Yearning for peace and quiet

Don Makatile

Don Makatile

Peace has returned to Richmond in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands and if residents, especially the young ones, had their way, that is how it will stay.

Grade 5 pupil Siphiwe Dlamini and his mates from the local primary school juggle a soccer ball around a dusty patch of ground in KwaMagoda, preparing for a tournament in Pietermaritzburg, about 35km away.

All he knows is that there used to be udlame - violence in the area.

"I love soccer," says the young Orlando Pirates fan. All he wants is for his Under-12 team to win the Danone Cup.

MS Ndlovu does not say what his initials stand for. Neither does he say why he walks on crutches, his amputated leg suspended just below the hands that carry his weight.

"What's past is past," Ndlovu says. "Digging up the past would be futile."

He whiles away the time with his buddies, pensioned folk, drinking beer outside a tavern in KwaMagoda.

You get the sense they'd wish for nothing else.

A vicious cycle of blood-letting enveloped the area between 1997 and 1999, climaxing in the murder of a heavyweight politician on January 23 1999.

On that morning Sifiso Nkabinde died in the sleepy town's main street, the 106th person to be killed.

"That evening," says the town's mayor of the time, Andrew Ragavaloo, now the council's speaker, "12 more people died. Another two followed shortly afterwards."

This left the death toll at 120, a shocking figure of Rwandese proportions.

After Nkabinde was mowed down in a hail of bullets, revenge killings struck at a night vigil of the Ndabezitha family, claiming 12 lives.

"The police managed to kill one of the gunmen," says Ragavaloo. "Another person died a while later."

A good number of the killers are still free but Richmond wants to forget.

The Ndabezitha household is a shell, a place that looks like the lights have just been switched off.

It is in Ndaleni, which was the political opposite of Magoda, Sifiso Nkabinde's stronghold.

Nokuthula Ndabezitha is 43. The burden she has to carry ages her even more.

"I had to leave the vigil much earlier that night to attend to other errands," she says.

A little while later shots rang out, shattering the quiet of the night.

Today she's a mom to both her own children and the kids of those who died in the attack.

Dependent on child grants of R1250 a month each for the kids who qualify, hers is a difficult life of poverty. She's just had her electricity cut off because of nonpayment.

She ekes out a living at projects such as the building of a new school, which do not come often.

"Now I am at home," she says.

Those of her family who survived the killings have moved to Pietermaritzburg.

But if truth be told, big business, in the form of Shoprite and others, and human capital, by way of Nombuyiselo Mahlaba, who coaches the schoolboy team, have returned to Richmond.

Like most residents here, her greatest joy is being "able to go everywhere, even at night".

Old man Vusumuzi Nqayi, 65, minds his cattle on the outskirts of the semi-urban settlement. The violence hit him particularly badly - he lost four boys.

"They should have been the ones herding the cattle," he says through his toothless gap.

But, like most residents, he wants to put the past behind him.

At the entrance to the township stands a plaque "in cherished memory of those who in tragedy lost their lives during the violence that plagued Richmond. May their souls rest in peace".

A quote from Nelson Mandela stands at the head of the stone: "There is no easy walk to Freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the shadow of death, again and again, before we reach the mountain top of our desires."

The orgy of violence began when Nkabinde was fired from the ANC in a DC hearing chaired by Mac Maharaj, recalls Ragavaloo.

Nkabinde formed the National Consultative Forum (NCF), which would later be swallowed by Bantu Holomisa's UDM.

In the madness that ensued, ANC councillors in the municipality were "asked" to resign in solidarity with Nkabinde. In the 13-member council, two of whom were independents, nine acceded to this "request".

Only Ragavaloo, the mayor, and Rodney van der Byl, dug their heels in.

A few days later, on May 8 1997, Van der Byl lay dead in a pool of blood, shot 27 times.

When his time came, Nkabinde was shot more than 80 times, says Ragavaloo.

There had been attempts on Ragavaloo's life in the dark days. The principal of Richmond Combined School, he's lived to tell the tale - and hand over the mayoral chain to Ben Ngcongo.

In the fight for control of the town men, women and children who had nothing to do with politics were caught in the crossfire.

Eleven years later, with a new breed of residents, Richmond moves as one and the likes of UDM MP Nonhlanhla Nkabinde, Sifiso's widow, have forgiven all and want to get on with their lives. And when night comes, they sleep - peacefully.