their 35,000-strong Italian Fascist Corps of Volunteer Troops (CVT) allies with 270 artillery pieces, 140 armoured vehicles and 62 aircraft, preventing the encirclement of Madrid.

1938 – 1945: Resistance to Japanese Imperialism, Korea: The anarchist Korean Youth Wartime Operations Unit, who had been fighting the Japanese since 1938, was incorporated into the newly founded Korean Liberation Army as its 5th Detachment (later, its 2nd Detachment) in 1941.

1939, February: Battle of Puigcerdá, Spain. A tiny force of 150 anarchist CNT/FAI guerrillas valiantly acted as a last-ditch rearguard and defended more than 400,000 defeated Republicans – civilians and guerrillas – fleeing Spain, in a last-ditch suicide stand against the advancing Francoist forces. All were killed, making Puigcerdá the anarchist Thermopylae. 

1939, March 7 – 12, Counter-coup of Madrid, Spain. Cipriano Mera’s IV Army Corps defeated Spanish Communist Party forces of the 1st Corps of the Army of the Centre that were planning a coup, supporting a National Defence Council that consisted of anarchists, socialists and left republicans. Recognising the war was lost, the aim of the National Defence Council was to negotiate a surrender and prevent a defence of Madrid that would cause needless loss of life.

1941 – 1945: Resistance to the Nazis and Soviets, Central & Eastern Europe. Anarchist cells existed within the Red Army such as a group called the Kronstadt Accords in the Red Army in eastern Germany and Austria, which is said to have included Kronstadt and RPAU veterans. Elsewhere, anarchist partisan groups struggled against both the Axis and the Soviets from 1941 onwards. The nationalist Ukrainian National Army mentioned frequent encounters with Ukrainian anarchist partisans in 1944 to 1945. These seem to have included RPAU veterans as well as youth: an anarchist youth organisation called Alarm (Nabat) was formed in Ukraine, organised an armed uprising in 1943, and held a vital bridgehead, earning it the praise of the Red Army, although after the war its founder, V.I. Us, was jailed for twenty years by the Soviet authorities, the sentence later being reduced. 

1943, 19 April – 16 May: Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Poland. Anarchist partisans of the underground Polish Union of Syndicalists (ZSP) and the Syndicalist Brigade of the Syndicalist Organisation “Freedom” (SOW) participate in the doomed Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, crushed by the Nazis while nearby Soviet forces sat immobile. Only a handful survive, some anarchist guerrillas becoming recognised by the Jews as “Righteous Among Nations” for their sacrifice.

1943 – 1945: Resistance to the Nazis and Fascists, northern Italy. By the end of 1943, there were some 9,000 armed partisans fighting against the Nazis and Fascists in the north, most of them Italian Communist Party and Action Party members, but including anarchists from historic strongholds like Carrara. By the spring of 1944, partisan forces had soared to between 20,000 and 30,000, and by summer to 82,000, with the total rising to about 100,000 by the end of the war – up to 60,000 were killed, wounded or captured. Still, in 1944, the long-supressed anarchist movement had revived to the extent that the Upper Italy Libertarian Communist Federation (FCLAI) was founded and participated in the resistance in the north.

1944, 19 – 20 August: Liberation of Foix, La Madeleine, Cahors and Toulouse, France. Anarchists of the 14th Spanish Guerrilla Corps attacked German convoys, liberated towns and seized the Nazi headquarters at Foix, capturing 1,200 German soldiers. A group of thirty-two Spaniards and four Frenchmen attacked a convoy of 1,300 Germans armed with six tanks and two self-propelled guns at La Madeleine, killing 110 Germans, wounding 200 and forcing the surrender of the rest – all for the price of three wounded Maquis. The anarchist Liberty Brigade liberated the town of Cahors and other centres, and 6,000 anarchist fighters took part in the liberation of the city of Toulouse.

1944, 24 – 25 August: Liberation of Paris, France. The first Allied troops into Paris were the 114 anarchist CNT and FAI veterans of the old Durruti Column, organised as the 9th Armoured Company – a division of the Free French 2nd Armoured Division under General Leclerc – and driving tanks and armoured half-tracks flying the Spanish Republican flag and with names redolent of the Spanish Revolution painted on their sides: “Durruti”, “Ascaso”, “Casa Viejas”, “Teruel”, “Madrid”, “Belchite”, “Guadalajara” and “Guernica”. Having hit the beaches at Normandy on the night of July 31/August 1, 1944, as one of two armoured divisions in the US 3rd Army that defeated three SS Panzer divisions and linked up with the Canadian forces at Falais, the 9th took the honours in Paris, accepting the surrender of General Dietrich von Choltitz and his 17,000-strong Nazi garrison. The 9th then fought its way across Europe, campaigning in Alsace-Lorraine, helping to liberate cities such as Strasbourg and numerous towns, fighting in Germany, passing through the Dachau concentration camp just after it had been liberated by the Americans and concluding its campaign only when it seized Hitler's “Eagle’s Nest” mountain retreat at Berchtesgarten in Bavaria, being the first force to enter this innermost sanctuary of elitist Nazism.

1944, 19 – 26 October: Battle of the Val d’Arán, Catalonia, Spain. Anarchist maquis like Antonio Téllez Solá, believing the Allied invasion of Europe presages them turning against Franco, joined Communist partisans in organising the 204th Division, numbering up to 7,000 guerrillas, which invades Spain via the Val d’Arán in order to precipitate this. They take several towns but are faced by 40,000 Moroccan troops, plus battalions of the Spanish Army, Guardia Civil and police. Many are caught or killed in combat with these state forces, but others including Téllez escape back into France.

1944 – 1945, 26 December – 13 February: Siege of Budapest, Hungary. Anarchist partisans of the Libertarian Front (SF) destroyed two units of the Hungarian Danube River Fleet in Budapest and blew up a munitions dump, although other anarchists were captured and executed after an attack on Nazi Party headquarters. The anarchist partisans, probably numbering about 500, then participated in the final battle for the capital in which they aided two Soviet assault groups numbering 170,000 in defeating the fascist Arrow Cross die-hards and their Nazi allies numbering 180,000.

1940s – 1950s: Resistance to Nationalism and Maoism, Yunan Province, China. Continuous guerrilla campaigns were carried out in the southern Yunan province of China, near the border with Burma and Vietnam, in the 1940s and 1950s by a force commanded by the anarchist Chu Cha-pei, modelled on those of the Makhnovists and RPAU.

1954 – 1957, 1 November  ?. Algerian Liberation War, Algeria. Members of the Libertarian Movement of North Africa (MLAN), which operated in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, participated in the liberation war against French colonialism, mostly by smuggling arms and uniforms, acting as drivers and couriers for the main rebel armies of the Algerian National Movement (MNA) and the National Liberation Front (FLN). Sadly, the FLN betrayed the MLAN and its Algerian Section was destroyed in 1957 between the FLN and the French forces.

