jill.e.kelly

history, research, teaching


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Local Elections and the Legacies of War

This is the fourth of an oral history scraps series.* 

When commentators consider the contemporary state of South Africa, they discuss it as a country still transitioning from apartheid. Not enough is made of the fact that parts of the country are also recovering from civil war sponsored by the apartheid state. Between 1985 and 1996, at least 20,000 people died; 13,000 in KwaZulu-Natal alone. Conservative estimates suggest 200,000 were made homeless, internal refugees in their own country.[1]

Less then twenty years since the end of the war, my oral history interviews were riddled with insight into how people are–or are not–rebuilding their lives in the wake of war. Many spoke to human losses and the financial ramifications. They attested to the need to start anew, building new homes, buying new wardrobes, but never being able to recover wedding keepsakes and photographs of children. One person remembers being forced to continue to make payments on new furniture long after that furniture was destroyed by fire. Some still are unable to return home after the war, where new residents built on their homestead sites.

In light of the upcoming August local elections in South Africa and recent political violence (such as the political killings of ANC politicians in the Natal Midlands earlier this month or this past weekend’s shooting in Pretoria), I offer some oral history insights into how rural South Africans connect elections to the country’s civil war.

One woman suggested that every election cycle brings fear and unwanted memories:

Every time when we go for elections, I get nervous because people are getting emotional.

Another woman spoke to her subsequent ambivalence about voting:

I did not understand anything about the [political] parties [during the war]. Even today I still do not have any idea about the organisations’ issues. I do vote because everyone has a vote. What made me hate the organisations is that many people died. Those who knew what they were fighting for are living a life of luxury while we are still suffering and they got this life through other people’s blood. Personally, I do not know why I am voting. I accompany those who know what they are doing and I do not want to know because it is not going to help me.

And as the continuing assassinations of candidates and ward councilors suggest, political violence is still a very real phenomenon in South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

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Source: “Special Police Task Force to Probe Political Killings,” Mail & Guardian, June 5, 2016.

While many rightly make connections between these attacks and those of the civil war, the less obvious legacy is the prevalence of weapons in these communities. One man, who asked to be anonymous due to the sensitivity of our conversation, made this explicit:

A: There are still many guns that were distributed by Philip Powell [a white apartheid agent connected to the IFP and Eugene de Kock]. He gave them to someone [affiliated with Inkatha] who was going to help distribute them. That was XX. Then other guns were given to this boy XX.

Q: The guns were only distributed to IFP members?

A: Yes and a lot of people received them. XX still has G3s. I have no idea how the police do not get a hold of those guns.

The legacies of South Africa’s civil war are as much a part of contemporary life as apartheid.

*Everyone who participated in the oral history project gave oral or written consent for use of their interviews in publications and eventual archival deposit.

[1] Mary de Haas, “Violence in Natal and Zululand: The 1980s,” in The Road to Democracy in South Africa, vol. 6 [1990-1996] (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2013), 88–152.

For more on the recent assassinations, check out these Mail & Guardian stories:

Killings Signal the Start of the Battle for Power,” May 27, 2016

Politics Becomes a Deadly Game in KZN,” May 27, 2016

Special Police Task Force to Probe Political Killings,” June 6, 2016

 

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Dispossession & Land Myths

*For more on the context of this particular oral history interview, see previous post.

The “myth of the empty land” is one of the most pervasive myths of South African history. In 2012, Freedom Front Plus leader and then deputy minister of agriculture, forestry and fisheries Pieter Mulder declared that black South Africans had no claim to 40% of South Africa and that European settlers had not stolen the land, suggesting that land in the semi-desert Karoo and Kalahri be purchased for black South Africans.

Writing in the Mail & Guardian in response, historian Shula Marks remarked upon a sense of déjà vu . She penned the 1980 “South Africa – the Myth of the Empty Land” in History Today and now found that ignorance about South Africa’s past lingered 30+ years later despite scholarly research. Mulder’s remark reveals the longevity of apartheid ideology that justified white settlement of South African land.

An equally pervasive myth exists among dispossessed South Africans that suggests how they understand this loss of land. A year before Mulder’s claim to empty land, in a conversation between two of my interlocutors, they attempted to explain the loss of African territory in Zululand to Boer immigrants. Here, in a larger conversation about the chieftaincy, two community elders connected the perils of an uneducated leader to historical land dispossession:

GB:       When Sichiza was a chief [in the 1950s], he could not write his name.

NM:      If you cannot read your own name, how can you become a chief?

GB:      He had an assistant to read for him and the assistant could read to him whatever he wanted.

NM:      It is the same thing which happened years ago, when white people made one of the kings to sit in a rotating chair to point the whole nation to the whites.

GB:      I know that thing, they put a king in a rotating chair and they pressed it while he was pointing them to a piece of land. He ended up giving them the whole nation. I think that was Dingane.

Zanokolo Mkhize, who works at the Zulu Historical Museum in Eshowe and blogs about Zulu history, explained the dispossession myth in further depth:

It is said that during the reign of King Dingane a group of Boers sought an audience with King Dingane for some or other land concession, they spoke to him and a demarcation of land was agreed upon. When Dingane was about to point out the parameters of the land he was asked to sit down on a revolving chair, this chair was then spun around in an act of treachery by the Boers and it was through such actions that they lay claims on the Zulu country.

Mkhize points out the myth’s entertainment value and distance from reality, speculating the story may have its origins in the 1851 creation of a wheelchair for King Mpande, ill with gout, by Norwegian missionaries.

The myth is certainly an entertaining one–everyone present giggled at its telling. But it should not be dismissed as only a myth. It does suggest a reality–how its narrators understand land dispossession as an act of deceit in which white immigrants took advantage of an unwitting king’s diplomacy. The invocation of the myth to discuss an uneducated chief reveals how these interlocutors view power and envision leadership.

1024px-Gardiner_-_Dingane_in_Ordinary_and_Dancing_Dresses_(1836)

“Dingane in Ordinary and Dancing Dresses,” 1836, by Captain Allen Francis Gardiner.

King-Mpande-1

An 1849 portrait of King Mpande by George French Angas

Further Reading:
Marks, Shula. “South Africa – ‘The Myth of the Empty Land.’” History Today 30, no. 1 (1980).