South Africa

South Africa

Trail of Revenge: A time capsule from 1999

Trail of Revenge: A time capsule from 1999

The miracle of South Africa’s rebirth from an authoritarian white supremacist state into a non-racial democracy was almost forestalled by the violent rites of passage that brought the nation to the brink of civil war. That threat passed, but violence continued. By GREG MARINOVICH.

In the years after democracy, the province of KwaZulu Natal suffered dozens of deaths every week, most often due to political rivalry between the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party and the ruling African National Congress of then President Nelson Mandela.

But the roots of bloodletting run even deeper in the Zulu homeland, reaching beyond political affiliation or tribal loyalty. It began with the ruthless forging of the disparate northern Nguni clans into the Zulu nation by Shaka in the early 1800s, continued as his disciplined regiments wrought devastation throughout the region. This was reinforced when his successors’ fought the British redcoats to a standstill with nothing more than spears against rifle and cannon, most notably at the battle of Isaldwana.

But, as in many such warrior societies, the first allegiance in the poverty-stricken and overpopulated hills of the rural hinterland are to family. The clan. This is a tale of an inconsequential but deadly feud between the neighbouring Majola and Zulu clans, in the stony hills of Msinga between Tugela Ferry and Keates Drift.

The first to be killed was Ngatini Zulu, in May of 1994. He was waiting for the early morning train at Inhlazane Station in Soweto, having just crossed a garbage-littered and overgrown field from the sprawling dormitories of Jabulani migrant workers’ hostel. It was said he had argued with four men on the train to work the day before. Perhaps they were Majola clansmen, perhaps not, but the word swiftly spread through the Johannesburg hostels and down to the rural KwaZulu Natal hinterland of Msinga that it was Majolas who had killed him.


Kayisile struggles uphill with a bundle of firewood, Tengele.

The second to die was Nthelinkhosi Hadebe, a Majola, in August, while walking to work from George Goch hostel, in the south-east semi-industrial suburbs of Johannesburg.

Shortly thereafter, Mxoveni Majola was killed in an Indian store next to police headquarters at John Vorster Square in downtown Johannesburg.

The spiral of killings and revenge continued: in just over a year the death toll was 24. Most occurred in and around Johannesburg, but the cause of the feud festered 400km away, in the sun-scorched hills of Msinga.

A massive, rough, black chunk of lava rock along the winding road north from Greytown, KwaZulu Natal, marks the southern extent of Msinga. A battered tin sign, hand painted white on black, denotes this as Bambatha’s Rock. What is not explained is that it was here that Bambatha lost his head. In 1906, the minor Zulu chief took up arms against an increase in hut tax – a measure intended to force African peasants to work for labour-hungry white farmers and miners. Bambatha’s rebellion was destined to fail. The Zulu military machine had been crushed and broken a half century before. Five hundred of his followers were killed and his severed head was taken up as the colonial army’s marching trophy.

Msinga is rock. A hard, uncompromising land of perennial drought where meagre pockets of land are tilled without hope and with little enthusiasm.

It is these little signs that should prepare the visitor for what to expect, but most are naive optimists. At least at first.


The widow of slain Maqhoqhoba Hadebe, covered with a blanket, is helped to the burial by relatives.

Kayisile’s breathe whistles and wheezes as she tries to keep up with her younger companion, Tembi. They follow worn paths along the rocky, desiccated hillsides, the brilliant noon sun reflecting brighter off the axe heads than from the poorer steel of the machetes they carry.

The track passes barren pieces of soil that had been cleared of rocks in some past year of bountiful rains, or foolhardy hope. An old hand-drawn plough lies exhausted, deeply pitted with rust, the handles still gleaming dully where rough palms had once burnished them.

Kayisile’s earlobes, stretched by decades of wearing traditional Zulu ear disks, hang low and pendulous. As do her breasts and the heavy flesh under her arms. The earth is keen to reclaim its own.

After almost two hours’ walk, they reach a ravine where thorn trees and bushes still survive. Kayisile and Tembi separate to search for dead wood or branches that can be cut away without killing the tree. Their richly coloured clothing moving through the drab landscape, the cries of children and goats drifting up the contours.

Life in Msinga is a continual struggle. The battle is uneven; too many people live on too little land. The majority of the men seek work in the great cities. They live in squalid workers’ hostels, isolated from the township communities after years of political conflict. The towns are not their home, even after decades of residence. Home is deep in the harshly beautiful hills of Msinga. Where a man counts for more than his sweat.