1958, 19 – 30 December: Battle of Yaguajay, Cuba. Anarchist, 26th of July Movement (M26J) and other partisans of the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE) in the Second Escambray Front numbering about 500 men descend from the Escambray Mountains, besiege this key provincial town and, in conjunction with anarchists of the Libertarian Association of Cuba (ALC), seize it from the 250-strong Cuban Armed Forces garrison.

1959, 1 – 8 January: Battle of Havana, Cuba. Anarchists and others of the Student Revolutionary Directorate (DRE), the underground anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the “official” Cuban Workers’ Confederation (CTC), the Workers Revolutionary Union (URO), Revolutionary Worker, Libertarian Association of Cuba (ALC), and the Federation of University Students seized Havana. Armed with only 500 rifles, five machine guns and several tanks, they occupied the University and the Presidential Palace. When Castro announced the formation of a “provisional government” in the town of Santiago de Cuba, the DRE and its revolutionary allies scoffed, and refused to allow his 26th of July Movement (M26J) access to the Presidential Palace. Nonetheless, they permitted his forces to enter Havana, accompanied by “captured” army tanks and troops on January 8, 1959. 

1965 – 1982: Urban Guerrilla Warfare, Western Europe. In 1965, Spanish exile anarchist youth formed a multinational First of May Group (GPM) which engaged in bloodless kidnappings, and the machine-gunning of the embassies of repressive regimes. In 1971, the Iberian Liberation Movement (MIL) was formed in Spain and France, based in Barcelona and Toulouse, launching its first attack in Barcelona the following year. By 1974, most MIL members were behind bars, so those still at large merged their forces with those of the GPM to form the Groups of International Revolutionary Action (GARI). On 3 May 1974, GARI kidnapped Spanish banker Angel Baltazar Suárez in Paris in an attempt to secure the release of 100 anarchist prisoners in Spain and to force Franco to return seized CNT funds. Suárez was released unharmed after a 3-million franc ransom was paid out of the union’s funds, but police arrested nine GARI militants in Paris. In 1978, GARI militants combined with factions known as Autonomous Co-ordinations and New Arms for Popular Autonomy to form a new anarchist-influenced guerrilla group called Direct Action (AD).

1968 – 1971: Urban Guerrilla Warfare, Britain. The Angry Brigade conducts a series of spectacular bombings and sabotage actions – intended to be bloodless – aimed at Spanish fascist, British industrialist and class war targets.

1971 – 1976: Urban Guerrilla Warfare, Uruguay. The 500-member Uruguayan anarchist Federation (FAU) argued that Uruguay had become a “constitutional dictatorship”, forcing it to operate as a secret organisation, so it expanded its combat capacity into a proper armed wing, the 100-strong Revolutionary Popular Organisation – 33 Orientals (OPR-33). Over the next five years – a real dictatorship being imposed in 1972 – it will conduct bank expropriations, bloodless kidnappings, and armed defence of striking factories controlled by the 400,000-strong National Convention of Workers (CNT) it created.

1976, 24 – 27 September: Urban Guerrilla Warfare, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Anarchist guerrillas of Libertarian Resistance (RL) – some of whom had been trained in Palestine – and the Uruguayan Anarchist Federation’s Revolutionary Popular Organisation - 33 (OPR-33) participate in the fight against the imposition of the Videla dictatorship. All but a handful are killed in a joint operation by the Argentine State Secretariat for Information (SIDE), operating with officers of the Uruguayan Military Intelligence Service under “Operation Condor”.

1979, 16 January – 11 February: Iranian Uprising, Iran. Anarchist forces of the 300-strong Workers’ Liberation Group (JS, or Shagila) of Iraq and the 500-strong Scream of the People (CHK) of Iran combine to support the neighbourhood shoras and worker kommitehs created during the Iranian Revolution. Their revolutionary movement peaks in July but is then defeated by the Khomeinist counter-revolution, and of those arrested, most are executed. By late 1979, anarchist opposition combat groups are still reportedly operating in Tehran.

1989 – 1992, 9 March – 27 April: Dismantling of the Soviet Union. From the fall of the Berlin Wall, resurgent anarchist organisations in Russia and just about all of the Soviet satellite states participated in the dismantling of the USSR. These actions are mostly peaceful, but do involve frequent clashes, sometimes armed, with fascists and nationalists.

2014, 20 February – June: Resistance to Nationalists and Fascists, Ukraine. The Black Guard squads of the Revolutionary Confederation of Anarcho-Syndicalists – “Nestor Makhno” (RKAS) engage in resistance to both the Russian-backed separatist paramilitaries of eastern Ukraine and to Ukrainian-backed fascist paramilitaries like the Azov Battalion, but the RKAS is forced underground.

2014 – 2015, July – 25 January: Defence of Kobanê, Rojava. Elements of the anarchist groups Social Rebellion (SI), and Revolutionary Anarchist Action (DAF) fight as part of the International Freedom Battalion of the United Liberation Forces (BÖG) in defending the Rojava Revolution against the fascist Islamic State, lifting the siege of Kobanê.

[ENDS]

2016: the Year in Review

Working as the official minute-taker the at Safe Havens 2016 in Sweden, flanked by my friends Nigerian author Jude Dibia and HIAP's Eleni Tsitsirikou.

Troubling year, 2016: we lost Prince and David Bowie, and gained Trump as US president-in-waiting, and Erdoğan's state of emergency, but I was incredibly fortunate to do some fascinating work:

