I will never wear my khaki suit to Pietermaritzburg again. I learned this lesson on my first day there.
We asked a young man in Mbali township to show us the way to a friend’s place. The young man looked at me and said: “I know where he stays but I will not tell you. I do not know who you are and why you want to see him.”
After a long time we found the friend we were looking for. I asked him why people are so rude to strangers in his township.
“That comrade was right. You are wearing the wrong colours,” said my friend, looking at my khaki suit. “That is the uniform of Inkatha.”
In Pietermaritzburg, it’s not only what you wear that is important. It’s also what you look like and what you say.
A permed head means that you are a qabane (comrade). Inkatha supporters are called “otheleweni’, which means people who can throw you down a hill.
‘Heyta’ is the greeting word for comrades. Inkatha supporters use the words ‘Amandla kaZulu!’. These are words that you must not forget. If you get it wrong, you may not live to see another day.
THE SEEDS OF WAR
The war between the comrades and Inkatha supporters in Pietermaritzburg has left more than 400 people dead in the last year. We did not see any fighting while we were there – but we did not see any peace either. We saw the tears of angry mothers who have buried their children. We felt the anger of young men and women who have lost their friends. We heard bitter people talking of revenge.
The streets in the townships are empty. Houses are locked even during the day. All the friendliness of the Zulu people is no more. People greet you with empty eyes and with hearts that are cold.
The seeds of war have been planted and its roots have grown deep into the soil. A dark cloud is hanging over the place. Anything can happen. Like a wild fire, the war can start again. It is far from over.
BOYS ON THE RUN
We spent our first night in Kwa-Dambuza, a big village just outside Maritzburg. The place is also known as ‘Moscow’ because many comrades live there.
In town the next day we saw four boys sharing a loaf of brown bread and a litre of milk. I asked them why they were not at school like the children we saw in Mbali. The youngest of them said he left his home in the village of Mpumuza early last year.
“I was doing standard four last year. It was very difficult for us to go to school. Otheleweni used to come and wake us up at night and tell us to go and fight the comrades. They also forced us to join Inkatha. I did not want to join Inkatha so I went to Caluza in Edendale where there is no Inkatha.”
The oldest boy, who said he was 17, asked us where we came from. We told him that we were from Jo’burg and wanted to write a story about life in Maritzburg. He told us that he was a member of the Imbali Youth Congress Inkatha youth at a peace rally in Pietermantzburg and that Inkatha supporters wanted to kill him.
“There are many of us who have run away from these people. I am staying in a room in Caluza, with 14 other comrades. We all come from different places – like Mbali, Sweetwaters, Ndengezi and Harewood, the place we call Angola.”
“We ran away from all these places because they are controlled by Inkatha supporters. The chiefs and the councillors are also Inkatha supporters. They force people to join them.”
“I ran away after they came to my home to look for me. They told my mother that they were going to kill me because I was a qabane. Even now I know that I am not safe. They can kill me if they see me here in town.
“We have lost many of our friends. Some have gone to far-off places like Johannesburg to stay with relatives. Some have already left South Africa. You just cannot stay here and wait for your death.”
The young man looked at me and thought for a while. Then he said: “Telling you about how we suffer will not help us. We need something to defend ourselves with. Can you help us get some tools?”
We asked him what tools he was talking about. “I’m talking about guns, so we can shoot back. Our enemies always carry guns and we are helpless if we do not have any.”
I scratched my head, not knowing what to say. I told him that I was just a writer for a magazine and knew nothing about guns. We wished them well and drove back to Kwa-Dambuza.
A KNOCK ON THE DOOR
On the second night we went to bed early. But we did not sleep very well. At midnight we were woken up by a loud knock. I stepped out of the bed without thinking and opened the door.
A uniformed policeman walked into the room. He told us to open our bags without even greeting us. “So, you are journalists,” he said, when he saw the cameras in one of the bags. The policeman told us that his name was Sicelo Memela and that he would help us to get stories.
We thanked him for his kindness but said he did not need to worry. I told him that finding stories was our job. He said we were afraid to go with him because we were comrades.
“Okay, buy me some beers to show me that you are my friends,” he said. The door was still open and I could see other policeman standing in the corridor.
I felt scared and I gave him R10 from our petrol money. He went away with a crooked smile on his face.
Another loud knock woke us up at seven in the morning. Memela walked in, still dressed in police uniform. He looked like a person who had been drinking for the whole night. “I have come to fetch you. We must go to see Mr David Ntombela of Mncane village in Elandspruit. He will give you a good story.” he said.
