S. African town relives violent past 94 died in past year, 39 in past month, as elections approach

August 07, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RICHMOND, South Africa -- In a bright blue hilltop home here, candles burn in the three bedrooms where nine members of three generations of the Shezi family were gunned down in their beds the other night.

In the fourth room of the small homestead, women mourners, wrapped in blankets, silently maintain a vigil for tomorrow's funeral.

John Shezi, 55, his wife, Zithole Gertrude, 50, three daughters and four grandchildren, aged 11 to 18 months, are the latest victims of an outburst of political bloodshed that has this community gripped by fear and the Cabinet of President Nelson Mandela talking of "sinister forces" at work.

This is a place where past is proving to be prologue. The violence that preceded the 1994 election that brought black rule to this country is restarting ahead of next year's election to replace Mandela.

Then it was the African National Congress fighting the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party for control of this area. Now it is the ANC against the recently formed United Democratic Party.

Allegedly adding to the turmoil is a "Third Force" of right-wing police and military officers suspected of being out to make the town of Richmond ungovernable as a first step to destabilizing the always-volatile province of KwaZulu-Natal in the further hope of undermining the ANC nationally.

"The recent events in Richmond are an obscenity and there is persuasive, if not yet overwhelming evidence, that they are motivated by treasonous conspiracy," said an editorial in the weekly Mail and Guardian.

In the past year, 94 people have been assassinated in this community, 39 of them in the past month, nine of them -- the Shezis -- in the last few days. Not a single arrest has been made, a factor adding to local despair.

"It is strange. It is unbelievable," said the town's Indian mayor, Andrew Ragavaloo. "It is not for want of evidence or information. The community has come forward with a lot of information."

But Capt. Joshua Gwala, the police spokesman, said: "It is difficult. When we try to find out from the people what is the motive, no one wants to tell us. It appears to be because of fear."

Police officers from around the country and the army have been brought in, and the hills and villages here are being patrolled in armored vehicles, on motorcycles, on horseback and on foot. Why the Shezis, who were not politically active, were targeted is a mystery. But their house, at the end of a steep mud path and invisible from the dirt track below, clearly was chosen carefully.

"It is always an easy target," said Ragavaloo. "Somehow or other the attackers knew that the people in that house were either unarmed or unable to resist them."

The Shezis had gathered for a final family meal after the wedding three days earlier of their 27-year-old daughter, Nonhlanhla, to Mfanboy Ngubane.

After supper, the newlyweds retired to a thatched hut beside the blue house, saving their lives.

About 9 p.m., as the family slept, the attackers opened fire, first shooting through the parents' bedroom window, then bursting through the front door and shooting the daughters and grandchildren at point-blank range.

"It's about demoralizing the community," said Ragavaloo, who has reported repeated death threats. His deputy and a brother-in-law, a local councilor, have been assassinated.

Ragavaloo openly accuses the local UDM and its head, Sifiso Nkabinde, a former ANC leader, of resorting to violence to try to undermine ANC control of the area.

The UDM response is that as a fledgling party trying to gain popularity, it has nothing to gain from resorting to violence, which brings it only negative publicity.

When the boundaries of the white-dominated town were redrawn after the 1994 elections to include several outlying black areas, Ragavaloo and Nkabinde, then ANC colleagues, worked together to exclude areas controlled by the rival Inkatha, no longer a factor in Richmond.

They included only the ANC areas of Ndeleni, where most of the recent assassinations have occurred, Simozomeni, where the Shezis lived, and Magoda, Nkabinde's stronghold.

But in April last year, Nkabinde was expelled from the ANC, accused of being a police spy during "The Struggle" against apartheid.

He quickly joined the UDM, a new nonracial party, taking his supporters in Magoda with him and creating an opposition constituency within the previously unified Richmond.

According to Ragavaloo, 83 of the 94 victims of the violence have been aligned with the ANC.

While acknowledging that rogue elements within his ANC may have launched reprisal attacks on UDM supporters, the mayor said: "The message to the man in the street is simple. He says to himself, 'If I assist the ANC, I will be killed. If I associate myself with the political party that is part of this crime wave, I will be safe.' "

Nkabinde, who led the ANC's military struggle against Inkatha in the 1980s and early 1990s, claims his expulsion as a spy was part of a power play within the party.

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