Coming home: The difference 20 years made to a township on the coast

2014-02-16 14:00

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April 27 1994. My hometown of Magabheni, 50km south of Durban, was just like any other township – underdeveloped and in the clutches of political violence between the ANC and the IFP.

Nothing about that day was ordinary.

I was 14 and politically opinionated but had never participated for fear of my mum, who did not approve of the violence that accompanied politics.

I wanted to be in one of the snaking queues, making my way to the voting booths inside our community hall.

I wanted to see the ballot sheets those men with loud-hailers on the back of trucks had said would change our lives.

Home and awayThe writer takes a stroll in his home town almost 20 years after violence erupted there. Picture: Khaya Ngwenya/City Press

The ballot, they said, held a promise of peace, including an end to forced recruitment into party political camps for boys who were considered old enough to carry a gun.

In those days, groups of men would walk from house to house recruiting boys they considered ripe to fight.

Some voluntarily joined, others were forced.

Almost every week, my mum would open our kitchen door to these men looking for recruits.

Despite having six boys, she would tell them none of her sons would be joining the camps because ours was “a house of God”.

I couldn’t imagine an end to the violence.

My family of 10 – including my parents, younger sister and a nephew – was among those who, in the years leading up to 1994, would seek refuge in the “forest” – a loose term for the valleys many people fled to in the rural areas, away from the township battlefields.

DAYS GONE BY Lucy Mbanjwa with her children Xolani and his younger sister Slindile in front of their family home in Magabheni, 1985

On three occasions, my mum packed bags for myself, my sister and my nephew, and sent us off to visit family friends in the “forest”.

Each time we were sent away, we wouldn’t be home again for at least a week or two.

School and daily life were disrupted and many people stayed away from work.

We missed home and only saw our family every other day when our mother visited.

Each time we returned home, the violence had claimed more lives.

It was midnight in early 1994 when soldiers, armed with huge guns, kicked in our kitchen door and found my mum reading her Bible on her bed.

They ransacked the house, believing there were guns hidden inside because there were “so many boys in the house”.

They found nothing.

Research conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation estimates more than 1?000 people died in political conflict in the three months leading up to the 1994 elections.

Unfortunately, the elections did not immediately result in an end to the hostilities between the ANC and the IFP.

Like many families, we crouched under dining room tables and beds as homes nearby were set alight or petrol-bombed and the occupants were killed.

But by the time the violence, which had become endemic in many communities, had subsided in the late 1990s, I had witnessed two killings, one of a local man whom I had never associated with politics.

His apolitical stance could have been his undoing.

No one really knows, except for his killers, why he was left to bleed to death on the side of the path that led to his home.

The political conflict slowly came to an end in the years following the first democratic elections. Parties struck a peace deal in 1996, soon after the

so-called 1995 Christmas Day massacre in Shobashobane, where 19 people were killed.

The killings sent shock waves across the country and every political leader preached peace. Things were back to “normal” in Magabheni as well, but development was still a few years away.

Fast forward to the new millennium and the scourge of HIV/Aids that had engulfed communities countrywide was taking its toll on my community as well.

This was at a time when talking about the disease was still taboo and the mere mention of Aids would show you up as a careless individual.

Each time I went back home on weekends from Technikon Natal in Durban, more friends and acquaintances were buried in Magabheni and its surrounds.

The most difficult part was seeing multiple tents erected at funerals every weekend.

With no antiretroviral (ARV) drugs available yet, death was almost certain and many people lived silently with the disease in fear of the stigma related to it.

As in many other townships, the stigma lingers, but HIV/Aids is no longer taboo.

And while HIV/Aids is not a joke, people make light of it in conversation, though they are still clearly afraid of being infected.

With the increase of the availability of ARV treatment between 2006 and 2011, many people who have the disease now live longer with it.

Similar to many other communities, the disease is still referred to by different names – like “the three words” – but at least today people talk about it.

Two decades into democracy, Magabheni has survived its violent past and become more politically mature.

The violence that saw families fleeing to the safety of the more secure homes of friends and families is over.

Although KwaZulu-Natal is still the most politically divided province, where more political killings have occurred than anywhere else in the country (more than 50 in the past 10 years), the people of Magabheni don’t care which political party you belong to.

Nobody cares whether your political persuasion is Agang?SA, the Economic Freedom Fighters or the ANC.

Today, the roads in Magabheni (it had only one tarred road running through it before 1994) have names, like Sidiya Highway, where my high school Sidelile is situated.

And more homes have electricity and running water.

It is also more connected – we no longer have to run to a special spot in the yard to make cellphone calls.

Two new schools have been built and the Chinese now own the biggest shop in the neighbourhood, where you can buy anything from bread to TV sets.

They even speak isiZulu.

But our clinic is in a terrible state and only recently started opening on weekends.

Government has built more RDP houses for families who still lived in informal settlements.

When I visited home recently, locals were not happy about the clinic, the intermittent water supply and the reluctance of the local authorities to allow the youth to use the refurbished community hall without paying for it.

But many were happy with the new off-ramp, which links the community directly to the N2 highway, as well as with the building of new RDP houses.

What started off as a rural compound of 200 houses built for employees of the nearby paper mill in 1960 – where most people, including my brothers, still work – Magabheni has grown into a sprawling township.

The past two decades of democracy haven’t been easy for Magabheni, which has been vulnerable to joblessness, drugs and alcohol abuse, but it is still a community anybody would be proud to call home and where cows still roam.

More ComingHome stories will run during the course of the year as part of our 20 Years of Democracy coverage

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