ACCORDING to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), 200 people died and 20 000 were displaced during the Seven Day War of 25–31 March 1990. They were mainly from Ashdown, Caluza, Mpumuza, Gezubuso, KwaShange and KwaMnyandu in lower Vulindlela and the Edendale valley west of Pietermaritzburg. There are no figures for those who were injured or disabled. Yet this devastating event was given only a few pages in the final report of the TRC.

There is no doubt why and how it started: retaliation for the stoning of buses on the Edendale Road by United Democratic Front (UDF) supporters. This led to several deaths amongst Inkatha members returning from a Durban rally on Sunday March 25 and eventually cut the upper valley off from Pietermaritzburg. But virtually every other aspect of the conflict poses unanswered questions. Some of the stone throwers were already refugees: why had they not been allowed home? Why had the security forces not created a safe corridor for commuters into the city?

Attacks by well-armed men from the upper valley started on the Tuesday at Caluza where police were seen shooting and tear gassing residents. Houses were torched and looted and there was little resistance except for a small counter-attack by the UDF.

By Wednesday the Edendale Valley was a war zone. After a meeting at induna David Ntombela’s house at Elandskop attended by other Inkatha heavyweights, a KwaZulu government official from Ulundi, the police Riot Unit and kitskonstabels, an army of 12 000 swept down the valley. It was accompanied by KwaZulu government trucks with obscured number plates, some of them carrying petrol for arsonists. The TRC report records Ntombela directing attacks and instructing the Riot Squad not to intervene. Looted goods were taken to his house in police vehicles together with stolen cattle. Riot Unit member William Harrington confirmed police and kitskonstabel involvement at the TRC hearings. Attacks continued on the Thursday. The police, who had done nothing about the mayhem, tear gassed a peaceful protest match by women. The violence petered out over the weekend.

Whatever the provocation suffered by Inkatha members in the upper valley, the response was totally disproportionate and unwarranted. Various descriptions have been used, such as armed invasion and licensed massacre. Murder, arson, wilful damage to property, theft, intimidation and assault were widespread. Significantly, attacks were specifically directed at houses. Public buildings were largely ignored.

The government failed in its most important duty: to protect ordinary, law-abiding people. Police Director Daniel Meyer admitted dereliction of duty, negligence and indifference on the part of the police. The army was held back on the Edendale Road near Pietermaritzburg and deployed in sufficient numbers long after the violence had abated. The TRC found that this was done with the deliberate intention of allowing Inkatha free rein. The authorities offered no assistance in the aftermath of the massacre and help came only from churches, human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations. Why was Edendale not declared a disaster area?

The TRC found that there had been gross human rights violations. It held Ntombela accountable, but named no one else and referred simply to persons unknown. Inkatha was assigned overwhelming responsibility together with the SAP; and the KwaZulu bantustan government and its police were also blamed.

Apart from the TRC and the research of NGOs such as PACSA there has been no further investigation of a devastating event that deserved a judicial commission of enquiry. Aside from a few minor cases there were no prosecutions for serious criminal acts and thus no justice for victims.

The printed record, memories and psychological scars are all that remain. Yet history suggests that this was a systematic and well-organised act of political cleansing aided and abetted by the government of the day. The number of unanswered questions is as great as the evidence.

This article was first published in The Weekend Witness on 20 March 2010 and entitled ‘The Seven-Day War, March 25−March 31, 1990’.

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THE world did not end last week, but in Pietermaritzburg it turned on its axis, closing a violent and painful chapter in the city’s history. The surprise of it all was that it happened through the ballot box. Just over 20 years ago, a small war came to a head west of Pietermaritzburg. Lives, homes, livestock and businesses were lost, and a stream of refugees fled from the greater Edendale area. Generally known as the Seven Day War, it was the area’s greatest upheaval since the Mfecane of the early 1820s violently displaced its chiefdoms.

It was a war that turned neighbour against neighbour, friends and relatives against each other, and saw the Edendale valley torn apart by warring factions. A large area at the upper end of the valley, Vulindlela and part of Sweetwaters, became the home of Inkatha supporters and a no-go zone to those perceived to be African National Congress (ANC) sympathisers by their support of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

During the eighties, the government’s reformed edition of apartheid imposed community councils on townships like Imbali and Ashdown. Inkatha’s attempts to dominate them were resisted by civic associations and student councils involved in bus boycotts and the education crisis. In spite of the State of Emergency imposed in June 1986, it was clear that major change was imminent. Inkatha was desperate to be taken seriously as a national political actor and saw its way to do this through the numbers game.

A recruitment drive encountered fierce resistance after threats were made to remove from Vulindlela by early October 1987 all those who had not joined Inkatha. It now confronted an alliance of UDF organisations, loosely organised self-defence units and Congress of South African Trade Unions members. The names of Inkatha warlords such as David Ntombela, Sichizo Zuma and Abdul Awetha became common currency. The KwaZulu police were openly supportive of Inkatha and the South African authorities pursued the same end by detaining leaders of anti-Inkatha organisations.

From 1987 to 1990, 2 000 people were killed in continuous conflict in which the invasion of Ashdown in January 1988 was notorious until the high water mark was reached in March 1990 and 162 people died. The Seven Day War was an orchestrated attempt at political cleansing, an armed incursion involving thousands of combatants. Places such as Caluza and Imbali featured on international news broadcasts. Twenty thousand people were displaced and camps in Pietermaritzburg held 11 500 refugees. Catholic priest Father Tim Smith, who worked in the Elandskop area, later wrote a book documenting the violence, entitled They Have Killed My Children.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held a special hearing on the Seven Day War. A recurring theme in submissions was the role of the security forces in orchestrating and fanning the violence. Pre-liberation negotiations and deployment of the army downscaled the war to a state of tension embedded in the political landscape. Inkatha held sway in Sweetwaters and a large part of Vulindlela, and consistently dominated the polls in five wards after 1994.

But last week something highly significant quietly happened. The five remaining wards in the hands of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) were all won by the ANC by roughly a 17% margin. Not a seismic figure, but certainly one that tilted the axis and changed Pietermaritzburg as we have come to know it. The conflict that started in the early eighties, which peaked with the terrible events of March 1990 and lingered for the next two decades, simply ended by votes cast in a ballot box.

In the months and years ahead scholars will analyse this political scenario and ask what changed. It could be that over the years families have moved back to their former homes. Voters may have seen the writing on the wall for the embattled IFP. But why did they not vote instead for the newly formed offshoot of the IFP, the National Freedom Party? Perhaps it was a concerted drive by the ANC to win the hearts and minds of its former adversaries. There has been major infrastructure development in Vulindlela over recent years: in 2008, the entire city capital budget went on ten roads in the area. Without funding and arms, wars dry up. Perhaps now all those questions raised at the TRC about the complicity of the police and security forces in fanning the flames of violence may finally be answered.

The Seven Day War is truly over and the 2011 local government elections must go down as one of the most significant events in the history of Pietermaritzburg.

This article, written by Nalini Naidoo and Christopher Merrett, was first published in The Witness on 25 May 2011, entitled ‘A quiet, historic moment’.

Further reading: Faith in Turmoil: The Seven Days War edited by Lou Levine (Pietermaritzburg: PACSA, 1999).