From darkness to light

2008-09-12 00:00

The launch of Andrew Ragavaloo’s book Richmond: Living in the Shadow of Death this week was different. There was the usual air of congratulations for the author who had successfully completed a book, but the occasion also held a bitter-sweet quality.

Here was a story of dark events that unfolded just 11 years ago, shortly after South Africa became a democracy. They happened right here in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and many of the people who are part of that history were among the guests. There were warm greetings for each new arrival and it was clear that the bonds forged during a time of suffering remain resolute. The launch was also an opportunity for a renewal of ties and the airing of shared memories. This was poignantly summed up by guest speaker Dr Zweli Mkhize, the African National Congress’s provincial chairperson who features prominently in the story.

Richmond: Living in the Shadow of Death is about events that took place between 1997 and 1999, and which started soon after the late Sifiso Nkabinde*, a local ANC leader, was expelled from the party for being a police spy. Nkabinde, who was also known as a warlord in the early nineties, is believed to have been behind the unleashing of violence that left over 120 people dead, among them four elected councillors and a family of 11 men, women and children. The sole survivor of that family, Mama Mkhize hid in a cupboard, undiscovered by the gunmen who were preoccupied with emptying their bullets into the sleeping bodies in front of them.

She listened intently on Tuesday night as Mkhize spoke. He said that for him the book is more than a historical record; it stands out as a monument of peace and reconciliation. Walking into Richmond in those days was like being in another country. You were struck by the military presence, the tanks and the dark mood that hung in the air. Richmond stood out as an aberration in the new South Africa which had just attained democracy. Here was a community that paid a bigger and more bitter price for freedom.

For Mkhize the book also serves as a painful reminder of how badly things can go wrong. Looking back he is still struck by the sheer extent of the brutality of the killings and he remains convinced that the hidden hand of rogue police activity was at play. “One person had 27 bullets emptied into his body, which tells you of the brutality and the extent to which the perpetrators themselves were traumatised.”

He thanked Ragavaloo for dedicating the book to the people who were killed, particularly the councillors who lost their lives. “When we were looking for candidates to become councillors we had no clue that some of them would be killed on the same night they were elected or on the following day.”

According to Ragavaloo, in those four-and-half years Richmond had a turnover of 31 councillors for a council with just 13 seats. Nine councillors were forced to resign, four were murdered and one councillor died a natural death, which was speeded up by her husband’s murder.

What stays with Mkhize was attending funerals. “The last 15 minutes before the coffins were lowered were the worst, when the family was called to view the bodies. There was the haunting sound of wailing. Weeping that carried so much pain and distress you could see that people were barely coping. I still remember a six-year-old we buried. He had held up his hand as if to stop the bullet and it went right through his hand and into his chest. The people of Richmond went through all of this and I want to thank Andrew for recording this history, otherwise it all may have been lost.”

How many of us are still victims, the walking wounded, he asked. Mkhize acknowledged the peace and reconciliation work that has been carried out in Richmond and said a lot more still needs to be done. He committed the ANC to this task.

Riquadeu Jacobs, the managing director of Mediacom, who was news editor at The Witness when Richmond was caught in a web of violence, told the gathering that a memorial for the town should be commissioned. Mkhize said a monument to the people of Richmond is in the pipeline. He added that the book is part of that memorial. “A record of this nature helps all of us to heal, whichever side of the conflict you may have been on. It also teaches us never to go down that road again. The future of this country depends on us holding hands together and moving forward.”

For Ragavaloo, currently the Speaker in the Richmond Council and who was the town’s mayor at the time, a sadness that still remains is that only 21 of the 120 murders have been solved. “Nobody has been charged for the other 99 killings.”

Ragavaloo paid tribute to the dedicated, honest and committed police officers who served Richmond during this time. He said they continued even when thwarted by fellow officers who worked against them.

“I want this book to serve as a memorial to the innocent people who died and those who suffered. We must always be on the lookout for those who foment violence in communities for their own personal gain, and for all else that harms our democracy and our humanity,” he said.

* Sifiso Nkabinde died in a hail of bullets outside a Richmond supermarket on January 23, 1999. His murder remains unsolved.

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