Monday 28 November 2016

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]

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.’