A quiet, historic moment

2011-05-25 00:00

THE world did not end last week, but in Pietermaritzburg it turned on its axis, closing a violent and painful chapter in the city's history. The surprise of it all was that it happened through the ballot box.

Just over 20 years ago, a small war came to a head west of Pietermaritzburg. Lives, homes, livestock and businesses were lost, and a stream of refugees fled from the greater Edendale area. Generally known as the Seven Days War, it was the area's greatest upheaval since the Mfecane of the early 1820s violently displaced its chiefdoms.

It was a war that turned neighbour against neighbour, friends and relatives against each other, and saw the Edendale valley torn apart by warring factions. A large part of the upper end of the valley — Vulindlela and part of Sweetwaters — became the home of Inkatha supporters and a no-go zone to those perceived to be African National Congress sympathisers by their support of the United Democratic Front.

During the eighties, the government's reformed edition of apartheid imposed community councils on townships like Imbali and Ashdown. Inkatha's attempts to dominate them were resisted by civic associations and student councils involved in bus boycotts and the education crisis. In spite of the State of Emergency imposed in June 1986, it was clear that major change was imminent. Inkatha was desperate to be taken seriously as a national political actor and saw its way to do this through the numbers game.

A recruitment drive encountered fierce resistance after threats were made to remove from Vulindlela by early October 1987 all those who had not joined Inkatha. It now confronted an alliance of United Democratic Front organisations, loosely organised self-defence units and Cosatu members. The names of Inkatha warlords, such as David Ntombela, Sichizo Zuma and Abdul Awetha, became common currency. The KwaZulu police were openly supportive of Inkatha and the South African authorities pursued the same end by detaining leaders of anti-Inkatha organisations.

From 1987 to 1990, 2 000 people were killed in continuous conflict in which the invasion of Ashdown in January 1988 was notorious until the high water mark was reached in March 1990 and 162 people died. The Seven Days War was an orchestrated attempt at political cleansing, an armed incursion involving thousands of combatants. Places such as Caluza and Imbali featured on international news broadcasts. Twenty thousand people were displaced and camps in Pietermaritzburg held 11 500 refugees. Catholic priest Father Tim Smith, who worked in the Edendale area, later wrote a book documenting the violence, titled They have killed my Children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held a special hearing on the Seven Days War. A recurring theme in submissions was on the role of the security forces in orchestrating and fanning the violence.

Pre-liberation negotiations and deployment of the army down­scaled the war to a state of tension embedded in the political landscape. Inkatha still held sway in Sweetwaters and a large part of Vulindlela, and consistently dominated the polls in five wards after 1994.

But last week something highly significant quietly happened. The five remaining wards in the hands of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) were all won by the ANC by roughly a 17% margin. Not a seismic figure but certainly one that tilted the axis and changed Pietermaritzburg as we have come to know it. The conflict that started in the early eigthies, that peaked with the terrible events of March 1990 and lingered for the next two decades, simply ended by votes cast in a ballot box.

In the months and years ahead, scholars will analyse this political scenario and ask what changed. It could be that over the past 17 years displaced families have moved back to their former homes. Voters may have seen the writing on the wall for the embattled IFP. But why did they not vote instead for the newly formed offshoot of the IFP, the New Freedom Party? Perhaps it was a concerted drive by the ANC to win the hearts and minds of its former adversaries. There has been major infrastructure development in the Vulindlela area over the past years. In 2008, the entire city's capital budget went on 10 roads in the area. Without funding and arms, wars dry up. Perhaps now all those questions raised at the TRC about the complicity of the police and security forces in fanning the flames of violence may finally be answered.

The Seven Days War is now truly over and the 2011 local government election must go down as one of the most significant events in the history of Pietermaritzburg.

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