Jan: Submitted my report to ICORN and ProJourn on Safe Havens 2015, started planning on Unexploded Ordnance: Untold Southern African Stories, finished writing my 6th book, Isandlwana - a Love Story, started a research group for my multimedia project The People Armed: Anarchist Fighters Verbatim which is already partly complete.
Feb: Worked as a fixer on the 2015 Mt Sumi Massacre in Angola for the BBC, started work on the revision of Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism for its Spanish and Arabic translations (I have been offered Farsi and Amazigh translations too).
Mar: Interviewed by radio station ChaiFM on A Taste of Bitter Almonds, resumed the primary rewrite of Wildfire: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages, marking the 16th year of research and writing into this companion volume to Black Flame (2009).
Apr: Published on Africa's new-generation air forces, A Taste of Bitter Almonds launches at the Roving Bantu Kitchen and at the University of Johannesburg, started work on the alternate "six waves" version of Cartography.
May: Lead author of an official civil society submission to the Department of Justice & Constitutional Development on the National Action Plan to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, started writing a new book concept, Notes for a Funeral, started planning my first novel, Jeanne & Giles.
Jun: Lead author of first survey of trans-diverse communities in four Southern African countries, Drinking With Ghosts and A Taste of Bitter Almonds long-listed for new national book award, relocated persecuted Zimbabwean human rights defender into exile in Namibia for the World Organisation Against Torture.
Jul: Published on the future of Africa's cities and on visions of mapping Africa, covered and presented at Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network summit, covered 2nd IAJ Racism Conference, hosted a talk at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre commemorating the 22nd Anniversary of the "100 Nights" Rwandan Genocide following the first South African screening of Beate Arnestad's documentary Telling Truths in Arusha.
Aug: Started work with the Pan African Human Rights Defenders Network on getting Joburg on board ICORN, covered the Menell Media Exchange 2016 (I helped found the initial MMX in 2012), resumed work on Wildfire, started the rewrite of the Anarchist Communist Mass-line series as a single book, delivered copies of my anarchist books to comrades opposing the dictatorship in Swaziland, initiated a group around the film project The Dispossessed.
Sep: Covered Africa Aerospace & Defence 2016, published on the failures of BRICS in the arms industry, finalised the design of my website (thanks Angela!), worked on the Mass-line series, approached by Polisario regarding covering its new campaign for the liberation of Western Sahara from Moroccan colonialism.
Oct: Lead author of Durban AIDS Conference report on decriminalising gender, published on reassessing genocide and ethnic boundaries in Africa and on a comparative analysis of SA now and 1960s Italy, sold books at the Rocking for West Papua gig in support of that country's liberation from Indonesia, covered IAJ/AKF Reporting Racism Conference, briefed by SABC 8, worked on Wildfire, documentary Neither God nor Master: A History of Anarchism in which I am interviewed is screened to acclaim in Sweden, submitted songs to four local bands for EPs they are working on.
Nov: Worked on Wildfire and on the Mass-line series, presented at and covered SA's first-ever conference on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones), started discussions on a Japanese translation of Black Flame, getting Cape Town on board ICORN comes a step closer with the signing of an agreement between the mayors of Cape Town and Malmö.
Dec: Published on the late Fidel Castro's politics and on SA's new city coalition politics, landed research grant into apartheid SA's worst war-crime, attended Safe Havens 2016 in Sweden as report-writer, submitted my report on Safe Havens 2016, resumed work on Rasha Salti's and my multi-arts project Not Night, but An Absence of Stars, worked on Wildfire and the Mass-line series, continued support work on Radio Freedom (Zimbabwe) as I had throughout the year.

I am tentatively hopeful for an even more challenging and constructive workload in 2016 ;)

[ENDS]

Castor's pale shadow


[Extract from Notes for a Funeral, a work in progress]

Castor is holding court in what used to be the hair salon, with the fading placards of exotic West African hairdos still stuck on its windowfront. He sits on a cracked white plastic chair on the scrubbed linoleum floor, a girl on each arm. “You’ve been downtown,” he says to the plump one sitting on the steps leading to the wired-closed back room, she with the fake gold baubles holding high her piled braids; she smiles in the manner of simple girls, understanding his compliment on her new coiffure. Castor flashes his even white teeth about with ease. His face is open, his hands hang loosely in between his legs and he’s easy to like; not me, the one with the squinty eyes and the too-blonde stubble that refuses to become a beard; in my washed-out blue-and-white trackpants, I am all tendons and nerves; the lanky youths at the door don’t look me in the eye; but rather focus on their broken takkies or get sucked into Castor’s glow. They call him Captain in recognition of his easy leadership skills; they call me Whitey as a straight-faced descriptive, nothing more, Castor’s pale shadow. 
His Sparrows flutter about the run-down winter playground outside; he calls them his Sparrows because the young boys have this strange way of running, their heads thrust forward, their skinny shoulder-blades squeezed together and their arms trailing out of sight behind them. Swooping through the township like this, darting here and there, they indeed look like the little birds, but they are really just emulating the older boys who developed this mannerism deliberately, a method of moving swiftly, unpredictably, running with their arms behind their backs so that no-one could see if there was a pistol or kwatcha or not; but the threat was often real enough and the older folk stayed indoors when they saw the flocks gathering like birds on a wire. 
I wasn’t always sure myself, sometimes catching a flicker of a sneer in the glint of a Sparrow’s eye out of the corner of my eyes; I was wary of their sharpened bicycle spokes and years-worn paint-etched screwdrivers that would likewise flash in and out of view. Not that they would harm the lieutenant who was never called by that title, but sometimes things got confused in a fight, or the stream of our oaths was troubled by undercurrents of petty jealousies or vicious rumours; one can never be too careful. 
The next thing you know, and Castor has shucked off the fawning girls, and the boys flit around him, storming near, then looping far; more like bats, I think, the left side of my mouth twisting. Castor gives me a quick penetrating look, and then he is off and running with that lupine gait. I am taken by surprise; he hasn’t consulted me, but this morning he was talking incessantly about the newspaper report of the suddenness of that attack on a quiet street in Denmark; unpredictability is his skill; so without warning, he is heading down the district road, his Swallows in tow, clearly bent on an ersatz mission. I shake off my clumsiness and lope after them, a few stragglers swirling around me; we take a right turn at the dirt farm road where a fire is burning itself out under the straggly stands of bluegums, and my little group suddenly realises he is not taking the curve of the district road, down towards the river, but heading straight towards the highway. So we break across the smoking veld, to intercept them, the hot ashes scorching my feet, soot smearing my pant-cuffs. Along the way, we run into a cross-path that is tumbled full of rocks from a forgotten rain. There we merge with a group of primary school girls in their black pinafores; their faces shining they chant “Sticks and stones can break my bones…” There is going to be a war today.

[ENDS]

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Doing the Timeslip in Lost Highway

Renée Madison and Alice Wakefield would be versions of each other - except that they coexist in the middle timeline of Lost Highway

