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Your bullets will not stop us: A recollection of the 1985 Queenstown massacre

Ayabonga Cawe is an economist by training, and aside from a short stint as a researcher at a government agency, he has never been a disciple of market doctrine. He speaks and writes on history, political economy and public policy. A pan Africanist, he earns his keep in the development sector as a project manager, but is often found in watering holes of the city, camera in hand holding court with other restless youth of different persuasions.

The massacre in Queenstown, and others that followed in the stormy 1990s, and in Marikana in 2012, are a consistent reminder that the grievances of the people can never be resolved through force against an unarmed but militant people.

…..Whilst we were listening, it was on this day when everything had to be concluded. We were inside; some of the people were outside. Those standing outside saw the police coming and they heard the police talking and counting minutes.

We were inside and therefore we couldn’t hear. What we heard and saw, were policemen at the door throwing in the teargas, shooting so that they could get inside and shoot. It was tough, people died, people were stampeded

When we appeared outside, she said there are definitely some young people who have been shot and I think one of them is Thamsanqa and Siphiwo, was he not dressed in a black and striped skipper.”

Then I said, yes, he was dressed like that…….’

These are the words of Ntombizodwa Martha Kamati. Mrs Kamati is the mother of Thamsanqa and Siphiwo Kamati, two victims of the Queenstown Massacre in November 1985. The above sentiments were shared at the 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, where Mrs Kamati and one of her sons, Simphiwo, shared their recollection of the events of that fateful summer afternoon in Mlungisi township, Queenstown. Her other son, Thamsanqa, never had the fortune of recounting the events 11 years later, in a post-apartheid society, he was fatally wounded; one of the 11 residents who lost their lives that day.

Neatly nested between the two homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, Queenstown has its fair share of ink in the political history books of the region. It was just outside Queenstown where the Bullhoek Massacre happened in the early part of the 20th century, it was also there, where in the 1960s, following the emergence of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), cadres of its militant wing Poqo were intercepted at a railway station en route to being infiltrated into the Transkei. The PAC and its armed wing, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) would later claim responsibility for a bombing at the Queenstown Spur in 1993. However, it is the massacre that left Mrs Kamati without one of the children she took to that fateful meeting at the Nonzwakazi Church in 1985, which is of interest to me.

Tuesday marked 30 years since the massacre, and beyond the Lukhanji Municipality and the Chris Hani region of the Eastern Cape, one wonders if the world spared a thought for this. Is that not part of the problem? That the loss of 11 lives in 1985 due to police brutality, was so common, that commemoration of massacres across the country are as frequent as public holidays are. In a world where terror produces multiples of that victim count, as the recent Nigerian, Kenyan and French incidents show, we have become rather desensitised to large scale death.

The story about how Ntombizodwa Kamati lost her son is as much an indication of the times, as the images of teargassing and burning mobile toilets will be a poignant reminder of the unrest experienced over the last month, or so, over student and worker issues. The magisterial district of Queenstown was listed as one of the districts declared by PW Botha to be under the first state of emergency in 1985. Sandile Dikeni, in an article written in July this year, asks why Queenstown, an unlikely candidate for close censure by the Botha regime in his view, would gain such notoriety, and join the ranks of the Vaal triangle, Cradock and Duduza as trouble spots;

In that year die Groot Krokodil declared the first state of emergency in a few magisterial districts. The surprise in the declaration that contained some of the predictable trouble spots like Duduza and the Vaal triangle was the inclusion of Queenstown. Why Queenstown?’

