South Africa's struggle veterans hope for new lives

ANC supporters run for cover in Thokoza in 1994 Thokoza was one of the main battle-grounds between the ANC and the IFP

A solemn memorial stands in the heart of Thokoza, a township south of Johannesburg that was the scene of violent clashes in the run-up to the 1994 elections, a time where many were certain South Africa would descend into civil war.

There are hundreds of names on a black plaque but those who live here tell me the number of those who died was far higher. Some reports place the death toll at more than 2,000 people killed as the white-minority government prepared for the country's first democratic elections.

Mochacho Mngomezulu points to four names on the plaque with a detachment that startles me.

"These two names belong to my mother and my younger brother, the names at the bottom here are my grandparents. They were killed in my mother's house on the same day," he says nonchalantly.

"Now I don't feel anything. My heart died a long time ago."

An Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporter taunts a South African Defense Force soldier on guard during an IFP protest in Benoni, east of Johannesburg, 16 April 1994. The security forces were accused of backing the IFP to attack the ANC

It is a chilling admission from a man with a vivid recollection of that tumultuous time.

We are in Khumalo street, the scene of much of the bloodshed.

Start Quote

Back then you only had three choices, to die, join them or join the SDU”

End Quote Mochacho Mngomezulu Former SDU member

"You would wake up in morning every day and see bodies on the street. It was scary to see at first but after sometime we came to accept it as a normal part of our life then. It was a battlefield," says Mr Mngomezulu.

He was a commander of the Self Defence Unit (SDU) an underground movement that was set up in the township in the early 1990s. He held his first firearm when he was only 14 years old.

The SDU, a branch of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), operated around the hostels in Thokoza where there were deadly clashes between members of the ANC and Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

"We were fighting against the Impis [warriors] of Inkatha and we were defending the community. The IFP at the time wanted no part of the election and were part of a campaign to derail the process. We were prepared to fight until the end to the right to vote," he tells me.


The killings were indiscriminate - no-one was off-limit, even elderly women and youngsters. Their hacked or bullet-riddled bodies would be displayed for all to see but mainly to provoke retaliation.

It is largely held that the violence in Thokoza and elsewhere was state-funded, a result of the so called "third force" which was trying to sabotage the peace negotiations and elections - an allegation the state denied and the IFP leadership distanced itself from.

The ANC was in negotiations with the National Party, headed by President FW De Klerk on how to end decades of apartheid. Not everyone was thrilled with the prospect, least of all the right-wing extremists and some conservative members of the NP.

Those opposed to democracy believed that instability and violence would prove right those who preached that a black-led country would descend into anarchy - the violence would cement the need for more years of "control" - and so apartheid.

In Thokoza, security forces used what on the surface seemed like ethnic tensions between the Xhosas, most of whom were ANC members and Zulus, who largely supported the IFP, to bring chaos to this township.

Thokoza Memorial for people killed during clashes in the 1990s Residents clearly remember the tragic deaths of their loved ones on the eve of democracy

"I didn't decide to join the SDU - the situation forced me to join, people were being killed every day for nothing. They would stop a taxi full of people and kill everyone in it in broad daylight," he says.

"Back then you only had three choices, to die, join them or join the SDU."

By the time he was 16, he was commander of an armed unit which would bomb IFP targets, such as the hostels lining Khumalo street.

"You carried a gun 24 hours [a day] - if not a pistol, an AK47. We were short of money and we would get money from the community to buy ammunition.

"When we formed the SDU, our aim was to defend the community but by April 1993 Inkatha was chasing people from homes and we would attack them to chase them away."

Forgotten heroes?
Flowers on the foot of the memorial with an ANC flag Both IFP and ANC members died during the clashes

Nowadays, schoolchildren making their way home down Khumalo street interrupt the constant hooting of taxis with their loud laughter. It is a township desperate to forget.

But inside the gated memorial park, Mr Mngomezulu stares at the old basket of flowers on the floor. He says the size of the memorial and the neglect of the park is telling. He tells me that about 40 of his own men are named on that wall.

"This is our church where we come to reflect but it is not being taken care of. You find people smoking drugs here in our church," he says.

"We did a lot to free South Africa but now we are not benefiting now.

"I have two children - maybe someday they will benefit from what we did. We haven't. I am glad we are free but we expected more," he says.

Mr Mngomezulu, like many who were part of the struggle, had expected to be rewarded for their sacrifice - not necessarily in money but some acknowledgement of their role.

They had hoped the state would take care of them and their families, seeing that many were barely teenagers when they took up arms.

"It was a terrible time. You couldn't even cross the street without risking being shot. Everyone was suspicious," says Jabulani Radebe, a former SDU member.

Start Quote

My family died for this freedom and we cannot let it go easily”

End Quote Mochacho Mngomezulu Former SDU member

He lost his sight after a raid by security police in the township while returning from the funeral of a fellow comrade.

"We saw the police grabbing a boy of about 10 and when we asked why they were arresting him, they opened fire. We were tear-gassed. I was hit in the eye, back and thigh while running," he says.

"If the police took you that was the end of you. Many people disappeared until today without a trace, that is I couldn't let them take that young man."

Mr Radebe had to adjust to life as a blind person - something he says has been challenging and made him more dependent on people than he cares to be.

"Many people were injured during that time. The government then promised reparation for victims of apartheid abuse. Many of us have been waiting in vain - all we have are promises," he says.

Mending fences

But optimists say Thokoza is changing, and point to the variety of election posters on the street as proof.

Where street were once divided along political lines, today ANC advertisements line the grimy hostel walls alongside pictures of Chief Buthelezi, who still heads the IFP, which has now faded into national insignificance.

Thokoza hostels Thokoza is now a picture of political tolerance

Some newer parties also have a presence - posters of the Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Democratic Alliance (DA) and Agang have all been stuck on lamp posts.

"Back then you would never see this. There is tolerance now. Anyone can go into the hostels and campaign - it is safe to do so," says Maneer Mqubi a former SDU commander and ANC member.

Mr Mqubi confesses that he is unhappy with how his life turned out but remains hopeful that their situation will change.

"We were told to plan for the day when the fighting will be over but we didn't believe it would. When the fighting ended many of us had dreams, we wanted to be businessmen, return school but because of [a lack of] money, our dreams never came true," he says.

Many struggle veterans are unemployed and have few of the skills employers are looking for.

But as South Africans prepare to go to the polls, Mr Mngomezulu says he still gets a feeling of excitement each time he votes - this will be his fourth time to help choose the nation's leaders.

"My family died for this freedom and we cannot let it go easily. We will defend this freedom," he tells me.

"The ANC gave us democracy, although we are not happy with some of the things that are happening within the organisation, we have to defend it even from those within."

It is more than blind loyalty - the memories of the death and bloodshed are still too fresh for many to see a life outside the ANC.

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