By Michael Schmidt

David Lynch’s noir film Lost Highway (1997) has a notoriously confusing plot (film synopsis here) but I’m going to give it a go. Stripping away supporting characters including screen-time-consuming ones such as the mechanic’s girlfriend Sheila who winds up jilted and the wife’s old friend Andy who winds up dead, we are left with three essential characters: the main protagonist is jazz saxophonist Fred Madison and, as we shall see, his variant(s), his dispassionate brunette wife Renée Madison and her variant(s), and vicious porn producer / gangster Dick Laurent, aka Mr Eddy.
Aside from the anomalies which I shall shortly discuss, the plot is in fact linear as we follow Fred from waking up to answer his door-buzzer to hear the fatal words “Dick Laurent is dead”. This initial version of Fred – let’s call him Alpha Fred – does not know the name Dick Laurent, and his mysterious caller has vanished. The first of six anomalies occurs later when, on waking up from a nightmare, Alpha Fred hallucinates briefly that his concerned wife’s face is supplanted by that of a Mystery Man.
The second anomaly occurs when, at a party thrown by Andy, Fred is approached by the same Mystery Man who mockingly demonstrates to him that he is both standing in front of him at Andy’s – and simultaneously able to answer the phone at Fred’s house. 
This rattles Fred as he has by this time received the second of two video tapes, this one showing the vision of an intruder who filmed Fred and Renée while they were asleep, an incident that provokes them to call in detectives to watch the house. Alpha Fred asks Andy who the Mystery Man is and is told he is a friend of Dick Laurent – apparently the first time Alpha Fred has heard the name.
The third anomaly is that the third video tape received by Fred shows him crying out in agony in their bedroom over the bloodied body of Renée, giving the impression that he saw the tape after Renée was murdered. Did he film himself doing it and then send himself – or an unsuspecting or innocent version of himself – the tape? Either way, his shock is swiftly escalated by his trial, conviction for murder and sentencing to the electric chair.
However, while in prison awaiting execution, Apha Fred suffers from migraines and further hallucinations that culminate in the first of two disjunctures which jolts Alpha Fred out of his primary timeline and into an alternative, though not necessarily parallel, universe: awaking in his cell, Alpha Fred appears to have been transfigured into motor mechanic Pete Dayton – to the consternation of his jailers.
Pete – who may also be called Beta Fred – is dating Sheila but got himself into some sort of, to his parents and Sheila, literally unspeakable trouble and wound up in jail on a traffic violation. With the wrong man behind bars and with Pete’s memory a blank, the confounded authorities release Pete but put a tail on him. 
Pete returns to work and there meets overzealous customer Mr Eddy who takes him for a violent joyride with two of his thugs. On later bringing in a second of his cars for repair, Mr Eddy is this time accompanied by Alice Wakefield, a woman that, but for her shorter blonde hair, is the spitting image of the murdered Renée. We would be tempted to call her Beta Renée – but it turns out later, that in this alternate timeline, Renée exists separately to Alice and that they cohabit the same timezone as friends of both Andy and Mr Eddy, with Alice working as a porn star for Mr Eddy.
Alice initiates an affair with Pete behind Mr Eddy’s back. Growing suspicious, Mr Eddy telephones Pete and puts onto the line the Mystery Man who has a conversation with Pete that mirrors that which Alpha Fred had with the Mystery Man at Andy’s. Spooked, Alice and Pete rob Andy in order to raise getaway money and Andy is killed in the process. They drive into the desert looking for a fence to give them cash for the goods they stole from Andy’s.
The fence is not at his cabin, and after making love on the sand, a second disjuncture occurs when Alice walks into the cabin never to be seen again while Pete, dusting himself off, is transformed into Fred again, or perhaps this should be Gamma Fred. This version of Fred is on the warpath because a brunette woman who seems to be Renée, and thus his wife (or perhaps Gamma Renée), is sleeping with Mr Eddy – Dick Laurent. 
Gamma Fred follows them to a motel and, when Renée leaves, assaults and kidnaps Dick, taking him out into the desert where with the assistance of the Mystery Man, he cuts Dick’s throat before a dying Dick is shot dead by the Mystery Man who then disappears. 
So far so good in that we have had only one alternate timeline disjointed from the primary narrative – which remains linear – in which the characters assume different personae and roles, while the Mystery Man is revealed to be rather an alter ego of Fred/Pete, apparently one that enables him to kill.
But then Gamma Fred returns home, presses his own doorbell, thereby waking Alpha Fred, and telling him over the intercom that “Dick Laurent is dead.” The timeline has thus looped, with Gamma Fred, having completed the loop, initiating Alpha Fred’s sequence with which the movie began. This is the fifth anomaly.
But there is one more, for Gamma Fred’s presence at the house is noted by the detectives that Alpha Fred called in after the second video tape. So it appears that the point of initiation is either not the same as in the initial narrative – or this timeline is slightly different, with potentially different outcomes. 
Is Renée still alive at the point when Gamma Fred presses the buzzer? Will she – as Gamma Renée who slept with Dick – be murdered by Alpha Fred/Gamma Fred/Mystery Man later? Has she been spared that fate now that Alpha Fred’s rival has been eliminated by Gamma Fred? Is she perhaps now a Delta Renée with no relationship to Dick? Or does she even exist in this apparently new timeline?
So in essence we have an initially linear plot in which the characters are midway disjointed temporally into another timeline where they play different roles, before returning to their initial timeline, but which then loops back to initiate its own sequence – though not in an identical manner to the original timeline, suggesting the possibility of several outcomes along various timelines enacted by variants of the three primary characters. Quite sci-fi for a noir movie!

[ENDS]

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Revisiting democratic South Africa's first land claim

Saul and Aletta Titus at home in Elandskloof, photographed by Jason Jardem for the 2014 GroundUp story here: Elandskloof 18 Years After Restitution

[Extract from A Taste of Bitter Almonds]

