ON the night of 5 December 1986, three trade unionists from Mpophomeni were killed on a quiet stretch of road near Lion’s River in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Their burnt bodies were discovered in the early hours of the following morning. Had the fourth person in that car not escaped, the story of the beginning of one of the most violent periods in the country’s history would not have been told. The deaths of Phineas Sibiya, Simon Ngubane and Florence Mnikathi marked the beginning of state-incited, low-intensity conflict in the Natal Midlands. On the same night in another part of Mpophomeni, a youth activist, Alpheus Nkabinde, was also killed.

Micca Sibiya, the brother of Phineas, managed to jump out of the car when it stopped and he was shot at as he ran. Wounded, he lay in the river until morning when he made his way to the road and was assisted by an unknown farmer. His harrowing account of what happened is captured in the annals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It places Mpophomeni at the heart of the liberation struggle in the Natal Midlands, a history that has been largely forgotten. The Mpophomeni massacre, according to Micca Sibiya and several other eyewitnesses, was carried out by Inkatha-aligned Caprivi fighter Vela Mchunu and eight others. At the Howick inquest in February 1988, the magistrate named all nine as those responsible. Mchunu was spirited away to Mkuze to avoid testifying. To date no one has stood trial for the murders.

Events that led up to that fateful night began more than a year earlier in May 1985, when more than 90 striking workers, members of the Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) were dismissed from the Sarmcol rubber factory in Howick. Their strike was for recognition of their union and it was to become one of the longest and bloodiest trade union battles in the history of South Africa.

Phineas Sibiya, a shop steward, was a key witness for the strikers in the Industrial Court inquiry into the matter. On 5 December he and his companions had met at his house and were about to leave for a strike committee meeting. The Sibiya house was opposite the Mpophomeni Community Centre where earlier in the day Inkatha supporters were bussed in for a rally. Their car was later surrounded by a group of armed men who forcibly took them into the centre where they were questioned and assaulted by KwaZulu Police (KZP). In his TRC testimony, Micca Sibiya said they were later told to get into the car because they were being taken to the doctor. Earlier when Ngubane, who lived at the back of the centre, had tried to escape he was shot at. When the group got into the car, Ngubane was placed in the boot.

A former Sarmcol striker, Stanley Mbambo, who is helping to rebuild the wall of remembrance in Mpophomeni, recalls waiting all night for the four to attend the meeting: ‘We never suspected anything was wrong. The next day I went to Ngubane’s house and this is where I found out what happened.’ Mbambo and Sihle Zondi, a tourist guide, accompanied The Witness to visit the homes of the murdered unionists. Mbambo said that Mnikathi was only 24 years old and was a youth member of the workers’ co-operative. Mnikathi’s younger sister Thandekile has little recall of what happened to her sister. She was sent to live with family members in Hammarsdale at the time and says her father, who was a Sarmcol striker, never talks about what happened. Nkabinde’s mother was in church. A relative said this was how she had spent the past week, praying for her son. Micca Sibiya now lives in Cape Town and Mbambo says he has not returned to Mpophomeni in a long time. At the Sibiya and Ngubane households, a younger generation knows little of the family history.

Mbambo said visiting the families brought home to him the fact that history was being lost. ‘We don’t talk about what happened. It is too painful. Even myself I have always referred to the killings as the incident. Today for the first time I am confronting the reality of that day and realise that by referring to it as the incident, I have been keeping out the pain,’ Mbambo said. At the time of the killings, Inkatha secretary-general Oscar Dlomo denied his organisation’s involvement.

An article in the journal Workers Solidarity says that after 1985, 39 people were killed in fighting related to the Sarmcol dismissals. The journal says: ‘The dispute came at a very dangerous time in the province, when the first Inkatha units were returning from secret death-squad training camps in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia. The IFP-ANC battle for the heartland was about to begin and the laid-off workers at Mpophomeni were in the thick of things.’

  • MAWU, an affiliate of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), forerunner of labour federation COSATU, was involved in a struggle for recognition at the BTR-Sarmcol plant at Howick. The plant had been part of the Dunlop group (British Tyre and Rubber, known to workers as Blood, Tears and Repression) since 1974. Partial recognition was granted in 1983 after an Industrial Court case. But Sarmcol stalled and reacted to go-slows and overtime boycotts by bringing in scab labour. Apart from its dislike of independent unions, Sarmcol was mechanising and shedding thousands of jobs. One thousand workers went on intermittent strike from March 1985 and on 3 May 970 of them were sacked. In their place Sarmcol recruited workers who were mainly Inkatha supporters.

National and international solidarity was impressive, but locally it took the form of consumer boycotts. Howick businesses faced great difficulty and in mid-July 1985 a one-day stayaway in Pietermaritzburg was supported by 90% of black workers. The regional boycott was called off in September amid disagreement over its aims.

The Sarmcol dismissals had a devastating effect on Mpophomeni. However, a prior bus boycott and long-running rent strike meant that community spirit was already strong. Only 40 workers accepted re-employment by Sarmcol and various ventures were set up under the umbrella of the Sarmcol Workers Co-operative. T-shirt production employed 25 people, a theatre group of nine put across the strikers’ message (the Sarmcol play toured Britain in 1987) and a 20 hectare vegetable garden leased from the Roman Catholic Church occupied 15 more people. There was also a health committee and a community newspaper. Financial responsibility was shouldered by a co-ordinating committee. Ultimately, although important for the community, the co-operative venture had little influence beyond Mpophomeni.

In June 1986, the government imposed a 21-day ban on meetings in the township, hampering the daily gathering of strikers. Mpophomeni became an UDF stronghold and Inkatha supporters moved out to KwaHaza and KwaShifu. While acts of retaliatory violence were responsible for the deaths of a number of strikebreakers, the crucial issue was the willingness of the State to allow its agents and allies to act violently and far beyond the law.

The Sarmcol strike was a remarkable tale of fortitude. This dispute was essentially about union recognition. The intransigence of Sarmcol denied even apartheid’s limited workplace rights and some years later in March 1998 Judge Pierre Olivier of the Appeal Court found in favour of the dismissed workers. The company, he argued, had behaved opportunistically using unfair dismissal to disable Mawu. In the process it created the first major township conflict in the area and a dress rehearsal for the Midlands War of 1987−1990.

This article was written by Nalini Naidoo and Christopher Merrett, first published in The Witness on 12 December 2011 and entitled ‘A history too painful to be remembered’.