ON Friday 2 December 1988, Trust Feed, a community of 5 000 people near New Hanover, was declared an operational area under the State of Emergency and 40 police officers photographed residents and detained members of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Captain Brian Mitchell, the local police commander, arrived at midnight and, according to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), expressed disappointment that only one building linked to the UDF had been torched, although other accounts speak of seven houses already destroyed. He then ordered the shop of Faustus Mbongwe of the Trust Feed Crisis Committee to be burned and a nearby house (TF 83) to be attacked. This was the home of the Sithole family where a wake was underway after a recent natural death. By 3.00 am eleven people were dead, the eldest a woman in her mid-60s, the youngest a boy of four. None of them had anything to do with the UDF.

The Trust Feed massacre of 25 years ago is significant not just as one of the major atrocities in the Natal Midlands during the Emergency years, but an event that explains many of the dynamics of contemporary conflict. The plan, hatched in August 1988, was commonplace and involved the Riot Police and members of Inkatha, including local warlord David Ntombela. The aim was for police to detain key UDF figures allowing Inkatha and kitskonstabels (special or instant constables under Riot Police control) to take over the area. It was a classic pacification exercise designed to reduce grassroots political activity.

The context was a struggle for political control of the Trust Feed area, the property of 18 African landowners and a ‘black spot’ for decades in the terminology of the government. The Crisis Committee founded in the mid-1980s was UDF aligned and had achieved some limited success in basic infrastructure improvement especially roads and water reticulation in conjunction with the local authority, the Development and Services Board (DSB). By March 1988 Trust Feed was deproclaimed and named a black development area. The Trust Feed Landowners’ Committee had been set up in opposition to the Crisis Committee and it was linked to Inkatha, particularly Jerome Gabela (a police source on trade union activity in Greytown), Mitchell, and the police Security Branch. The Landowners’ Committee was what a Witness leader later described as an ‘ideologically inspired political structure’. Episodes of forced recruitment had already cost four deaths and the leader of the Crisis Committee had been shot at and his store burned and house attacked. This had resulted in deep community distrust of the police and a demand for deployment of the army.

Major Deon Terreblanche of the Riot Squad was the first senior officer on the massacre scene. The involvement of police was well known all the way to security branch headquarters in Pretoria, and those implicated had faith there would be a cover up. However, an inquest by the New Hanover magistrate raised significant questions and arrest warrants were issued for four kitskonstabels. But the charges were not officially registered and the suspects disappeared into hiding at Mkhuze camp and in Ulundi assisted by Inkatha and the KwaZulu Police (KZP, by now under the command of Jac Buchner, once head of the Pietermaritzburg security police). When Captain Frank Dutton and Warrant Officer Wilson Magadla were assigned to the case they became aware of the extent of the cover up but traced all four suspects in 1991 and found them to be on the KZP payroll. The case came to trial in October 1991 before Judge Andrew Wilson (later of the TRC) with seven police, including Mitchell, accused of eleven murders and eight attempted murders.

Mitchell received eleven death sentences in April 1992 (commuted to life imprisonment in April 1994) and the kitskonstabels 15 years each. Mitchell appeared before a TRC amnesty hearing on 15 October 1996, his application opposed by Trust Feed residents. But negotiation between commission and community changed the latter’s stance as long as Mitchell was prepared to involve himself in reconstruction. Having agreed, he was released from prison in November 1996 under amnesty. The TRC found his two sergeants, and officers who tried to obstruct the investigation, responsible for gross violations of human rights as a result of negligence implicit in the cover up.

In terms of the plotters’ objectives the operation of 2−3 December 1988 was a great success: refugees streamed out of the area and left Inkatha in control. The low-key war masked by the Emergency revolved around territorial control with the state backing its conservative allies through a variety of acts of commission and omission. Circumstances allowed the government to blame the massacre on ‘black on black violence’. When Deputy President Jacob Zuma visited Trust Feed on 3 October 2003 to open a resource centre commemorating the deaths of 1988, he ascribed them to the Third Force.

But this is another myth. The truth lies in the fact that during the murder investigation seized records showed that the establishment of the Landowners’ Committee had been the work of the local Joint Management Committee (JMC), part of the infamous National Security Management System (NSMS). This ‘vast, faceless bureaucracy, dominated by the military’ had been exposed in October 1986 by Anton Harber in the Weekly Mail. At the local level its myriad committees collected intelligence, identified socio-economic issues and drew up security plans. In November 1987 the JMC had told the DSB that the landowners should be in control and a tribal structure imposed. The DSB chief town planner’s counter advice was that Inkatha was poorly supported and trying to oust the publicly elected Crisis Committee; and that the landowners had little interest in development, but allowed uncontrolled squatting and defaulted on rates. The provincial administration correctly suggested that the DSB should set up an advisory committee.

So eleven deaths, a result of mistaken identity, were a consequence of total strategy tailored to meet what President P.W. Botha was fond of calling the total onslaught. The Trust Feed massacre was neither the result of inter-communal ‘black on black’ violence, nor the work of a shadowy force operating beyond the reach of official policy and control. It was the consequence of deliberate strategy prepared to go to the extreme length of employing state-sanctioned lawlessness. The ultimate irony and tragedy was that Pierre Cronje, member of parliament for Greytown, had warned the police that the community feared an attack.