Elandskloof Valley, Cedarberg Mountains, Western Cape, 7 August 2002

Aletta Titus is 62 years old. She wears a blue short-sleeved worker's smock buttoned over a navy-blue jersey, for an icy wind is blowing down her valley this morning. An amber fringe of hair sweeps out from under her yellow doek, and she squints at me in the glaring sunlight through her round tinted spectacles, he face lined and pinched. Her work-worn hands grip the steel tubing of her wire-strand front gate. Behind her stands an apricot tree that in this fruit-farming district is unremarkable but for two facts; first that the tree is dead, yet has not been uprooted but has rather been left to stand and rot; and secondly that for Titus, the tree is a symbol of the hardships of her personal 45-year-battle to reclaim her farm, for six decades ago, in keeping with her people's traditions, as a newborn, her umbilical cord was buried at the root of the tree, a metaphorical lifeline tying her to her ancestral lands in this rugged valley two hours drive north of Cape Town.
Talking to myself and Sunday Times Cape Town bureau photographer Ambrose Peters, Titus is grumpy. She may be a beneficiary of democratic South Africa's first successful land claim for people dispossessed on racial grounds after the 1913 Land Act that assigned 80% of the country's land – including most of the prime arable ground – to the then 1-million whites and the rump to the 8-million blacks, but six years on, she still lives in an electricity-less timber shack built by her husband next to the ruins of her parents' old stone house. The dispossession of the black majority and the indigenous minority accelerated in the 1950s during the forced removals of people of colour from "black spots" that sullied the white landscape, the precursor to the establishment of consolidated semi-autonomous Bantustans in the 1970s (which implied the disenfranchisement of Bantustan residents as South African citizens). An ambitius plan under the ANC to tilt the balance back in favour of the dispossessed has seen, over the past six years, more than 332,000 people restored to 427,000 hectares of land. But 4,5-million people still await restitution, a process which has the impossible target of concluding in two years' time, another 15 million live in the former Bantustans, and another 7-million live on the farms. But the land restitution programme has been bedevilled by right-wing white farmer intransigence against change, the market-related "willing-buyer/willing-seller" policy that has cost the taxpayer R377-million, bureaucratic red-tape, critical skills shortages, and a rose-tinted spectacle vision of the nature of "community" that was unwilling to apprecite how estranged neighbours torn apart half a century ago wereunlikely to be rejoined with each other and their stolen land without bitter infighting.
When the community was uprooted and dispersed, leaving their buried umbilicals behind, one group of 50 families tried their best to retain their ties, working as labourers on the neighbouring farm of Allandale while agitating for a return to their land under the aegis of the "Watchfulness Committee" lead by John Januarie. Others, however, fled to the four winds, to Worcester, the West Coast, the Kouebokkeveld, and Cape Town where they acquired the habits, skills and better education of urban workers, and gradually lost their bucolic farmers' sensibilities, green thumbs, and weather-eyes. As Titus tells us: "The big story is the conflict among us.Most of us [original] Elandsklowers are dead; most of the children were born outside of the valley; there is a big gap between us; those who have been in the city can't fit in."
But it's more than just about generational drift and urbanised youngsters losing their feel for farming: families grow; and diverging communities disagree. The original 79 evicted families have now swelled to 308 claimant households. Meanwhile, the Committee's Januarie died in a decade ago in 1992, four years before the land claim was settled – and his successor on what was renamed the Elandskloof Property Association, Sampie Carolus, was from the Worcester group, a better-educated group that, according to what Elzbeth Engelbrecht of the Surplus People Project, an NGO that helped midwife the land-claim, told me, started exercising an undue influence on the Association and the claim process. And Elandsklowers are so narrowly xenophobic that it beggars belief: Oerson Januarie, the current Association leader who replaced Carolus was born in the valley – but he married Liza, a woman from Citrusdal, a mere 17km away; yet she says that she is often told she cannot talk at meetings because she is "an outsider." Faced with a community that was so fractious that, as Engelbrecht put it, was "so conflictual there was nothing they could do," the Land Claims Commission avoided the claimants themselves, but was then forced to rely on an Association riven by nepotism and factionalism as their representatives, and development in the valley ground to a halt. Most of the fertile lands in the valley are lying fallow, the old Dutch Reformed Church which was – shockingly, by the God-fearing standards of the Nationalists' respect for churches – used as a sheep-shearing shed during the community's decades in the wilderness is still not restored, and the schoolhouse is a hollow ruin with sagging floors, its walls daubed with graffitti.
Chief Land Claims Commissioner Dr Wallace Mgoqi told me that he views the land restitution process as "a cornerstone of reconstruction and development" that needs to "reduce poverty and contribute to economic growth." But he admits that the state's R1,440-a-household planning grant and R3,000-a-household discretionary restitution grant are not enough to ensure that once on the land, people put down roots in a sustainable way. The Commission does have poster-farm success stories such as the fruit and nut orchards in Limpopo or the game farms in KwaZulu-Natal where successful operations were taken over voetstoets by properly-capacitated claimants. But for underdeveloped farms, there is a rocky road ahead: the white farmers who supplanted the evicted blacks decades ago were given a leg up by a semi-socialist agrarian economy managed by produce control boards, their markets shielded by protectionist tariffs; but the re-emergent black farmers today have to deal with slender handouts and tough globalised competition with few protections.
Yet Mgoqi stressed to me that the tough task of forging a new sense of community is the chief impediment to the success of his programme: "Forced removals dispersed people all over the place and they lived in complete isolation. The process of restitution forces them to come together by reason of the fact that they all belong to that piece of land... and they then have to relate in a new way that may be completely different to what they were used to... The major challenge that faces them now is to become a coherent community." He also fears that failure will give ammuntion to the revolutionaries, saying that donor organisations should be linked to claimants to ensure the sustainability of farms "to bring sobriety to the fire-eaters who want to push recklessly for land invasions." 
Engelbrecht claims that today, the Elandsklowers have finally achieved "a sense of integration" in that those claimants living outside the valley have realised they must step aside and allow decision-making on development to be driven by those who have returned. Peters and I take a drive around to ascertain the full extent of the valley, reaching right up to a ramshackle old house on the watershed screened by scraggly bluegums, and are informed that civil lawsuits might see the extent of the restored claim quadrupled in size, making it more sustainable for a community that has also quadrupled over the decades. As we drive and trudge along, we see spanking-new community-owned tractors turning the veld's sod over for new orchards and vegetable fields. The state has allowed the community to harvest the traditional medicinal herb boegoe from neighbouring state forests, and Januarie has sent the local spring water for scientific analysis to see if it is viable as a source for entry onto the lucrative bottled-water industry. The Elandskloof has now been earmarked as a provincial priority project for the R15,000-a-household grant for the construction of proper housing, electrification and other services have been ordered to keep pace with the housing construction, and once the church is restored, there is a plan to link it to Genadendal, the country's oldest mission station, on a tourist "Mission Station Route". As Titus tells us, the Elandsklowers "must first get the inclination [to act] as a community" before they can develop the valley where their and their ancestors' umbilical cords are buried to its full potential.

[ENDS]

Monday, 28 November 2016

Forensic Meditation: alleged 1979 Rhodesian death flight

A young Chris Pessarra (below) poses at the door of a Dakota

[Extracts from Drinking With Ghosts]

