Nkosi Thulani Mjanyelwa – a champion of communal land rights in eastern Mpondoland – was buried at his homestead in Dindini, a village to the east of Bizana, on Saturday.
Hardly any of the guests under the large, dirty-white marquee tent set up for the occasion were from the surrounding area, where Mjanyelwa was the headman.
The absence of community attendance at a headman’s funeral is highly unusual, and was among the reasons that almost every speaker on the day commented that this was “not a normal” burial.
“We should be smelling horses,” said one high-ranking municipal official – a reference to the time-honoured practice of community members and representatives of the house of traditional leaders arriving at a headman’s funeral on horseback.
The handful of Mjanyelwa’s fellow headmen who were in attendance followed the precepts of caution instead of custom. After having played a central role in ensuring Mjanyelwa would be buried at his homestead, the headmen were escorted to and from the funeral by police for protection against those in the surrounding community who were staunchly against Mjanyelwa being buried at his home.
Many in attendance claimed the section of the community who supported the men who murdered Mjanyelwa had threatened violence against anybody who attended the headman’s funeral. The municipal official confirmed that some community members had approached the municipality in the morning in an attempt to block Mjanyelwa’s family retrieving his body.
In another departure from custom, no food was prepared at Mjanyelwa’s homestead for the mourners. Instead, a few pots of samp, stew and salads were ferried in from a youth centre in Bizana, while dignitaries left the funeral after the ceremony to eat elsewhere.
Three weeks earlier, Mjanyelwa was pursued by an armed mob as he fled from his home, past the graves of his father and grandfather in the eastern corner of the yard and into a small wattle thicket that hugs the field of young macadamia nut saplings on the slope running down from his front door.
The mob cut Mjanyelwa’s flight short before he reached the end of the macadamia field – an uncommon crop in the region, which the headman had planted in the hope it would bear profit in years to come.
All that now remains of the patch of grass where Mjanyelwa was hacked down and killed by blows from blunt objects to his forehead and the back of his skull are a handful of bricks and rocks, and the charred ends of the wood piled on to his dead body before it was set alight.
On the morning of his funeral, family members approached the spot with a small branch of umlahlankosi , a plant used to guide the spirit from the place of death back to their body before it is buried, lest it be left to wander.
Mjanyelwa’s first-born son, Mnqobi Mjanyelwa, 20, showed New Frame where the mob proceeded to burn his father’s possessions and all of his furniture shortly after they killed him.
Not much survived the ransacking and vandalisation of Mjanyelwa’s home. But scattered among the broken glass and debris are various minutes and strategic planning documents of the executive committee of the Mbizana municipality. The crumpled bundles, which outline decisions as varied as human relations policies, budget allocations and municipal boundaries, are a morbid reminder of how actively the headman had participated in the development of the area.
Police have suggested that Mjanyelwa was murdered for his alleged connection to the killing of two teenagers a few weeks earlier.
But Chief Mwelo Nonkonyana, chairperson of both the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders and the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa in the province, said the allegations about the killings are only a “smokescreen” for the true motivations behind Mjanyelwa’s murder. Nonkonyana claims the murder should instead be traced back to a longstanding conflict between Mjanyelwa and Chief Jongamampondo Mditshwa.
But whereas Nonkonyana says this dispute arose when Mjanyelwa refused to serve under Mditshwa, numerous community land rights activists in the region have told New Frame it has more to do with disagreements over land and development.
Ntsikelelo Mathumba, 38, chairperson of the local Abahlali baseMjondolo branch, claimed Mjanyelwa was in possession of evidence that Mditshwa had made various decisions about communal land without the community’s consent, including signing over a stone quarry to contractors involved in the construction of the N2 Wild Coast toll road.
A bodyguard of one of the traditional leaders attending the funeral, who referred to himself as “the keeper of the king” but chose to remain unnamed, spoke to New Frame from the window of a white sedan parked a short distance from the marquee tent.
With alcohol on his breath, the bodyguard said Mjanyelwa “was always going to be killed, it just was not meant to be like this”. In between claims that there were “many guns” stashed in the sedan, and that “political killings are easy”, he said Mjanyelwa’s murder was a result of the headman coming “from somewhere else”. The headman was raised at his mother’s homestead, a short distance from Dindini.
Thirteen men have been arrested and charged with Mjanyelwa’s murder and will appear for a bail hearing today in the Bizana magistrates’ court.