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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 478

Paragraph Numbers 289 to 302

Volume 2

Chapter 5

Subsection 36


KwaNdebele independence

289 In light of the unrest that eventually followed, it is ironic to note that Pretoria’s homeland planners were initially loath to create a separate homeland for the Ndebele. In terms of the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act, the Ndebele were not recognised as a 'national unit' worthy of their own homeland. For many years, apartheid's ethnic strategists hoped that the Ndebele would simply assimilate into Bophuthatswana or Lebowa where a large number of Ndebeles already lived. In 1979, however, the South Ndebele territorial authority was granted legislative assembly status. Two years later KwaNdebele became self-governing. Although the South African government frequently justified its abrupt change in policy by referring to requests for recognition from Ndebele traditionalists, the real reasons lay in South Africa’s changing political economy and emerging strategic concerns. The large number of Ndebeles forced off white-owned farms because of mechanisation and the sudden exodus of Ndebeles fleeing ethnic harassment in Bophuthatswana had created an acute demographic problem for Pretoria's planners. KwaNdebele’s establishment was designed to control groups displaced by these processes.

290 By the early 1980s, however, officials within the Department of Co-operation and Development (DCAD) realised that KwaNdebele presented the government with new strategic possibilities in terms of the larger homeland project. KwaNdebele’s eager and compliant cabinet offered Pretoria’s planners an opportunity to resuscitate the government’s policy on independence. Following Ciskei’s independence in 1981, plans to grant independence to the remaining self-governing homelands had either stalled or had been blocked by various means. The government in part blamed the South African Black Alliance, a loose grouping of black political parties chaired (and in effect led) by Inkatha’s president Mangosuthu Buthelezi, for slowing down the homelands’ rush to independence. Bureaucrats at the DCAD hoped that KwaNdebele’s acceptance of independence might weaken the Alliance and encourage other homelands to follow suit.

291 In May 1982, the KwaNdebele Legislative Assembly passed a motion calling on the cabinet to pursue independence.

292 The political conflict over independence and incorporation that engulfed the KwaNdebele area from mid-1985 until 1988 degenerated into what was, in effect, a civil war. Human rights violations – committed by a variety of individuals and groups on all sides of the conflict – were numerous and widespread. Scores of people were killed, not only by the security forces deployed to repress the unrest, but also by erstwhile neighbours, fellow students, business colleagues, and even family members. In a matter of months, KwaNdebele's limited infrastructure was razed to the ground. Schools sat empty, shops and offices were gutted and entire communities lived in fear. By the winter of 1986, KwaNdebele had been irrevocably changed.


293 At the very centre of this maelstrom was a vigilante organisation known as the Imbokodo. Led by the homeland's political and economic elite, the fate of the Imbokodo – or “the grinding stone” – in many ways encapsulates the tragedy that occurred in KwaNdebele. In what effectively constituted a ‘reign of terror’, Imbokodo members carried out daring and brutal attacks in which hundreds of ordinary residents were viciously assaulted and publicly humiliated. The resentment and anger that followed operations such as the New Year's Day raid and the Tweefontein massacre radicalised a previously apolitical population and was a significant, if not the most important, cause of the unrest. However, once the conflict had begun, “comrades” ruthlessly and methodically attacked suspected Imbokodo members and their families. Even those with the most tenuous links to the vigilante organisation or to the homeland government were at mortal risk. Scores of suspects were summarily killed, often by the infamous ‘necklace’.

294 In internecine conflicts in which combatants do not wear uniforms and political loyalties are assumed rather than formalised, many people become both perpetrator and victim. This was often the case in KwaNdebele. Vigilantes identified ‘comrades’ simply based on their age. Comrades targeted ‘vigilantes’ by their occupations. In the ensuing war, few were safe.

295 Over 250 statements were made to the Commission regarding the conflict in KwaNdebele and Moutse in the mid-1980s. Collectively, the statements report almost 700 gross violations of human rights. In those statements that name a perpetrator (involving 421 alleged violations), the Imbokodo is listed as the responsible organisation in over half of the incidents. This includes allegations of Imbokodo involvement in seventeen deaths. ‘Comrades’ or ANC members are similarly identified as the alleged perpetrators in 14 per cent of the statements. Although the percentage of total gross human rights violations attributed to the latter group is dramatically lower, the statements attribute twenty-four deaths to the comrades. Amongst residents who approached the Commission, at least thirty-four victims had ties to the Imbokodo or to the former KwaNdebele government. Together, their statements document twenty murders, all of which involved the burning of the deceased's body. At least nineteen of the deponents further claimed that their residential and/or business properties were completely destroyed in arson attacks.