BUFFALO RANGE FORWARD AIRFIELD, CHIREDZI,
RHODESIA, MAY 1979

It is October 1999, within days of Judge Willem Hartzenberg
having shocked trial-watchers by throwing out the murder
charges against Wouter Basson relating to the killing of the
approximately 200 Swapo POWs poisoned and dumped
into the ocean – on the slender basis that former South
West African Administrator-General Louis Pienaar had in
February 1990, on the very eve of independence, issued a
blanket amnesty to all SADF forces for acts committed in his
territory. The Sunday Times’s bouffant-haired karaoke queen 
and long-suffering, all-knowing editorial receptionist,
Sandra Hattingh, flags me down as I walk into the newsroom.
A parcel has arrived for me, postmarked Texas, USA. I take
it to my desk and perform the usual ritual, examining it for
oily fingerprints and sniffing it for the scent of almonds –
both potential signs of plastic explosives – then gently open
the opposite end of the package to that which its sender
sealed; one can’t be too careful. I unwrap what amounts to
a present, stuffed full of sheaves of typed documentation –
journalists dream of the day when such mysterious parcels
will arrive on their desks, containing critical, hitherto secret
information, but in truth such serendipitous days are very
few and far between.
The documentation tells the disjointed and yet
wide-ranging tale of its sender, a former French Foreign
Legionnaire named Charles Timothy ‘Chris’ Pessarra.
Following a stint with the Rhodesian military when the
Bush War was in its brutal final phase, Pessarra had, like
so many other Rhodesian military veterans, abandoned
the emergent democratic Zimbabwe to join the SADF. In
an attempt to verify Pessarra’s identity, I drive down to 1
Parachute Battalion at Tempe in Bloemfontein, and there a
major takes me through the class photographs of the early
1980s and identifies a much younger Chris Pessarra (by 1999
his military leanness had given way to the heavyset look of
a biker), so I know that at least part of the story is true – the
former 1 Para officer commanding having also confirmed
that Pessarra had been on-strength in the early 1980s and
that he’d previously fought in Rhodesia. Pessarra’s rambling
tale veers off into a discussion of his later involvement as a
police spy against organisations of the ultra-right engaged
in their various plots, and on to his return to the USA and
his battle with the Inland Revenue Service. But the part
that holds my fascination – and the reason he felt compelled
to contact me in the first place – relates to his presence in 
southern Rhodesia as the parachute jump instructor (PJI) at
the Buffalo Range Forward Airfield at Chiredzi, in May 1979.

[long cut]

It was against this murky backdrop of racial pro-colonial
struggle that Chris Pessarra, who had been blooded as a
paratrooper with the French Foreign Legion’s renowned
2e Régiment Étranger de Parachutistes (2e REP)... 
found himself working as the PJI at Buffalo
Range, a so-called forward airfield from which small
fire-force ‘sticks’ of light infantry would be dropped to
positions in the bush to engage the terrs. Using the contacts
given in the package I got in touch with Pessarra, and in
several detailed, tape-recorded conversations he told me
that in May 1979 he had been approached at the base by
the Selous Scouts, a rapid-deployment formation based on
the World War II tactics of the famous Orde Wingate. The
Scouts had demanded that he give them five parachutes for
a drop that was to remain ‘off the books’, meaning that no
PJI was to be present and that the Rhodesian Air Force HQ
at New Sarum would not be informed. Pessarra initially
staunchly refused to do so, as parachutes were scarce at this
stage of the war and he would be held accountable if five
chutes disappeared from his stores. The hot day burned on,
with the argument going nowhere. Finally, at about 5.30 pm,
two tarpaulin-covered civilian Land Rovers arrived at the
airfield. Pessarra noted that they contained Selous Scouts,
two operators from the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS)
– a revered special forces unit, the only one outside the
United Kingdom directly established by the British SAS –
several South African Recces, and a CIA intelligence officer
surnamed Davis who worked for the Salisbury-based front
organisation Christians in Action.
‘In the back right-hand seat was [Wouter] Basson,’
Pessarra said, adding that he had immediately recognised
the former South African Special Forces ops medic from
newspaper coverage of the trial. ‘He did not have a beard;
hell of a lot more hair. He looked like a German hunter on
safari … I was within about ten feet. They saw me, I saw
them very clearly over the space of approximately … an hour,
an hour-and-a-half,’ as the argument over the five chutes
raged on. The two SAS operatives approached Pessarra and
tried to use their unit’s fearsome repute and the fact that
he knew them personally to get him to release the chutes,
but he still refused. One of the Selous Scouts, as a fellow
former Legionnaire, confided to Pessarra that there were five
terrs in the back of one of the Land Rovers who had been
‘doctored’ but were still alive, using a Legionnaire term for
poisoned wells. A propeller-driven Dakota aircraft had been
designated by the odd grouping of Scouts, Recces, SAS and
CIA for the mysterious planned flight (Pessarra provided me
with a faded photograph of his young mercenary self posing
in the doorway of a Dakota). The pilot, a civilian Air Rhodesia
pilot who as part of his military service flew rotations for
the Rhodesian Air Force, had approached Pessarra and
privately begged him to sneak on board the aircraft through
the navigator’s hatch in the nose, and secretly fly with them
that night because he was scared of the intense paranoia
surrounding the flight; he had not even been told where they
were headed. Pessarra did so, and found that the ‘aircraft
interior windows were all blanked out. They had sealed the
pilot’s cabin off with canvases so they could not see what
was going on in the hold.’
Tucked in his hiding place, Pessarra tugged at the
canvas and opened a peep-hole through which he saw
the ‘terrorists’ loaded. They were ‘dressed in Selous Scout
camouflage … They had the fake papers, the whole mess
… arms, everything. They were still conscious. Basson …
climbed up the steps. He had his case with him. He bent over
them inside the door, on the back part of the aircraft between
the last seats and the doors. I only saw him inject two of
them with some type of solution. They did some scrapings,
everything. The rubber gloves were put on … Basson had
a mask on. He … put the mask on once he was inside the
door; took it off once he was outside. This all took about
… 24 minutes. They had two Recce guys helping them. We
took off … They made the drop [over Mozambique]. They
dropped the terrs out on the parachutes. We returned to the
airfield.’

PRETORIA HIGH COURT, 19 OCTOBER 1999

Basson’s legal team has not once responded to Pessarra’s
claims since my exclusive – backed up online by key portions
of the Pessarra tapes – was published in the Sunday Times two
weeks ago, but today when I arrive at court Basson makes
a beeline for me and breaks Judge Hartzenberg’s order that
he not speak to the media. He obviously recognises my 
clean-shaven head and what I term my ‘lawyer-killer’ black
Nehru suit from my byline picture. It’s quite a turnaround
since the first time I approached him in the court, offering
my business card – something I always do as a courtesy to
the stressed accused, so they know who I am and can get
their legal team to challenge my reports if they take issue
with them – when he’d startled me by howling out ‘Adolf!
Adolf!,’ not, as it turns out, calling for aid from the ghost
of Adolf Hitler, but calling for Advocate Adolf Malan to
get this damned reporter away from him. This time, he’s
recovered his composure.
‘That guy Pessarra’s mad, you know? He’s been treated
in psychiatric hospitals.’
Fair enough. As the French Foreign Legion marching
song goes: ‘Nous avons souvent notre cafard / nous sommes
des Légionnaires’ (‘We have our black moods / for we
are Legionnaires’). But Dr Basson, usually so cunning,
has mistakenly admitted that he knows Pessarra, and in
breaking the judge’s order has revealed that my story is
close to the mark. Another indication that Pessarra is telling
the truth has already arisen during my investigation of the
story. Pessarra had named the two members of the SAS
who he said had been at the Buffalo Range Forward Airfield
that fateful day. When I call the Rhodesian veterans’ SAS
Regimental Association – it’s based in Durban, where many
Rhodesian ex-servicemen settled when black majority rule
came to their homeland – and name the two men, I am
told that the one is currently ‘working’ in Sierra Leone,
and the other is in Afghanistan; clearly they have followed
the mercenary, or as it is termed these days, the ‘private
military contractor’ route. The man on the other end of the
line then issues a polite death threat: ‘If you name these
guys in print, the Association will not be held responsible
for what may happen, because we can’t prevent members
taking action.’ I’m delighted to be threatened by soldiers 
of such fearsome repute; moreover, it adds gravity to
Pessarra’s assertions.