We told him that we did not want to see Mr Ntombela. We were afraid. We knew that Ntombela is one of the ‘warlords.’ – and that he is being charged for murder.
We left the policeman standing in our room and went to wash ourselves. When we got into our car, he came and sat in the front seat. He told us to take him to the Plessislaer Police Station to fetch his car.
On the way to the police station he told us to stop at a garage. He told me to go in and fetch a wheel. At the police station he made us jack up his car and take off the wheel with a puncture.
Do you know that you can be detained under the state of emergency.” said Memela to our photographer. No one answered him as we finished changing the wheel. We said goodbye to him and drove away, hoping that we would never meet him again.
LOOKING FOR HELP
In town we went to the office of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (PACSA). PACSA is an organisation that helps the people of Maritzburg with their many problems.
Phones were ringing and there were people everywhere. Peter Kerchoff, a staff member, was sitting and talking to a young man. The young man, just out of prison, was in need of help. He wanted to go back to school to finish his matric.
In another corner sat a young woman, listening carefully to a woman advisor. Her husband had been detained a few days before and she did not know what to do. She heard about PACSA from people in Sweetwaters where she stays.
A sad looking man with no shoes was sitting on a chair. He told us that his name is Thabane Msomi and that he is from Sinathini, a village outside Maritzburg. Like many other people we met, he could not go back to his home.
“I am a member of the Sinathini Youth congress which supports the UDF. Inkatha supporters do not like our organisation. They say we are trouble makers. Things became worse last year when the vigilantes began attacking people’s houses.
“One night there was a knock on the door at the house where I was visiting. Three men walked in. One of them was wearing an overall which looks like those worn by SADF members. Two of them were wearing police jackets. Five of my friends ran away but I was trapped in a room with my friend, Vukani.
“They asked us to show them our guns. We told them that we did not have guns. They did not believe us and took us to a white Datsun E20 kombi that was parked outside. The kombi had ZG number plates which means it belongs to the KwaZulu Government.
“They took us to Imbali Hostel where they were joined by five others. Among them was a man called Sichiza Zuma who is a well known and feared Inkatha warlord. Then they took us to a veld outside the township. They all had guns and we were very frightened
“They started hitting me with a steel pipe. They hit me on the head and I saw stars. I fell down, feeling pain all over my body. One of them picked me up and grabbed me by the arm. Then, using all my power, I pushed him away. He let go of me and I ran way.
“A shot went off and I felt a stinging pain . Another shot went off and I was hit on the back. I kept running and I dived under a tree next to a big rock. I heard them running around, looking for me. I lay there until they left. I think they took my friend Vukani with them.
“I was bleeding badly and went to some houses nearby for help. Some people took me to hospital. I stayed there for two weeks. While I was there, I heard that Vukani was dead.”
Thabane still suffers from the pain of the bullets that the doctors dug out of his stomach. He will carry the scars of the war for the rest of his life.
A PRAYER FOR PEACE
On our last last day in Pietermaritzburg we went to a service at the Roman Catholic Church in town. People were there to pray for all those who are in detention. They were also there to pray for peace.
Mrs Monica Wittenberg was one of the people at the church. She is the mother of Martin Wittenberg, who is the secretary of the UDF in the Natal Midlands.
Martin has played a big part in trying to bring peace to Maritzburg. He was one of the UDF and Cosatu leaders who has met with Inkatha to try and stop the war. He is the only white person from Pietermaritzburg who is in detention.
After the service we spoke to some of the people. They all had a story to tell. A young man who did not want to be named told us that there will never be peace while the UDF leaders are in detention. “Now there is no-one to speak for us. Archie Gumede cannot speak because he is banned.
“Now the UDF is also banned – but why is Inkatha not banned?” he asked. “The courts have told many well -known Inkatha members to stop causing trouble and attacking people. But these people are still free and they are still causing trouble.”
I looked at the sad, tired faces of the people as they slowly left the church. They have suffered much and they knew that there will be more suffering in the future. I said a silent prayer for the people of Maritzburg.
NEW WORDS revenge – to fight back control – to be in charge.to run something supporters – followers journalist – somebody who writes for a newspaper,magazine, radio or television warlord – someone who leads people to war puncture – something that has lost air because of a hole. For example, a tyre with a ‘spuiker’ in it. advisor – a person who gives help and advice. scar – a mark left by an old wound or injury. crooked – not straight