In 2005, Noby Ngombane responded to his chiming doorbell and opened the door to his assassins. His five-year-old daughter, Zandile, who had followed him, watched as her father’s body was torn open by bullets.
Last year, during a deep therapeutic process, her memories of what she saw that evening surfaced. For the first time, she spoke about the three men in balaclavas at the door and the car they were driving.
Thirteen years later, on May 9, Zandile took her own life. A few days before this, I spent some time with her. She spoke about her dreams, her future and her family. She knew that her mother loved her and her brother unconditionally. During a memorial service on Friday, her colleagues and friends spoke of her zest for life, her brilliance and empathy, and how she fought for the underdog.
None of us can know what goes on inside the mind of another. Some people try to speculate in an attempt to make sense of things, especially when someone takes their own life.
Following the death of Zandile, I found myself thinking about the child who witnessed her father’s brutal murder. I am struck by the parallels between the assassinations of Ngombane and Chris Hani.
I do not suggest that this explains Zandile’s suicide, but here is what I know.
Months before Hani was murdered, there was relentless media coverage that portrayed him as a hawk and hardened communist who was dead set against negotiations. Despite his public demeanour, Hani cut a lonely figure in that period. No one spoke out against his vilification in the media.
A disciplined ANC, SA Communist Party and Umkhonto weSizwe member, Hani did not defend himself. He did not hold press conferences to explain that he had been asked by Nelson Mandela to undertake the most difficult assignment at the time – disarm the renegade ANC self-defence units – and stay as close as he could to the marginalised communities who lived in shacks. His task was unenviable. He had to talk to people who lived in abject poverty who were not sitting at the negotiating table. He had to convince those who feared that negotiations were a trap set by the apartheid government to trust the process.
Neither he, Mandela, nor the people Hani spoke to were naive – they knew the challenges and the dangers of the time. For many, the negotiations meant they were selling out and betraying the liberation struggle. Of course, what is often not discussed was the violence that engulfed the townships in the early 1990s. People being thrown out of trains in Johannesburg are but distant memories to those who have not completely erased them. The massacre in Boipatong and many incidents of violence and bombs being set off by right-wing groups intent on sabotaging the negotiations are not topics we want to discuss.
After his assassination, the mood changed in the country. Hani was seen as a man whose life set South Africa back on to the path of negotiated settlement. He was hailed as a hero. Without a moment of reflection, Hani was now a different man.
Many South Africans did not know Ngombane as anything but the power-hungry, greedy monster the media portrayed him as. Many people, through what they read and in the absence of balanced reporting, knew Ngombane as the man who was locked in a power struggle with Ace Magashule and who used the office of the premier to build a power base in the province.
For his part, Ngombane did not do much to explain himself or dispel the stories that were written about him, at least not outside the ANC. On many occasions, he reached out to some leaders in the ANC and tried to explain the complex politics of empire building and corruption in the Free State. No one listened. Before his assassination, an ANC leader received a letter from Ngombane – he did not bother to open it before Ngombane was murdered.
His death should have been the final nightmare for his family. It was not. Nokwanda Ngombane, having lived with and witnessed her husband’s pain, decided to speak at his funeral. She pleaded with the ANC to look at her husband’s murder. She asserted that his death was linked to the ANC. Responding to this, a former spokesperson for the ANC said: “No ANC member can murder another.”
Shortly after the funeral, rumours began to surface that Nokwanda was the prime suspect in her husband’s murder. Her accomplices were her siblings Bongani Mlambo and Tantaswa Mlambo, and cousins Vuyokazi Mlambo and Siphumle Booi.
The media coverage was unremitting. Who can forget newspaper posters that pronounced that former police commissioner Jackie Selebi said this: “We have double-checked and we have triple-checked all the facts. The investigation has been thorough.”
This was in the Sunday papers before Nokwanda and her relatives even appeared in court for their bail hearing.
The day they did appear in court, the room was so packed that there was nowhere to stand. When the accused were brought in, the crowd called for justice: “Murderers”, “Throw them in jail”, “Get out of Bloemfontein and go to the Eastern Cape, you witch”.
Overnight, Noby was now the beloved son and no longer the power-hungry monster they had read about. They believed everything they read and saw in the media, and, after all, the police commissioner had expressed his confidence that the police had caught Noby’s murderers.
To the disgust of the public gallery, the accused were released on bail. There followed a prolonged trial, during which the state spared no expense, including hiring a top ballistics expert from England and other specialists. However, the ballistics expert was blindsided. During cross-examination, he admitted that the recordings he was listening to were different from those he had been presented with. Finally, Nokwanda and her relatives were found not guilty of and not involved in Noby’s murder.
After this, there was an inquest. The inquest confirmed the decision of the court. There were few reports in the media of its outcome. In the eyes of many, Nokwanda and her family are still guilty of what they were accused of.
For their part, they struggled to reconstruct their lives and raise their children. Nokwanda had to find a way to keep her seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter happy. In their different ways, they have struggled to understand what happened. Why was their father murdered?
Zandile was deeply troubled by the lack of resolution in her father’s murder case. She was angry that her mother, uncle and aunts were used as scapegoats. She wanted to make a documentary about the murder and the injustice that followed. She wanted to make a film about the lives of widows by tapping into her mother’s story. During our last conversation, she shared her profound pain with me.
Despite knowing that she was loved unconditionally and that she was very talented, there was a deep hole that could not be filled in her soul. She longed for her father.
Below is a video Zandile recorded of her singing Dance with my Father - she has been singing this song since she was 6-years-old
What I know is that the trauma of her father’s death never left her. It coloured her bright days and the beauty she was and saw in the world. She tasted betrayal long before she knew the word.
As we try to make sense of the violence that marks the political landscape, including many reports of people killed in factional ANC battles, it is important to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. Until the ANC and the justice system take these murders seriously, our families and communities will rip themselves apart.
There is a lesson to be learnt from this young woman’s life. We must speak of the difficult issues in our country. The media must be free to report unhindered. But it is important that, in so doing, the fourth estate is rigorous.
The parallels between the Hani and Ngombane murders go far beyond and deeper than the reporting. Here was a young woman who was gifted beyond measure and yet deeply wounded from an early age. In the end, the suffering was too much for her.
One cannot help but remember the young Nomakhwezi Hani. The nation was moved by her vulnerability and strength – we saw that even through her stoicism. Who knows where Nomakhwezi would be today had she not seen that gruesome and life-altering image of her father lying in the pool of blood.
Why did Zandile kill herself? I do not know and there is no single answer. But I take comfort from the lesson of the Vietnamese Buddhists during the Vietnam War that ended in 1975. In protest against the war, they self-immolated. For them, this was a sacrifice worthy of their love for their country and people.
As happened with Hani, Ngombane and many others, powerful people continue to bury their heads in the sand.
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