But a man must earn money to get married, raise children. And provide for the spider’s web of relatives that make up a homestead. It is very few who find a way to earn cash in Msinga.

Every year, the situation deteriorates. More children bless the womb, more mouths hungry to be fed. More firewood is needed. And more young men want a place to call home, to begin a family.



Differences are exaggerated. Slights become insults, matters of honor. In a warrior culture, there is but one way to reclaim lost honor.

“Up in the hills, they fight for nothing. Even a woman.” So says police Lt Muthiwezinyanga Zulu, station commander at this untidy collection of administrative buildings, open-air markets and trading stores next to the old steel bridge across the sluggish Tugela River.

Ask anyone how the Majolas and Zulus began to kill each other and the inevitable answer is that it was over the Christmas party of 1993.

Mzuwandle Majola recalls that tensions began to rise as the Majolas and their fellow clansmen, the Hadebes, enjoyed the holiday. As is customary, groups of merrymakers moved from one homestead to the next, drinking and eating. Majola clan members were enjoying their party in the Tengele area alongside Fabeni store, a rather nondescript local landmark.

“The Zulus were looking at us eating our Kismus at Tengele. They were asking us why we were eating here. [They said] that we should go and eat up on the hill, Skohlande. They were jealous. But we do not cry when they eat,” says Majola.


Grieving Majolas make their way up Skohlande hill to commiserate with the family of slain Maqhoqhoba Hadebe before the burial.

Across the Mphofana River from the Majolas, Nkosenye in 1999 Elias Zulu sits on a rickety chair outside his hut in the lowlands. He scans Skohlande hill opposite with a pair of binoculars: “In Johannesburg, a man died,” he states simply.

And then another. And so it went on. Death avenging death. In hostels, streets, shops, and in the rocky hills between Tugela Ferry and Keates Drift. Ask any of the Majolas or the Zulus about who died and how, and a surprisingly consistent litany of deaths are counted out on work-coarsened fingers. Most agree on a total 24 deaths, thus far.

The latest victims, one from each clan, just over a year after the death of Ngatini Zulu, were killed in the same week in Johannesburg.

Phonselakhe Maqhoqhoba Habede, a Majola, was shot to death on a Saturday night in the boiler room of the J.G. Strydom hospital in Johannesburg. No one saw a thing.

Dumisane Khanyile, a Zulu clansman, was killed Tuesday in Dube hostel, Soweto. He was shot.

“For what reason? Only the Kismus,” says Mzuwandle Majola, with the characteristic rural Zulu abhorrence of the letter `r’.

Perhaps. It is the most common explanation that is put forward.


A woman feeds chickens.

Down near the Fabeni store, Solikile Hadebe is in mourning for her son, Maqhoqhoba. She folds her legs under her and leans against the roughly plastered wall. Alongside is the grieving widow, hidden from view under a blanket. It was in this little enclave of Majola huts that the Christmas feud began. But Solikile delves further back for the roots of the conflict: “The Zulu clan is telling us to go back to where we were before, on Skohlande hill. But this is land we were instructed to come and settle [on], in 1978.” The headman of the area instructed the wealthier and more numerous lowland Zulu clan to give up a small portion of land alongside the Fabeni store for the Majola clan to settle. The Majola clan had grown too numerous for their hillside redoubt. The Zulus agreed.

“Maybe they did not like it that we moved down here, but they kept quiet. Now they say the land belongs to them, as it did their forefathers,” says Solikile.

“The clans were always very close; we were like one family. I was born here, grew up here.” recalls police Lt Muthiwezinyanga Zulu, 47, now station commander at Tugela Ferry. “The late headman Mchuna had decided to have the Majolas move down off the hill as it had become too crowded. The idea was to have the hill reserved strictly for animals. But not everyone wanted to move. And then the Zulu clan said that since these Majolas had moved onto their land, they had to consider themselves Zulus – `If you come here, you have to belong to us, not to the mountain,’ they said.”

In keeping with the tradition of burial at the ancestral home, Solikile Hadebe and the other mourners are expecting the coffin of Maqhoqhoba, but they will not reveal exactly when it arrives from Johannesburg. They fear an ambush. It has happened before.

This is especially pertinent as the police had staged a raid and managed to trap a Majola impi, or war party, on the move the day before. Fifteen men were arrested and six weapons confiscated. Three AK-47s, an R-1 automatic rifle, one shotgun and an antique .303 rifle.

