It was during the Soweto unrests of the 1980s that I ended up in the small Mpumalanga town of Piet Retief. I was a child, not even in my teens, when I landed in Thandukukhanya township. It was a desolate place that had been cast out of the main economic activity of what was then Eastern Transvaal. A location of subservient people, I observed.
Urban areas were up in flames with anti-apartheid protests as part of the Struggle call to “make South Africa ungovernable”. Inasmuch as I did not understand the politics of the era, I knew of family members who were sentenced to Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. Some of my cousins would escape Soweto to join us in Piet Retief as a means of running away from the notorious Special Branch that was hunting activists.
Piet Retief seemed like an ideal place to send your kids to since schooling was never disrupted and the acquiescent nature of the people in the township never raised eyebrows about runaway activists “in hiding” simply because people from urban areas were seen as flocking in for schooling.
Looking back, life in that part of town was no different from the apartheid homeland states — Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei (known as the TBVC states).
As a child oblivious to the monster called apartheid, it was in Piet Retief that I got a first-hand experience of understanding that blacks were non-beings. It was towards the late eighties and some shops there still had separate queues for blacks and whites. I still have a vivid memory of how one black woman pulled me by the collar while standing in a queue with whites, dragging me towards the queue for black people. I also recall how one shop owner refused to sell me white bread and instead shoved brown bread towards me. I recall how I was made to put the money on the counter rather than give it to the white cashier in the hand. All of this was odd to me.
It was after my two-year stay in the Highveld town and being in Soweto and starting to be politically conscious that I understood that in Piet Retief I was a k****r, an unwanted non-being.
In my high school years, I took a keen interest in reading about anti-apartheid operatives and their activities. This newfound hobby revealed a dark side of Piet Retief that made me understand the town and what made the people in the township docile.
The town, with its proximity to Swaziland where most liberation fighters would skip South Africa and seek refuge or use as a base for operations, was in fact some sort of a station or fort for the notorious Security Branch to execute underground operatives.
Throughout my years of reading and researching about underground Struggle operatives, I lived in a township just outside of a town where mass killings and torture of black people were taking place.
In 1985, while I was still a young kid who refused to buy white bread in a white-owned shop in Piet Retief, notorious hit squad member Eugene de Kock had kidnapped and murdered Japie Maponya, a security guard.
In the same year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) records that Jameson Ngoloyi Mngomezulu was abducted from his home and taken to Piet Retief where he was assassinated by members of Vlakplaas and the Jozini Security Branch.
A year after I had left the place, Surendra Lenny Naidu, Lindiwe Mthembu, Makhosi Nyoka and Nontsikelelo Cothoza — all unarmed African National Congress (ANC) members — were shot dead when their car was ambushed at Piet Retief in 1988.
Barely weeks after the brutal murder of the four, Jabulani Sibisi, Joseph Mthembu, Sifiso Nxumalo, Nkosinathi Thenjekwayo, all ANC, were shot dead in an ambush just outside the town.
Chapter seven of the TRC report, titled, Political Violence in the Era of Negotiations and Transition, 1990-1994, records that in 1993, “ANC chairperson in Pongola, Michael Mcetywa was killed by local IFP member Emmanuel Mavuso (who) was subsequently convicted of the murder, but evaded custody while out on bail. A co-conspirator, Mdu Msibi, alleged that Mcetywa’s killing had been planned by both IFP leadership and the Piet Retief Security Branch.”
I could go on and cite a lot of anti-apartheid activists’ killings in Piet Retief; South African history records are littered with the evils of the town.
This brings me to the subject of the alleged killing of two “protesters” (other reports say they were evicted farm workers and others say they were job seekers) by farmers in the town just last week. On Monday 12 April 2021, the incident saw the town’s Central Business District being brought to a standstill as the accused appeared in court and the locals (read blacks) protested in the vicinity of the courthouse.
The incident took me back to my years residing in this remote town and how I came to learn about the gruesome acts committed by the Security Branch using the farms surrounding it. I realised how Piet Retief is living in the shadow of its former self of being the home of black torture and murder. It was easy back then. The town is on the outskirts of South Africa towards Swaziland and just in the middle of nowhere. Any gruesome act cannot easily be detected. Maybe the mentality of the farmers who allegedly shot the two men was that of the Security Branch who knew that their activities would not be known to the world.
There will be excuses, of course, with the key narrative being that of the killing of farmers. Total balderdash. Piet Retief and those who own or inherited the Security Branch’s “death farms” still live in the shadow of a town that was a killing field for blacks.
In fact, if anyone dares to raise the farmer murders, I dare them to read the Human Rights Watch 2001 publication, Unequal Protection: The State Response to Violent Crime on South African Farms where it states that, “the most serious reports of abuse concerning commandos, both in number and type, came from southern Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu-Natal, in the triangle formed by Piet Retief, Vryheid, Volksrust, and their surrounding districts. This is an area where the majority of farm residents have historically been labour tenants and where reports of serious abuse by white farmers and police date back many years.”
Piet Retief has been some sort of ungazetted killing field for blacks dating back to the anti-apartheid era. It is as if the town made a declaration to be the spot to avenge the 6 February 1838 massacre by Dingane ka Senzangakhona of the colonial Voortrekker Piet Retief — whose name the town bears — and his followers.
No matter who the two were, for me, the alleged murder of Mngcini Coka and Zenzele Coka in Piet Retief last week shows nothing more than a town living in the shadow of being the epicentre of unwarranted deaths of black people.
Say what you may, but I will tell you this: I know Piet Retief, I have lived in Piet Retief, my first experience of racism as a child was in Piet Retief. DM