296 Despite the significant role that Imbokodo members played in the conflict, both as perpetrators and as victims, relatively little has been written about the vigilante organisation. In contemporaneous accounts of the conflict, the Imbokodo was depicted largely as a Mafia-type hit squad formed in 1986 which operated under the personal command of Mr SS Skosana, the first chief minister, and Mr Piet Ntuli, the feared minister of internal affairs. The bulk of the organisation's membership – with estimates ranging widely from as low as 300 to as high as 900 people – reportedly consisted of KwaNdebele politicians, businesspersons, taxi-owners and some traditional leaders. From the start of the 1986 unrest, the Imbokodo was further rumoured to enjoy the approval and even the active support of the central government as well as national and local security forces. In general, then, the Imbokodo has been seen as a vigilante organisation specifically formed with the support of the South African government to assert the dominance of the KwaNdebele elite and to achieve the political goals of independence and incorporation.

297 Although this description captures the essential nature of the Imbokodo organisation as it operated in 1986, it also overlooks several significant factors in the group's development. Many of these issues have been brought to the Commission’s attention in evidence submitted to the Commission and in testimony led at the Commission's special event hearing conducted in Moutse in December 1996. In summary form, the following points should be noted.

298 First, forms of vigilante activity in the KwaNdebele area predate the unrest of the mid-1980s by at least a decade. SS Skosana, elected the first president of the Imbokodo when it was officially constituted in 1986, has traced the organisation's roots to a “cultural society” formed in 1976 “when there were riots and schools were burned”. Throughout the intervening decade, a number of vigilante attacks were carried out against perceived political opponents of the KwaNdebele government and its various tribal authorities. In addition, numerous tactics, including roadblocks, were used to identify and “discipline” various “agitators” especially “outsiders” – generally perceived as politicised youth from the Rand – operating in the homeland. Vigilantism thus has a long, indigenous history in the area.

299 Second, many of these activities were conducted with the blessing if not the active participation of the Ndzundza royal kraal. Despite their emergence as leading opponents of the Imbokodo in 1986, members of the royal family were involved in earlier forms of vigilante activity. In fact, individuals participating in early vigilante operations emphasised that they were “called by the king” when such activities were deemed necessary. With this history in mind, Imbokodo members have claimed that their organisation was constituted at the royal kraal and derived its authority from the king himself.

300 Third, vigilantes and members of the Ndzundza tribal authority had long employed corporal punishment as a means of maintaining order in the area and punishing those deemed guilty of breaching the peace. A variety of criminal, civil and even a few political cases were heard by the traditional court sitting at the offices of the Ndzundza tribal authority. Those convicted of offences were regularly sentenced to a number of lashes with a sjambok. In 1986 when Imbokodo members relied on the whip to “discipline” opponents of incorporation and independence, they again claimed that they were only following “traditional Ndebele ways.”

301 Despite these continuities with the past, the evidence before the Commission also reveals important differences between the activities of the Imbokodo and earlier forms of vigilantism. First, whereas early vigilante activity generally focused on specific perceived ‘agitators’, Imbokodo raids targeted entire communities, leading to widespread and indiscriminate assaults on residents. Second, although early vigilante activity enjoyed the express approval of the royal family and as a result was accepted as legitimate by a large sector of the population, the actions of the Imbokodo were denounced by the royal family and were clearly unacceptable to the vast majority of KwaNdebele residents. In the changed circumstances of the mid-1980s, vigilantism became a source of conflict rather than a means of diffusing it. While at one time tribal police officers were seen as community protectors, Imbokodo members were essentially viewed as a political army. Finally, although tribal courts operated according to a known and widely accepted procedure involving the presentation and evaluation of evidence and testimony, Imbokodo assaults offered no such defence to the accused. Residents abducted by vigilantes were summarily assaulted in mass beatings carried out in various government-owned buildings. Such occasions resembled torture sessions more than court proceedings.

302 Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the conflict lay in the South African government's ambiguous approach to the Imbokodo. Although not directly established or controlled by the South African government, politicians and policy-makers in Pretoria failed to act against the Imbokodo even when their officials on the ground encouraged them to do so.

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