So why were the “natives” so unhappy? After all, they had pride of choice in the Verwoedian system of separate development. They could choose between the Ciskei and Transkei homelands, with an easy foray into the “Republic” to seek work if they were not terrorists. So, why all the unease? The story began with the system of reforms that the Botha regime implemented in the 1980s, aimed at creating divisions in townships, building a “buffer” black middle class, and thus weakening the resistance of the people. This strategy of reform and repression consisted of selective infrastructural development in particular townships, and the institution of township councils – among other measures. It was against such councils that the people of Mlungisi township decided to organize themselves. The major grievances of the people were household evictions and the lack of a basic service infrastructure in the community. As Mam’ Kamati observed;

The main matters were absence of toilets, the sharing of public toilets. This was a major issue which made people to be annoyed. And there was this lodger’s permit that people disliked, because you would be arrested [at] five-o-clock in the morning by the police, and then they would move with you in their van up and down, taking people from all over the location until it was at eight when they opened their office’

The community then organised a consumer boycott, which began in August 1985, wherein they placed pressure on the local business community. It was an understanding of how the “system” in South Africa was structured, and how it structured relations of complicity and mutual benefit between the Apartheid government and white businesses. It was after all, “business” which benefitted from the cheap labour system, and its attendant migrancy. The people of Queenstown knew this very well. Nangamso Koza, probed her mother, who told her of the mood at the time of the boycott;

UMama uthi babethenga kuloPillay, apho babetshintsha khona iicheques zabo. Uthi kwakugcwala gqitha, balinde beme emgceni phandle. Uthi eyonanto yayibafikisa emini eKomani, babelinda isikolo siphume, baphinde balityaziswe yi border gate le yayisentla kweMasibulele.”

My mother says they used to buy from the Pillay family, where they also used to change their cheques. The place used to get full, and people would even form in a queue that flowed outside. The main reason why they would arrive late and have to wait in this way, was because they had to wait for school to come out and they’d also get delayed at the Ciskei border gate near Masibulele College (now Walter Sisulu University)

It is interesting to note how a particular solidarity emerged between the people of Queenstown, Mlungisi and the surrounding rural areas, with businesses in the Indian and white community which were known or seen to be progressive. In many ways it gave the “comrades” bargaining power which unlocked much needed material support in times of difficulty. More importantly it showed the local business community the power of the people. It also reminded our people of what they had always known; that withdrawal is often an effective strategy. Withdrawal of one’s labour and monetary resources was often what was needed to prompt the system to negotiate, and possibly concede to some of the demands being made.

Between August and November 1985, the atmosphere was volatile; tension between the closely located African and coloured communities, necklacing of a coloured man and the sibling of an African “informer”, clashes with the South African Police, South African Defence Force, and a coloured vigilante group supported by the government. Faced with such provocation, and in an environment of suspicion and mistrust, the response by the Local Residents Association, and its fraternal organisations such as the United Democratic Front, was a mix of mobilisation and enforcement of discipline, especially as it related to the use of liquor. Edward Mini, who was a youngster at the time, shared his recollections of this period, this week on social media:

When you are found drunk you [would be forced to] eat sunlight soap and water or your feet [would be] burnt with burning plastic or [you would] run naked in the street with your clothes on your head or ubethwe ngemvubu zimarshalls (or the marshalls would beat you with a sjambok)”.

The need to desist from intoxication has been a recurrent theme of the struggle historiography in South Africa. In 1976, municipal beer halls were one of the first buildings to be burnt by the youth. In many instances these beer halls were located close to the train stations and other transport modes. They were a constant reminder of how the lure of liquor intercepted the hard earned and meagre wages from reaching their destination. More importantly, it was an outcome of the realisation that intoxication often lulled their parents into a false sense of escape that stalled the will to fight back and resist. Nomayeza Batyi, who sold liquor in Mlungisi at the time made a similar observation during the 1996 TRC hearings:

We always used to attend meetings, and it became apparent, I sell liquor and we decided that we will not sell liquor because the comrades were going to get drunk and then not take the struggle forward.”

It was in this environment of repression and the intense discipline and articulation of anger that led to negotiations in November of 1985, between the Local Residents Association, the Department of Education and Training, the Queenstown municipality, the East Cape Development Board, and the Queenstown Chamber of Commerce, to end the boycott. On 17 November, the residents association would be providing feedback on the negotiations to the community, at a gathering of 2000 people at Nonzwakazi Methodist Church. The scenes that followed, are captured by Daniel Lolwana, Chairperson of the Residents Association.”