  • Trust Feed massacre victims were: Filda Ntuli, Mseleni Ntuli, Sara Nyoka, Dudu Shangase, Muzi Shangase, Nkonyeni Shangase, Zetha Shangase, Sisedewu Sithole, Marita Xaba, Alfred Zita and Fikile Zondi.

Nalini Naidoo brings the story up to date: ‘Reconciliation: it is neither an option nor a luxury. It is something we have to embrace, otherwise the alternative is revenge and retribution. Many people can’t survive that kind of South Africa.’ These are the words on a plaque in the chapel of peace and reconciliation at the site of the Trust Feed massacre. The chapel, built in 2005, stands as a symbol of one of South Africa’s unique reconciliation stories. Its neglected state today epitomises what’s gone wrong so far in our 19-year-old democracy. Once more there are lessons to learn from Trust Feed.

Brian Mitchell received amnesty from the TRC and on his release he sought forgiveness and reconciliation from the community. It was a difficult process that eased when Thabani Nyoka, the son of massacre victim Sarah Nyoka, reached out to him. Nyoka had a dream about his mother in which she asked him to make peace and build the community. The two worked side by side on the project of building the chapel under the aegis of the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Action (Pacsa). Money for the project came from the National Lottery Fund (Lotto). The chapel was opened amidst much fanfare in 2005.

Masibuyisane, the Trust Feed Reconciliation and Development Association, was formed, made up of the religious ministers’ fraternal in the area and representatives of community organisations. Nyoka and Mitchell said at the time that they were looking forward to the next phase of the project, the building of a computer and community resource centre. This was not to be. Soon in-fighting over the money, who had ownership of the project and deep-seated mistrust among old enemies, those who were IFP- and ANC-aligned, began to surface. At some stage, the ministers’ fraternal, with new members coming in, became dysfunctional so the commitment from the churches also fell away.

Today, the monument has an air of neglect and of being incomplete. The window panes are broken and the thatch in the roof is falling down. Instead of being actively used by the churches, it remains locked and a neighbour keeps the key to the gate leading into the property. In fact, time seems to have stood still for Trust Feed. There is little sign of a new and free South Africa. The air of neglect at the monument continues in the rest of the settlement. The dirt road into Trust Feed has become badly eroded since 2005 when the monument was opened. It is almost impassable in places. All around there is evidence of poverty and it is depressing to see the number of unemployed young people wandering around with nothing to do. There is a new school being built at the entrance, which is almost complete. A few new houses have sprung up and stand out conspicuously in the settlement comprising mainly old wattle and daub houses. So what went wrong?

For Pacsa director Mervyn Abrahams it is about the country’s failure to address poverty adequately. ‘I was in Trust Feed last week. There are all these young people walking around with no work. It is not that they lack skills. You ask have you had any skills training, and they say yes. It is not about lack of skills; it is about a lack of opportunities. There are no jobs. The way our economy is working is undermining the reconciliation processes that were started,’ he said.

Abrahams recalls that shortly after the chapel was opened, there were community members who felt that there was a lot of money spent around the project amid suspicions that Nyoka might be pocketing the money. ‘I remember taking independent audits twice to the community. Copies were made for everybody and an auditor explained how the money could not have gone to an individual, but was being managed by Pacsa and how it had been spent.’ Nyoka says that people still view him with suspicion. He has since moved out of Trust Feed, but he visits from time to time and is called upon when visitors want to know about the history of the place. The last time he was there was earlier this year when staff from the heritage department of the Premier’s Office visited the site. Once more there was talk of developing the monument and doing more to commemorate the history of Trust Feed, but so far he has heard nothing more.

Nyoka remembers that Mitchell also had a difficult time because people expected money from him, but he had none. His commitment was to work on the project and for the development of the community. In the end, the two, who had become firm friends, had no choice but to walk away. Each remains committed to the reconciliation project and wanting to do more for Trust Feed. ‘Perhaps the time has finally come,’ says Nyoka. ‘You contacting me out of the blue and reminding me of the 25th anniversary must mean something.’ This is a painful period for Mitchell, but also fortuitous. He has contact once more with Nyoka.

In 2003, President Jacob Zuma, who was deputy president at the time, visited Trust Feed. He said: ‘We are honoured to be visiting a community which has taught the rest of the country if not the whole world that it is possible to move away from conflict and begin new lives based on reconciliation.’ Twenty-five years on, the community are still waiting for their new lives … of freedom.

Ward councillor Faustus Mbongwe, a veteran of the Trust Feed struggle, believes that process is finally underway. Mbongwe was a founder member of the ANC-aligned UDF that the government wanted out of Trust Feed. He became a councillor in 2011. He said the tarring of the dirt road into Trust Feed is on the uMshwati council’s integrated development plan for 2014−15. There are two housing projects earmarked for the area that will provide 4 000 houses in the next four years. Work will begin next year. There are also sewer, water and electricity upgrades in the pipeline. Mbongwe said that the history of Trust Feed has not been forgotten and there are discussions going on about developing the massacre site into a living museum; one that would not only record the violence, but would promote reconciliation as well.

For Pacsa, which is working with a group of women in the area who have started a food garden, it is about getting the economy right.

This article, written by Nalini Naidoo and Christopher Merrett was first published in The Natal Witness on 2 December 2013 and entitled ‘When the total onslaught hit a small village’.