[ENDS]

Forensic meditation: aftermath of the Shobashobane Massacre

Makhosazana Gambushe walks barefoot through the ashes of her rondavel searching for the remains of her crippled great-aunt © David Buzzard

[Extract from Drinking With Ghosts]

SHOBASHOBANE, SOUTHERN KWAZULU-NATAL, 
6 JANUARY 2005

                                 ... There’s normally not a helluva lot
of news over the Christmas period, so most newspapers are
on skeleton staff – but I had an idea for a Christmas story of
another sort: revisiting the Christmas Day Massacre of 1995,
the most grievous bloodletting of the democratic era,that
left 18 people dead and 21 wounded.
I hop on an SAA flight from Johannesburg to the
small airport of Oribi, in Pietermaritzburg, the small city
located an hour’s drive inland from the port of Durban.
There I secure a hired car and drive the district roads of
my old KwaZulu-Natal stamping ground, taking the R56
south-westwards, through the town of Richmond, once
the scene of heavy internecine fighting between ANC- and
IFP-aligned factions, then through the hamlet of Ixopo,
immortalised for the beauty of its rolling hills in Alan
Paton’s seminal novel Cry the Beloved Country which was
first published in 1948, the year the National Party came
to power – a tale of tortured redemption in which a black
Anglican priest from Ixopo travels to Joburg in search of his
prodigal son, finding that the young man is to hang for the
murder of a white liberal activist. I drive on through the
forested enclave of Umzimkulu, an odd chunk of the Eastern
Cape wholly surrounded by KwaZulu-Natal and the last
remnant of the fractured cartography of the Bantustans, with
the remnants of its ‘border posts’ still in evidence. At the
N2 highway I turn south towards the coast, and after some
time, before the road climbs up to the Paddock plateau and
its microclimate tea plantations, I pass through the town of
Izingolweni. Just south of here, a hut-stubbled ridge known
as Shobashobane extends westwards towards the beautiful
Umtamvuna River that marks the border with the Eastern
Cape region of the Transkei. I book into my hotel and, as
giant flares of lightning tear through the skies, bed down
for the night. As I fall asleep, comforted under my duvet
and safe from the raging storm, I know that in the huts of 
the region superstitious elderly Zulus have thrown blankets
over their mirrors and aluminium pots, in the belief that
anything shiny lures the killers in the sky. But the killers
most intimately known by the people of Shobashobane
have been their own neighbours.
The next morning, I drive to the junction where the
hamlet of Shobashobane sits just off the highway at the
terminus of the long ridge. It is a scrappy little affair, with
rocky dirt roads embracing the usual taxi rank, bottle stores,
funeral parlours, wholesalers and retailers, and, next to the
police station, a string of antique houses, dilapidated yet
solid, standing foursquare on their fenced plots under the
creaking gum trees, next to a disused railway siding rusting
in the shaded weeds.
I travel out along the ridge towards the Umtamvuna
River, stopping at the first significant structure, a family
compound of huts. I find matriarch Mazungu Nyawose, 65,
the mother of slain Shobashobane ANC Chairman Kipha
Nyawose, whose compound this once was, at home. Five
members of the Nyawose family were killed on that terrible
day in 1995. She tells me that internecine bloodshed has cost
her four of her seven children: two sons – including Kipha
– and two daughters. She herself was shot in the head and
right leg in a 1994 attack on their household in which seven
people were killed. I try to photograph her – my first attempt
at news photography – but fail miserably because I stupidly
pose her against the hut’s window, so the bleached daylight
from outside sinks her face in gloom; but the image, though
unusable, seems appropriate for the infernal darkness of 
the story.
Here I also meet Dumazile Nyawose, 54, Kipha’s aunt.
Her work-worn hands still shake as she recalls how an
Inkatha impi of about 600 people encircled Shobashobane
in a murderous pincer movement. With only about
50 ANC-aligned families settled on the ridge, the tiny 
community was too small to even maintain its two derelict
churches, so most families were preparing to enjoy
Christmas at home or visiting their neighbours. But what
their neighbours, including their own relatives, visited on
them instead was unspeakable. Nyawose recounts for me
how she was in the kitchen preparing a special breakfast
of boerewors, sandwiches and soft drinks for her husband
Amos and son Thulani, then 13. Their 17-year-old daughter
Phindile was visiting relatives further down the road that
leads to Bizana.
‘Thulani came inside and said, “Go out, there’s IFP
coming”,’ Dumazile recalls. ‘I ran outside and saw Tuli
Mountain,’ a prominent hill to the south, ‘black from too
many people. We heard some firearms and shooting. We
ran away.’
Dumazile and Thulani left a ‘very frightened’ Amos to
defend their home; he survived, but his home and another
84 like it were looted and torched by women and youths
who followed in the wake of the impi. Mother and son
encountered Phindile and a cluster of neighbours moving
about further down the road, terrified and confused about
where to find safety. Finding their access to the police
station a mere three kilometres to the east blocked by armed
IFP killers – and a few uniformed policemen – the group
ran down the valley to the north, fording a narrow stream.
Thulani sprinted ahead, but Dumazile describes her horror
on looking back across the water to see the mob catch up
with her daughter.
‘They started to shoot her and then came and stuck her
with assegais and small knives. I saw it, but I don’t know
how to say it …’
I remain quiet, my heart in my throat. When she
recovers her composure, Dumazile claims she saw clearly
who murdered her daughter: ‘Sipho Ngcobo [the local IFP
strongman] and another man killed her. Sipho shot her in 
the back with this long gun – I don’t know what it is called –
and the other man stabbed her with an assegai … She was so
soft and had a kind heart; she wanted to be a social worker.’
As the only journalist on the scene nine years ago, I
remember the aftermath of the Christmas Day Massacre
as if it were yesterday. I was accompanied then by a
Canadian freelance photographer, David Buzzard, because
Richard Shorey, the sole Sunday Times Durban Bureau
photographer on duty that week, was in Pietermaritzburg
covering floods there that had destroyed several homes.
Dave and I scrambled across the slippery rocks over the
same stream that Phindile had failed to cross to safety;
Dave lost his footing and drowned one of his cameras, but
fortunately the others continued to function. We stumbled
in a sweaty daze through high, wet grasses and dense
thornbushes, our skins prickling in the humid air through
which a light drizzling rain was falling. We came across
the body of a young man, his clothes snagged on the thorn
thicket into which he had fled, maggots already squirming
in his eyes. The sight of it made the young policemen who
had been detailed to record and recover the bodies retch
pitifully; having seen many dead bodies by that stage of
my career, I was irritated with them and almost offered
to help them remove the corpse myself, but then thought
better of it as we had our own job to do. Closer to the
Nyawose homestead we found the body of a woman lying
face down, the back of her scalp already gnawed off by
mangy dogs. 
In one of Kipha Nyawose’s huts, on the floor among
scattered toys and schoolbooks, I found an assegai of
crude yet deadly construction, its blade hammered out of a
rusted steel rod, its grip a tightly woven strip of telephone
cable. Designed to gut enemies at close quarters – as Zulu
warriors had done to the British in their victorious attack
at the historic Battle of Isandlwana – its possible role in the
alleged disembowelling and emasculation of Nyawose was
unclear. I picked it up as a memento mori; it hangs from a nail
on my wall in my study at home today. 
Dave and I then visited Sipho Ngcobo at his home,
one of those century-old houses next to the police station
– because like the police station, his home overlooked the
scene of the massacre. Neither he nor the police could have
failed to at least see what had happened across the valley
just the day before. But despite eyewitness accounts that
Ngcobo participated in the massacre and that the police
blocked the refugees’ escape route to the highway, both
have flatly denied this. We found Ngcobo relaxing in his
armchair, exuding an air of unconcern. No, he’d not killed
his neighbours; what a suggestion!
Further down the road, Dave and I found Makhosazana
Gambushe desperately raking through the ashes of her
homestead, looking for the remains of her crippled and
mentally ill great-aunt, Mamkhonjwa Cele, aged 77. Dave
photographed Gambushe through the gutted window
frame, standing barefoot and desolate in the ashes of the
now roofless hut, with her black headscarf on, her hands
anxiously twisting the folds of her floral pinafore. I could
barely imagine the hope and horror warring in her breast.
The only signs of life were slinking puppies and cheeping
chicks. Cele’s body would be identified at the morgue a few
days later; she was one of four Cele family members killed.
Gambushe still lives in Shobashobane. She tells me today,
a decade later, that the years of bloodshed were ‘very hard
because some of them [the killers] were relatives. It would
be better if they are unknown. It’s peaceful on our side, but
I’m not sure about the other side.’
The image that has stayed with me all these years is the
empty eyes of Malan Mthethwa, 43, staring up at me two
weeks later, during the mass funeral service, from inside the
grave of his 16-month-old son Khiphokwakhe, as he laid a 
blanket and a traditional votive offering on the boy’s tiny
white coffin. Mthethwa suffered more than most, having 
also lost both his wives, Busisiwe, 38, and Jabulile, 37. While
the international press corps sat inside the marquee that
stood at a distance from the grim row of 18 graves, recording
the political platitudes of Deputy President Thabo Mbeki,
who had arrived in a SAAF Puma helicopter and was
protected by a ring of SANDF soldiers armed with R4 rifles,
I kneeled in the mud at Khiphokwakhe’s graveside and
spoke as gently as I could to Mthethwa. I have never seen a
man so utterly destroyed. Today I ask around for Mthethwa,
but am told that after the funeral he left Shobashobane for
good and no-one knows his fate.