The Majolas had tried to put their pursuers off by having the majority of the impi allow themselves to be caught near a homestead to which they had locked the hut doors. The elderly owners claimed they did not have the keys. The police were sure that weapons had been hurriedly stashed in the dim interiors and ordered a sullen owner to force the locks with a crowbar. They found nothing inside any of the huts. Women appeared from all over the area, wailing and crying. Some begging the police to release their menfolk, others threatening them, feinting with rocks. It was all an elaborate ruse to allow the remainder of the impi to escape with the guns. But the Tugela Ferry cops have been around a bit and within half an hour they brought three men up from the dry gorge cutting through Skohlande, triumphantly showing off the bountiful haul of guns; a deadly harvest.


Solikile Hadebe weeps over the coffin of her son Phonselakhe Maqhoqhoba Hadebe as the pallbearers rest, Skohlande.

The women became hysterical; they would be without men or guns to protect them. They accused Lt Zulu of targeting them because he was of the opposing clan; that he would give the guns to their enemies who would then come and kill them, defenceless, in their homes. The police drove off, some cursing the women and pointing guns, others asking that they have iced water for them next time they came to raid.

The Majola guns will be replaced. Either by their clansmen in Johannesburg, or they will buy them from gunrunners for about US$55. If they decide go to the Mozambican frontier and make contact directly with hungry, demobbed former combatants, just $7 can buy an AK-47.

Khalelani Majola, 75, remembers when she came to Skohlande as a bride: “There were just two families here and the place was better, not so dry. We used to be able to grow millet and we had many cows, fifty. But it kept getting worse and worse. The cows all died up in hills, we could not even sell one. We now have goats, but they are also dying.”

There are also many more people on Skohlande nowadays, dozens of families. The men are mostly away, migrant labourers, and the women do the best they can. The main source of cash is from the Bata shoe factory at Keates Drift. The women sew the pre-cut leather by hand as they walk to collect water or tend to children. For adult shoes they are paid R10 ($2.72 in 1999) for ten pairs. For children’s shoes, it is $1.36 for ten pairs. The finished shoes are sold for about $14 a pair.

“Sometimes they want many and ask for twenty to thirty pairs, then we cross the night with sewing,” says Khalelani.

Lt Zulu understands the undercurrents and pressures that drive feuds. “The rivers used to run full; now there is nothing. The population has increased by about sixty percent. There used to be more land and animals. People were ploughing, growing crops. And there is the drought.”

In Zulu territory, Nkosenye Elias Zulu acutely feels the economic pain the feud has wrought. “I have three wives and seventeen dependents. My son and I used to drive that taxi between Keates Drift and Tugela Ferry.” He indicates the grey Chevrolet Commodore sedan now resting on bricks. “But they will shoot me if I try to work my route.”

He turns and points out a collection of low hills further upstream along the Mphofana,

“That is the place of the Madulaleni clan. It was because of taxi routes that we fought in 1992. Many were killed: 43 of them and 18 of our people.”

One of those was Dudu Ndlovu, Johnny Clegg’s partner in the Zulu band Savuka.

“Many die, even the young. If you are ten years old, they will kill you. So all the young boys are in the impi.


A young Majola woman carries water from a pit.

“The Majola do not want peace. After we had talks, they just go on. This is because they have killed six Zulus in Tengele area, but only one Majola from there has died, so they think they are the bosses.”

Back at Skohlande, Mazuwandle Majola sits on a rock, watching others take their turn at digging the grave. “Maybe it would be better if they would say that the land is the problem. We could discuss it and then say it is not worth the trouble.”

In the clear morning air, if he listened carefully, Nkosenye Elias Zulu on Sipongwene across the Mphofana River might catch the wailing of the Majola women and the clang of shovel on Majola rock, carried on a warm breeze. But he can only hear the sounds of his own clan mourning.

“The fight is over a small land,” says Nkosenye Zulu, “but if I see someone from that side passing here, I will kill him.”

The Majola clansmen that Lt Zulu arrested in the raid on the impi three weeks ago are now out on bail.

“They told me they wanted bail to go and fight. They said, `You are from here, you know that the only way we can end this is to fight. Even if you arrest us, it will never stop until we fight freely and then it will be over.’

“They complain that the feud has been going on for two years and the police have disturbed them, not allowing them to fight. That is why the killings go on.”

Lt Zulu looks out through his office window, and speaks softly. “More lives will be lost like this, one by one. It is true. They must have a full faction fight, impi against impi, and then the following day it will be over. “ DM

All photos by Greg Marinovich.


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