When I was giving the report I saw a police casspir, a yellow police casspir, with Captain Venter in it. They had a camera … see that window there; it was open because it was hot inside. I saw him taking photographs. It was Captain Venter in that one. And then suddenly somebody told me that, as I was reporting, somebody tried to indicate to me that there was talking outside. So, as a chairperson I had to investigate what was happening… The youth was running through the windows, old people were ducking underneath the chairs, but there were some people running out. What I noticed, because I was standing right here, I noticed an old man, Lizo Ngcana, being dragged inside, bleeding. And then he fell just where we were standing, it was right in front of the pulpit. Then, as I said there was pandemonium, the hall was filled with teargas and there was shooting all over. You could hear the shots. Now, because I worried about this man, when the casspirs from this side shifted over to the side of the Moravian Church, I ran quickly to the second house there to utilise a telephone.”

The shooting would spill over to the next day, and scores of people were injured. The mass funeral that followed was characteristic of the many political funerals the Eastern Cape witnessed in the 1980s. Flags of the banned ANC all over the place, struggle t-shirts of different political persuasions, struggle songs and wooden replica guns. The presence of the police, a consistent reminder that even in death, our people found courage to summon the spirit of those recently departed, to continue the struggle. A photograph taken by Gideon Mendel, of a comrade at the funeral assisting undertakers to place the bodies of the departed into their last resting place, had a symbolic message on the back of his T-shirt; “Your Bullets Will Not Stop Us”.

Our society has placed a premium on a reconciliation largely informed by blanket forgiveness from blacks and the erasure of black memory of resistance. Knowing this history of resistance and locating oneself in such a history, often sits uneasily with a reconciliation narrative that continues to value symbolic manifestations of colonial and Apartheid domination. It was interesting to note that many of the people in my generation, people with whom I grew up in Queenstown, did not know about this massacre. It is a telling revelation of how even the history of our localities yearns to be told. We know more about the St James Massacre in Cape Town, than we do about the Nonzwakazi incident, yet they occurred in close to identical circumstances. The only difference is who the victims were, and which segments of our society were unsettled by the occurrence.

One hopes that the retelling of that important time in the history of that small town in Queenstown will also fight against the erasure of black memory, and the resurgence of a rewriting of history by conservative elements, which paints Apartheid in palatable if not glowing terms. It remains a major contradiction that a Calvinist government would attack people in a Church, or its security forces would deny blacks of dignified final rites. It is a retelling of this history which will remind our generation that the issues that led to the death of Thamsanqa Kamati, and the maiming and torture of his brother, Siphiwo, remain. Driving through Mlungisi today, you can imagine that many of the issues of 1985 are the issues of 2015, and of course there are some differences.

The 30th anniversary of the Queenstown Massacre is one of those occasions to reflect on what Malaika wa Azania calls the nostalgia for a black dignity, and resilience forged under oppression. It is such dignity and aversion to complicity in their oppression, that led many to pay the ultimate sacrifice.

So, I phoned Dr Vahed, and then he said I must take the old man down to him, because I wanted him to come to the township because I could see that a lot of people are being shot. By the time I came back, I found the old man dead.’

We live in an environment, where reminders of black dignity and resilience compete for space in a world whose forms of material and cultural alienation, insist that we become active agents in our oppression, albeit in subtle forms. We are reminded of those who lost their lives, their memory a constant reminder of the unresolved questions of yesteryear and today. The massacre in Queenstown, and even others that followed in the stormy 1990s, and in Marikana in 2012 are a consistent reminder, that the grievances of the people can never be resolved through force against an unarmed but militant people. The people will always remind you that, “Your Bullets Will Not Stop Us”. DM


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