                                         * * *

The origins of the Christmas Day Massacre go back to 

around 1992, when Shobashobane became contested
territory between the ANC and the IFP. The ANC claims
the IFP was artificially built up in the early 1990s by a
combination of police patronage and strong-arm tactics,
while the IFP claims the area was always its stronghold
and the ANC settlement there was formed by criminal
gangs. Either way, once the killings began they gained the
force of feud, dividing houses against themselves. Young
ANC activist Sicelo Gambushe, with whom I strike up a
conversation when I come across him at the roadside, is an
example of the damage wrought well before the massacre:
his mother, Nompumelelo, aged about 50, was shot dead
in an attack on her homestead in 1993 and his brother
Nkongeni, 25, an ANC self-defence unit member, was
shot dead with his own AK-47 after being captured by the
IFP in 1995. Gambushe walks me through the veld a few
metres off the road and shows me the ruins of a shop once
run by Sehla Nikwe, who was killed in 1993 for the crime
of taking a wounded man to hospital. Gambushe’s friend 
Milton Khomo, 32, shows me where his body was scarred
that same year when arsonists burned his rondavel to the
ground with him still inside it; he narrowly escaped with
his life.
The burned homesteads of Shobashobane have been
rebuilt – partly with money donated by NGOs, partly
by sheer willpower. Today the taxi ranks, spaza shops
and supermarkets are brimful of people going about their
business. Tellingly, many women are dressed in slacks,
which were formerly banned by Inkatha conservatives.
Community water standpipes have sprung up and spidery
electrical lines now string the huts together. Some residents
of Shobashobane fled after the massacre, but most resigned
themselves to living quietly alongside those they knew to
be murderers. 
But Dumazile Nyawose says Christmas Day 1995 is
still remembered in Shobashobane with fear and heartache
as the day when death descended on them. She says that,
whenever elections loom (the ANC now controls four out
of nine wards), the killers among them start a whispering
campaign – ‘We are coming’ – but these days nothing
happens. Ten years on in these lightning-scorched hills,
reconciliation between killers and victims is far from an
easy process, she admits, but adds, ‘My heart is trying to
be right.’
At the funeral for the massacre victims, Deputy President
Mbeki swore that the killers would be hunted down and
brought to book – and 12 suspects eventually were arrested,
including the IFP’s Sipho Ngcobo. But, after serving only
two years of a life sentence, Ngcobo and the five other men
convicted of the massacre had their convictions overturned
on appeal. Today, Ngcobo is the mayor of Izingolweni.
Mazungu Nyawose is resigned to this fact: ‘I’m fine. I have
no problem with Sipho Ngcobo … I accept that Kipha died
for freedom.’
On the drive back to Maritzburg, I visit Ngcobo in
his brand-new yet strangely bare mayoral chamber at
Izingolweni, to find that he has changed his tune slightly.
He tells me that Shobashobane has put fratricide behind
it, but warns that a reversal is not impossible: ‘It is good
now because they [the people] can go freely and not get
threatened, but – and it’s a big “but” because we must be
realistic about peace – there are still elements who want to
destabilise this area.’
While still denying the testimony of those such as
Dumazile Nyawose – that he personally participated in
the slaughter – he finally admits to me at least his political
responsibility: ‘Regarding the situation of Shobashobane,
myself I was a culprit: I was innocent, but involved in
politics … I bear collective responsibility.’

[ENDS]