Even death brings no rest to war in the townships


June 16, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

SOWETO, South Africa -- It's Sunday in Soweto and time for another funeral, an almost daily event in the black township these days.

This time the deceased is the son of a friend, Time magazine photographer Peter Magubane, who grew up in Soweto and covered violence for 40 years before it knocked at his own door.

Charles Magubane had been missing for three weeks before his father found his body, hacked and shot, in a Soweto morgue. No one knows exactly how or why he died, which is often the story when violence strikes here. The bodies are just found the next day.

Charles had followed in his father's footsteps. He was a photographer too, although he had studied law and worked for a company in Johannesburg.

Like his father, he also sympathized with the African National Congress, long a banned organization but now the major black force in South Africa's politics.

Friends described the younger Magubane as an activist in the liberation struggle, and they think that his death was linked to his political activism. Their theory was strengthened by the fact that his body was found by police near a migrant workers' hostel controlled by the the Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC's main rival in the township wars.

The funeral was a somber affair at St. Augustine Anglican Church, in a section of Soweto known as Mzimhlophe. Not knowing the way, a colleague and I waited for an escort who met us in the township.

As we waited, we watched a parade of about 200 Inkatha supporters march down Highway 68, a main thoroughfare through Soweto. They were en route to a rally, and every one of them was armed with a stick or a spear.

Most of the marchers wore red headbands, the symbol of Inkatha's Zulu warriors. It was another routine township scene.

At the church, the funeral was conducted by a woman minister with a bass voice. She led the packed congregation through several hymns in several different languages spoken in the townships. In English, we sang "Abide With Me."

After the funeral, there were a half-dozen men standing next to my rental car looking for a ride to the cemetery. I took three of them, who explained during the 20-minute ride that Inkatha was a murderous band responsible for the deaths of thousands of people in the township.

They pointed to a hostel at the end of the street where the Magubane house is located, a series of long one-story buildings that serve as dormitories for migrant workers from rural villages, many of them in Inkatha's stronghold, Zululand.

"They are ignorant people," one of my passengers said. "They are not educated."

He said that friends of the younger Magubane believe he was kidnapped by a group of Inkatha supporters and murdered, his body left near the notorious Dube Hostel a few miles away.

"There are killings every day. We bury people daily at the cemetery," said a man named Cyril who wore a T-shirt bearing the face of a recent victim.

The T-shirt business is booming in the townships, where it is a tribute to fallen comrades to get shirts made up from stencils of their names and faces.

Cyril said Inkatha's warriors had a habit of mutilating their victims. "They take the body parts for muti," tribal medicine with supposedly magic powers.

He said the people of the township were all armed in response to the Inkatha threat. "I have a 2-year-old-son. He already knows about shooting. That's how we live."

Women, too, must carry guns in the townships, said another man in the back seat. "I prefer necklacing, myself," he said, casually voicing a preference for a style of murder that involves filling an inner tube with gasoline and lighting it around the victim's neck. It was a method used often by township "comrades," as the ANC militants are called, against people identified as collaborators with the white regime.

At the graveside, the comrades stole the service from the aging woman minister, who tried to lead several hymns as a group of men shoveled dirt onto the wooden coffin. They interrupted the hymns with songs of war. "Bring me my gun," went one of the chants, repeated over and over as the comrades did war dances next to the grave.

The family sat grief-stricken under a tent, and bereaved friends stood by silently as the township war literally followed Charles Magubane to the grave.

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