Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi this week kicked off a series of bashes to mark his 90th birthday with a prayer service in Durban. It was an ebullient and joyous Buthelezi who thanked the Almighty for blessing him with long life.
Labelling himself a “survivor” who had “survived so many fiery trials, and even assassination plots”, he said his heart was “overflowing with gratitude”, and he was “overwhelmed by the number of family and believers I have around me”.
“I have lived far longer than is normal. More than that, God has given me tremendous good health and strength in these twilight years. This has enabled me to serve my country and my people for longer than I could have hoped,” he told his admiring supporters.
A man who will be missing from the festivities and who will also not be around for the jamborees that will culminate in a gala dinner this weekend will be one David Ntombela.
Ntombela, a veteran IFP leader, was on his deathbed this week and died on Friday at the age of 93. Some reports described Ntombela as an IFP “stalwart”, a word the dictionary defines as “staunch, loyal, faithful, committed, devoted, dedicated, dependable, reliable, steady, constant, trusty, hard-working, vigorous, stable, firm, steadfast, redoubtable, resolute, unswerving, unwavering, unhesitating and unfaltering”.
Now, if anything can be said about Ntombela, it is that he was certainly committed and dedicated to mayhem and destruction, and was unwavering and unhesitating when it came to maiming and killing. As one of the leading IFP warlords in the 1980s and 1990s, Ntombela was dependable when it came to carrying out his leader’s murderous instructions.
I know that reminding South Africa about the bloodthirstiness of the birthday boy, who is now lauded as an elder statesman, may sound like a stuck record in these times of “kumbaya, let’s all hold hands”. In these times, we are expected to see him as a cuddly old man who is the nice grandpa on the parliamentary benches. But to be silent about his evil past would be to insult the memories of those thousands of lives he ended prematurely and of those who, in the loneliness of their graves, cannot be “overwhelmed by the number of family” around them.
The following words were uttered by the birthday boy in the mid-80s as he urged his followers to war while attempting to portray the IFP as the victim and not the primary perpetrator: “We do not intend to be sitting ducks … In fact, I believe that we must prepare ourselves not only to defend property and life, but to go beyond that and prepare ourselves to hit back with devastating force at those who destroy our property and kill us.”
One of those who answered this call was the ever loyal Ntombela, an induna and IFP official in the Midlands. He was an extortionist of the highest order who used to suck cash and livestock out of his subjects and neighbouring communities. A ruthless man, Ntombela was to emerge as a key general in Buthelezi’s army. He not only led regiments on killing sprees, but he personally killed victims in front of witnesses.
Consider this excerpt from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report: “The commission heard that, on the night of 9 October 1987, Ntombela, his brother and six other men went to the home of Mr Mandla Mkhize at Zondi’s store, an area in his region. They were looking for Mkhize’s sons, Cosatu members Mangethe and Muntu. They were out, but their mother, Ms Maqhikila Angelica Mkhize, was at home with three children. According to one of the children, Ntombela then shot and killed the mother with a small handgun, and the men killed one of the daughters, Petronella.
“The inquest magistrate found in 1989 that it was possible that David Ntombela and five others ‘were in some way responsible for the deaths’. To this day, the case has not gone to trial.”
Testimony by policemen described “open complicity” between the police and IFP forces, with Ntombela leading impis under the guard of policemen and sometimes being transported by them to killing scenes.
Mass murderers and serial killers always have their signature works, the masterpieces for which they are forever remembered in notoriety. For Ntombela, this was the Seven Day War, which raged in the Midlands in March 1990. Ordered by Ntombela at a meeting at his home and personally commanded by him, the Seven Day War left scores dead, hundreds injured and thousands homeless.
A witness at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission detailed how Ntombela was at the heart of the attacking impis, who were ably assisted by the police. The only thing that offended Ntombela was the fact that his troops mixed killing with looting.
“Among those [impis returning from battle] who were on foot, they had brought quite a number of cattle. Others were carrying furniture and TV sets, as well as clothing. We heard that Mr Ntombela did not quite like it. He said they were supposed to have killed, not to have stolen,” said the witness.
In democratic South Africa, Ntombela was to play a respectful role as honourable member of the KwaZulu-Natal legislature until he retired about 10 years ago. He has now gone to join several of Buthelezi’s fellow butchers, wherever they are.
At this week’s celebrations, there will likely be a moment of silence for the Butcher of the Midlands. The celebrant will probably also say some kind things about the man who so loyally served him in the mission of killing, maiming and destroying. And so he should.