Don’t forget the war

2009-03-27 00:00

How many citizens of the midlands know that today is the Seven Days War memorial day? When asked about this war, seven out of 10 people do not remember when it broke out or what caused it. Most educated people I spoke to immediately thought of the Israeli-Egyptian War of 1967 because it was also named the Seven Days War. Yet the KwaZulu-Natal midlands war was equally devastating with traumatic side effects that are still felt by survivors and their families today.

On March 27 and March 28, 1990 the rural areas of Vulindlela and Edendale, on the north-west perimeters of the city of Pietermaritzburg, witnessed the beginning of a civil war between related and neighbouring groups of younger and older generations of men aligned either with the United Democratic Front (UDF) and African National Congress (ANC), or the Inkatha Movement, which later became the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Entire communities, including women and children, were severely affected by these events. At the time, they fled to refugee camps and later either returned to destroyed homes or relocated elsewhere. In retrospect, the events of those dreadful days were seen as starting on Sunday, March 25. The period from that date up to Saturday, March 31 came to be known as the Seven Days War. Political observers and analysts of the time, such as John Aitchison of the then Adult Education Centre at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, noted that the attacks persisted at a high intensity for more than a month, particularly in Imbali township and in the Table Mountain area to the east of Pietermaritzburg. A force of up to 12 000 men, many carrying guns and some even armed with submachine guns, attacked the same areas again and again — KwaShange, Gezubuso, Vulisaka, KwaMyandu, Caluza and Ashdown. There was a high number of casualties and deaths.

People who were still youngsters or who were born after 1994 often ask me why people fought in this war. It simply makes no sense to a child in Vulindlela why people from neighbouring areas such as KwaShange and Mvundlweni or KwaNxamalala and Mthoqotho, a mere two kilometres apart, would be killing each other.

This is a very important question to me as a historian. History holds that there is no single cause that leads to an event but multiple causes. According to this thinking, colonialism was the “necessary” or “underlying” cause. Its expression in the apartheid system and the consequent struggle for liberation are yet two more necessary or underlying causes. These are therefore foregone conclusions, but sadly the “sufficient” or “immediate” causes of the Seven Days War are still contested even today. This is because, seen from their own perspective, there is not one political party or individual involved that will accept the blame for “throwing the first stone”, as it were.

Unfortunately, the war has been forgotten among many people in the midlands and those born since the 1994 elections have little knowledge of what their parents and grandparents lived through. One out of three school students think that the war was just faction fighting and purely local, although one in five are aware that the war was fought by blacks against the white-dominated government of the time. When I commented that there were blacks fighting blacks in the Seven Days War, one in 10 responded that it was obvious the white people had “bribed some black people to attack one other”. One cannot blame these children for their inadequate knowledge of the war, since even some adults say they do not know why blacks fought blacks. After years researching this, I realise that people who lived in the areas affected by the war and who experienced the ugly consequences, often chose to forget, and parents and grandparents did not readily share their survival stories with their children.

But is it good for these youth to be left ignorant of their struggle heritage? For in the end, this hideous civil war helped bring about democracy, starting as it did in the eighties and making P. W. Botha’s term of office ungovernable. In our history, there are things that should never be forgotten, and one of those things is the heroic sacrifice of the men and women who fought to protect our freedom and peace.

Most of what I describe here did not take place in the public eye. It is also arguably not just about prominent men who founded local UDF/ANC or Inkatha branches fighting over party politics in one relatively small spot in southern Africa. Many areas experienced loss of life and destruction of property. Among survivors still living today, not many have escaped extreme poverty and almost none of them have healed from the psychological scars and emotional effects of the war.

The names of prominent people who fought in the struggle are written in history books; their names are engraved on a monument in Freedom Memorial Park in Johannesburg. The names on the monument include those of dead and missing soldiers. Most of the people who suffered in the Seven Days War are not even known in the public arena, except the few whose names are at the peace monument that was erected in Imbali Stage 2.

It is the consequences that we need to consider as a serious indictment on our society: most of the people who suffered are still tormented by what they went through. These are women who lost sons and daughters who were breadwinners. People will tell you: “When my son was killed in 1990, he was the only breadwinner and since then I have been supporting my family on a government pension.” I am talking about children who never had a proper upbringing because both parents were killed during the violence.

Let me assure those heroes and heroines of this civil war, your names may not be written on a wall of remembrance but your names are engraved in our hearts with love. I can say this because in my research survivors who experienced this violence do remember those who died. They may choose to put it behind them but when they do think and talk about you, they break into tears. Also those who did not understand the full impact of what happened because they were too young or yet to be born, will listen attentively when I speak to them and I can see that they are indeed feeling the pain you felt. However, one cannot help but wonder, are we really paying back your deaths and sacrifice with love?

Government has offered a helping hand, though belatedly, by building schools for the children of survivors and assisting with government grants for many poor families, some because of this violence. However, we still have a long way to go if we are to really pay them back for their sacrifices.

• Mxolisi Mchunu is a PhD candidate (history) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College and is the head of research at the Voortrekker/Msunduzi Museum. He writes in his personal capacity. He will be writing several articles on KZN violence for The Witness.

Diary of a civil war

• The eighties: Edendale, made up of Ashdown and Imbali, is largely under the control of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and African National Congress (ANC). The Vulindlela area that extends beyond Edendale is predominantly under the control of the Inkatha Cultural Liberation Movement (which became the Inkatha Freedom Party — IFP — in mid 1990). In the late eighties, there is considerable fighting between Inkatha and UDF. There are police raids and detentions of UDF supporters. Inkatha come to dominate most of the area. There are a number of UDF-supporting pockets, like KwaShange, Nxamalala, Gezubuso and Mnyandu. In the township of Mpophomeni in the north, Cosatu is strongly represented.

• February 25, 1990: A huge crowd of over 100 000 people welcome newly released ANC leader Nelson Mandela to Durban. He urges a cessation of all violence with Inkatha. This brings acclaim and some anger.

• Late February: Young UDF/ANC refugees from Vulindlela flee and take shelter in Edendale to escape from warlords, who are raising tensions. Already steeped in violence and political faction-fighting, these youngsters are unable to return to their families in Vulindlela because they fear being killed and they frequently vent their frustrations, even on innocent commuters going to work in Pietermaritzburg. A number of incidents of bus-stonings are reported to the police.

• March 25: An Inkatha rally is held at Kings Park in Durban. Buses returning from the rally are stoned by young refugees from Vulindlela living in Edendale. At KwaShange, Inkatha members from the rally fight with UDF/ANC members. Two people die. The chief of KwaShange is reportedly livid because although the area is under his authority, elements living there are hostile to him and the Inkatha movement.

• March 27/28: Massive attacks start on non-Inkatha areas in Vulindlela, Edendale, Ashdown and Imbali, leading to over 200 deaths. A large number of people are wounded. As many as 12 000 impi members attack a number of areas in Vulindlela (in particular KwaShange [120 houses burnt and property is looted], KwaMnyandu, Gezubuso and Vulisaka), Caluza in Edendale and Ashdown. They appear to have logistical support and large lorries are seen ferrying platoons of armed men, including people in blue special constable overalls, from one place to another, unhindered by the police or army (which are present in full force).

• March 29: An ad-hoc crisis committee gathers in the Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermaritzburg. Made up of trade unionists, church workers, and human and political rights supporters groups, it has heard graphic accounts of events of the previous two days.

• Final toll: More than 200 people are dead and hundreds seriously injured. Scores of houses have been burnt and families displaced.

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