On the morning of 26 August, Nkosi Thulani Mjanyelwa, 53, the headman of Dindini, a village set among the undulant green hills between Bizana and the Mtamvuna River in eastern Mpondoland, was brutally killed by an armed mob outside his home.
Police and members of the community have confirmed that Mjanyelwa attempted to flee before he was hacked down in front of his wife and two young children, and then set alight.
The police say that they are investigating a link between Mjanyelwa and the killing of two teenage boys several weeks earlier. They suggest community members held the headman responsible for the deaths and took the law into their own hands.
Some community members are adamant, however, that the headman’s murder has less to do with vigilante justice and more to do with a deep gash about the size and shape of a small football field that punctures one of the lush hills south of Dindini. Piles of stone, refined down to gravel ready for use in road maintenance and construction, lie alongside the quarry.
When he addressed the community at a meeting a week before he was murdered, Mjanyelwa vowed that the South African National Roads Agency would not be allowed to use stone from the quarry for the ongoing N2 Wild Coast toll road project, the greenfields section of which will run from nearby Port Edward to Port St Johns.
This is according to Ntsikelelo Mathumba, 38, chairperson of the local Abahlali baseMjondolo branch, who, with Nosiseko Mazonyolo, 27, and Wisdom Mndityata, 21, has been forced into hiding 200km northeast in Durban in the wake of the headman’s death.
Both Mazonyolo and Mndityata say threats were made on their lives before and after Mjanyelwa was killed as a result of their vocal stances on communal land rights – an issue the headman championed.
Speaking to New Frame from the safety of a creche in one of the many shack settlements nestled among Durban’s valleys, Mathumba says Mjanyelwa was in possession of evidence that the head of the Imizizi Traditional Council, Chief Jongamampondo Mditshwa, had signed the stone quarry over to contractors involved in the construction of the N2 without consulting the community. Chief Mditshwa did not return numerous telephone calls from New Frame.
Mathumba says the stone quarry is not the only example of the Imizizi community having been misled on questions of land.
New Frame spoke to seven women – among them Zanyiwe Mzize, 88, and Ntombizodwa Sobhoyisi, 72 – who are in possession of receipts from the council of amounts up to R150. Some say their payments to the council total R1 500, and were made in anticipation of legal assistance they say Mditshwa promised them for reparations for the relocation of their family homesteads during apartheid.
Their families were among those forced from their homes in the Imizizi area during the latter stages of apartheid’s “betterment” and “stabilisation” schemes. Cattle being kept in the former homelands were widely culled during these schemes, while communities were displaced to open land for grazing in response to the inevitable soil erosion and land degradation that resulted from consigning the country’s black majority to first 7%, and later 13%, of the land.
Mzize and Sobhoyisi say that the traditional council denies having received their payments and that nothing has come of the promises of legal assistance.
A question of fealty
Disputes over the rightful claim to be king or queen of the amaMpondo aseQaukeni have driven deep divisions into the fabric of the amaMpondo nation in recent decades.
In a majority judgment handed down on Tuesday morning by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, the Constitutional Court upheld a 2008 recommendation by the Nhlapo Commission on Traditional Disputes and Claims that Zanozuko Sigcau – who installed Mditshwa as chief – be made king of the amaMpondo aseQaukeni.
The judgment is likely to revive a pending legal challenge of the Nhlapo Commission’s findings on the basis that Wezizwe Feziwe Sigcau – the daughter of the previous paramount, Chief Mpondombini Justice Sigcau – is the rightful heir.
Before he was killed, Mjanyelwa occupied a prominent position in the amaMpondo aseQaukeni’s disputed traditional leadership structures. As well as sitting on Wezizwe Feziwe Sigcau’s council, he acted as the coordinator of the other headmen in the Imizizi region.
Ornate walking sticks, knobkerries and strings of beads adorn the walls of the single-room hut of one of these headmen, Zifunele Mditshwa, 59, in the nearby village of B16. Mditshwa says in a resonant voice that he is awaiting the same fate as Mjanyelwa.
He says that, like his late mentor, whom he describes as somebody who always chose his words carefully, he is willing to die to protect his community’s rights to their land. “The land is our community’s legacy,” he says, “not something for sale.”
Mditshwa says the struggle taken up by Mjanyelwa, and others like him, has its roots in the Mpondo revolts of the 1960s, in which his uncles took up arms against the very “betterment schemes” that drove Mzize and Sobhoyisi’s families from their homes.
Like then, he says, the struggle to retain community power to make decisions over land is being waged against chiefs and headmen in the government’s pocket. “My grandfathers were approached by boers with a sack of soil and a sack of money. They chose the soil. I am happy to be making the same choice,” he says.
Mditshwa says there are also contemporary aspects to the struggle for communal land rights. The livelihoods offered by the emerald dales and ridges that stretch around his home have become more important than ever now that jobs on the platinum and gold mines have become scarce.
Mjanyelwa’s funeral was initially scheduled for 9 September, but has been delayed until 15 September because, according to relative Mtamo Fezeka, 36, the family is living in fear. Some community members have apparently told the family that if the funeral goes ahead before the six people arrested for Mjanyelwa’s murder are released, his grave will be dug up.