COMPILE as complete a picture as possible of human rights violations committed between 1960 and 1994: that was the basic remit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In the Pietermaritzburg region, the protracted BTR-Sarmcol strike and its accompanying violence, the Trust Feed massacre, Seven Day War and Richmond conflict were already relatively well documented − in the Natal Witness among other sources. These events continue to live on in the collective consciousness of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. All are summarised in the report of the TRC. But much of the detail of Pietermaritzburg’s dirty war recorded for posterity by the TRC has faded in the memory.

The top floor of Loop Street police station, headquarters of the Security Branch (SB) and the control room from which the city’s conflict was managed and manipulated, will never be forgotten by Pietermaritzburg activists. Here in November 1975 Anthony Xaba, who had served time on Robben Island, was interrogated and tortured for two days. This included suspension by his feet outside the window. An ANC Youth League member, Sipho Kubheka, was also held by the SB in solitary, assaulted and threatened that he would be thrown off a moving train if he did not testify for the state in the Gwala treason trial of 1976−1977.

Zephaniah Mothopeng of the Pan Africanist Congress was detained and tortured by the SB in Pietermaritzburg prison after the Soweto Uprising. He was forced to lie on ice and then subjected to helicopter treatment, suspended from the ceiling. The following year two detainees died in custody in Pietermaritzburg. One, Aaron Khoza from Krugersdorp, allegedly hanged himself on 26 March 1977, but his body showed signs of assault. The other death was not recorded in the TRC report: that of Samuel Malinga, who died in Edendale Hospital on 22 February 1977 officially of heart disease and pneumonia.

At the start of the national State of Emergency in 1986 the Pietermaritzburg area was relatively quiet. The beginning of a low-level civil war can be traced to September 1987 when a policeman led a revenge attack at KwaShange that resulted in the deaths of thirteen Inkatha members. In 1988 the police auxiliaries generally known as kitskonstabels were deployed around Pietermaritzburg against supporters of the United Democratic Front. Part of the strategy was to ‘remove white faces from the front line of public order policing’. According to the TRC, Inkatha membership ‘appeared to be a criterion’ for recruitment with application forms endorsed by induna David Ntombela. One of the instructors was Warrant Officer Rolf Warber of the Pietermaritzburg SB, well known to local anti-apartheid protestors. Not only did he train kitskonstabels, but the TRC found that he had incited them to harass and intimidate non-Inkatha supporters in Imbali and had purchased firearms, subsequently identified in murder cases, on behalf of prominent Inkatha members.

Amongst the ranks of kitskonstabels were Caprivi (Operation Marion) trainees versed in the ways of army special forces. Some of them were assigned as bodyguards to amakhosi (chiefs), indunas and councillors in the Pietermaritzburg area. A large number of kitskonstabels deserted their posts or were dismissed after criminal charges were brought against them. Local head of the SB, Jac Buchner, conceded that the kitskonstabels had contributed to the political violence. They were, in the words of Riot Unit officer Daniel Meyer, ‘one of the single biggest mistakes made by the police in KwaZulu-Natal’.

Out at Elandskop was a SB farm, an interrogation centre and local equivalent of Vlakplaas, where Dion Cele (Mzimela), abducted from Swaziland, was murdered. The same fate befell Bhekayena Mkhwanazi (Tekere), arrested en route to Durban. Three bodies were exhumed in 1997. And at Camperdown there was a second SB farm housing askaris. Another MK operative, Mxolisi Khumalo, was killed by police on July 30, 1988 probably at Sobantu football ground. He was buried at Mountain Rise in a pauper’s grave under a false name and inquest number. The body was exhumed ten years later, showing a gunshot wound to the head and no evidence that his grenade had exploded as the police claimed.

Meanwhile, Inkatha led a reign of terror around Pietermaritzburg. The TRC report records the policy of Ntombela to drive the UDF and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) out of the area, incitement to kill, and his particularly close relationship with the police. Abdul Awetha commanded strongmen and ran a patronage system around housing and trading licences, playing a parallel role in Imbali. The TRC found him responsible for human rights violations and noted the fact that he had been arrested in connection with the 1992 assassination of S’khumbuzo Ngwenya Mbatha, chair of the ANC Imbali branch and joint secretary of the regional UDF.

In this climate of pervasive violence a series of high-profile assassinations took place. Chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg Council of Churches, Victor Africander, was shot dead on 4 May 1990 and Imbali councillor Jerome Mncwabe, named as a perpetrator by witnesses before the TRC, was killed probably in retaliation twelve days later. Imbali residents Baveni Ngcobo and Ndleleni Dlungwane were subsequently murdered as a consequence. Arrests were made, but no conviction ever secured.

While the details of the Seven Day War of March 1990 did not need to await the TRC report, it does highlight trends that were perhaps obscure at the time and provide a fresh perspective. This included an objection to the use of the term war: witnesses described it more accurately as political cleansing. The TRC report emphasises the scale of looting, including cattle, and the use made of KwaZulu Government vehicles; and highlights the key role played by Ntombela. The inexplicable non-intervention by the army is also partially illuminated. Six vehicles and 100 troops were deployed to keep open the Edendale Road, but the defence force could do nothing more without police direction and was reinforced only in mid-April. Twenty thousand people were displaced, but there was no disaster relief from government.

The ANC did not escape TRC scrutiny. The Gwala trial took place during 1976 and 1977. Shortly after testifying for the state, Leonard Nkosi, who had taken part in the ANC’s Wankie campaign but was turned, operated as an askari and joined the SB, was assassinated. A similar murder was that of student activist Ben Langa on June 1984 in Edendale, killed on suspicion of being a police informer. The ANC claimed responsibility and was found culpable. During the events of the late 1980s it was also guilty of warlordism: its most prominent advocate emerges from the TRC report as Harry Gwala who was found to have incited supporters to commit ‘gross violations of human rights’.

The published report of the TRC contains nowhere near the whole story of the Pietermaritzburg conflict. Tons of SB documents were shredded. Even more disturbing was the combined effort, citing security concerns, of the National Archives, Department of Justice and National Intelligence Agency to obstruct public access to the undisclosed documentary evidence that the TRC had no opportunity to analyse. Charles Villa Vicencio, head of the TRC’s research department, hoped in 1998 that the published report would be a ‘road map that will lead investigative journalists and scholars … to address many of the issues that we in the commission simply do not have time to.’ This has proved a false hope: in the words of Piers Pigou, ‘The legacy of [the] TRC continues to be eroded’.

This article was first published in The Witness on 15 July 2013 and entitled ‘Pietermaritzburg’s dirty war and the Truth Commission’.

Further reading: Matthew Kentridge, An Unofficial War: Inside the Conflict in Pietermaritzburg (Cape Town: David Philip, 1990); Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Report, Volume Three (Cape Town: TRC, 1998).