Old wounds need to heal

2009-03-03 00:00

“Ngifike eNkatheni ngisemusha. Ngiqale ukusebenza kuHulumeni waKwaZulu njengoba sengiyeka ukusebenza manje. Angikaze ngithinteke emacaleni enkohlakalo yokudla imali noma benginalo ithuba lokukwenza lokho.” (Ilanga, February 16 to February 18, 2009, page two.)

“I joined iNkatha when I was still young. I started working in the KwaZulu government and I am retiring today. I have never been found corrupt, stealing money even though I was in a position to do that.”

David Ntombela’s words upon his resignation from the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature reminded me of the story of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, who became known as the architect of apartheid. Verwoerd was an outspoken advocate of Afrikaner nationalism, helped draft and implement the various “apartheid acts” after becoming prime minister in 1958 and also led the country to Republic status in 1961. Verwoerd strengthened his hold on the black majority of the country by enacting various “pass laws” limiting educational and employment opportunities for non-whites, outlawing political organisations such as the African National Congress, jailing Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists, and banning interracial relationships to prevent “miscegenation”.

History tells us that on September 6, 1966, when he entered the House of Assembly and prepared to take his seat, a parliamentary clerk named Dimitri Tsafendas quickly crossed the floor and approached him. As the prime minister looked up for the expected message, Tsafendas drew out a large sheathed knife, unsheathed it and fatally stabbed the prime minister four times in the chest. I’ve heard that before he died, his wife and close friends gathered around the critically injured man. They asked if he had any regrets (over apartheid). He only answered: “Gaan nou, ek wil rus!”

This was the rumour I learnt as a child. If it did not happen, it certainly showed the longing of Africans for a “death-bed” confession regarding the suffering and pain Verwoerd had caused as the architect of apartheid.

Ntombela has done his share on this planet Earth. He will never be forgotten. There is a Zulu saying, “Umenzi uyakhohlwa kodwa umenziwa akakhohlwa”. (“A person who does wrong things to other people easily forgets his wrongdoings but those he wronged never forget.”) Many people in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands have not forgotten Ntombela. He is still perceived as the warlord who instigated the violence that left many people physically wounded, others dead and, most importantly, thousands and thousands of people emotionally and psychologically wounded. They have scars that cannot be eradicated. Coincidentally, Ntombela’s resignation comes when, this month, people in the midlands will be holding the 20-year commemoration of the start of the “Seven Days War”, which affected the areas surrounding Pietermaritzburg — areas such as Edendale, KwaShange, Mnyandu, Sweetwaters and Nxamalala.

I have spent years doing research on this civil war’s effects on the survivors, and those who were young and yet to be born at the time of the violence. This political upheaval in the nineties tore whole communities and families apart, from Vulindlela to Edendale to Howick. Entire generations have grown up in the midst of brutal armed conflicts. Children as young as eight observed, while others were involved in wars as either victims or perpetrators of violence. This was because some were forced by circumstances to get involved and fight to defend their communities. Children were, of course, always caught up in the warfare. They had little choice but to experience, at least, the same horrors as their parents — as casualties or even combatants. During the Seven Days War, children were particularly exposed. They had to sleep in forests, hide in streams at night, and when food ran short in refugee camps in Edendale, it was the children who were hardest hit, since their growing bodies needed steady supplies of essential nutrients. The trauma of exposure to violence has emotionally affected generations of young people ever since. One woman in Pietermaritzburg commented on her experience of political violence:

“I am bitter that all my children died within a short space of time in this [tragic] way. They respected me. One of them was supporting the family, but I am thankful that they are now free from these times of hatred and distrust. I am also free from an endless life of fear, fearing for their safety. Nonetheless, it is still a horrible experience to be a parent of any black family: in these days [speaking of the then civil war, which Ntombela and his late friend inkosi Shayabantu Zondi were alleged to have instigated] our male children are being slaughtered.”

Ntombela is known even among those who were yet to be born when the Seven Days War started and he is still perceived by many young people as the cause of their hardships because some grew up orphaned, their parents having been killed and their lives a mess from then onwards. I am certain that such people do not wish to hear Ntombela boasting that he did not steal any money or has never been found corrupt. Maybe a sincere apology or even an explanation of what happened could help him clear his name, even though apologising would not reverse what happened. What he said means nothing to these young people. They expect an apology for the suffering he is perceived to have caused.

Indeed, it would make some sense for Ntombela to address this as he leaves the public arena. I find it preposterous that he chose to tell us that he was never accused of corruption while saying nothing about what he was accused of. While it is known that he refuses to accept the blame for killing people, the fact of the matter is that members of his movement, the people that he was leading at the time, attacked people and many men, women and children died, while others were left crippled physically and psychologically. It would make some sense for him to deliberate on these issues and not brag about the fact the he was not corrupt.

Another extraordinary thing is that he justifies his resignation, saying that he doesn’t want to die occupying these positions because when he dies he will not go to God with his position “ … ubone ukuthi ngeke afe nesikhundla aye naso ku Nkulunkulu, yinto ayofa ayishiye … ” Now that we know that Ntombela believes in God and heaven, he may need to come clean about his involvement or the involvement of his followers in the aforementioned violence.

I think our political leaders should start off a frank discussion about the past by acknowledging their groups’ culpability in past violence. This can help us effect real reconciliation in a province where the danger of settling political scores still looms.

• Mxolisi Mchunu is a historian and independent researcher in KwaZulu-Natal.

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