New Books | To Swim With Crocodiles

Historian Jill E Kelly documents the last months of Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo’s life, and the half-hearted investigation into his assassination by the security branch in 1991.

On 25 February 1991, Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo, the inkosi of the Maphumulo people at Table Mountain in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, was shot dead as he pulled into the driveway of his Pietermaritzburg home.

As the first president of the new Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa), an organisation of traditional leaders against apartheid and an affiliate of the United Democratic Front (UDF), he sought to end the civil war and secure a place for traditional authority in post-apartheid South Africa.

Questions about who belonged to the Maphumulo chiefdom swelled around the inkosi and his new followers. His opponents allied themselves with Inkatha and the Inkatha-allied Nyavu chiefdom and brought the war with the ANC to Table Mountain, in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, in 1990. The next year, Maphumulo was assassinated.

This is an edited excerpt from Jill E Kelly’s To Swim with Crocodiles: Land Violence and Belonging in South Africa, 1800-1996 (Michigan State University Press, 2018) and forthcoming in South Africa from the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press.

Towards the end

1990 was a dangerous year for Maphumulo. On 10 June, an ambush on his car killed brothers Alson and Nelson Kunene and injured Edendale businessman and UDF supporter Deda Hlophe. The attempt on his life only failed because he caught a taxi when the car failed to arrive on time. Maphumulo alleged the KwaZulu government ordered his assassination and sent an Mpumalanga-based hit squad, including Caprivians Daluxolo Luthuli and Sbu Bhengu, to complete the mission. In Durban in July, police chased Maphumulo and his Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) bodyguard before detaining them. In August, Contralesa suspended Maphumulo from the presidency despite the protests of its representatives from the Natal region. After a community/Inkatha meeting at the end of October, new attacks were launched on the chief and his family. By the end of November, conflict had returned to Table Mountain in full force.

As the violence escalated in the region, Maphumulo’s words turned from peace to arms and self-defence. Certainly, his firsthand experience of the government’s unwillingness to enforce law and order and the police/kitkonstabel attacks on his followers influenced this strategic shift. Maphumulo’s travels with Contralesa served to promote peace and bolster the organisation, but it is likely the chief was also working to provide security. Shortly after the first outbreak of violence, rumours began to circulate that he had fled, seeking asylum in the Transkei. Maphumulo later condemned the rumours. “There is simply no way I would abandon my people now as they need me. Under no circumstances would I go to Transkei. This is my home and it is here I intend to die if I have to.”

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Maphumulo had travelled to the Transkei on Saturday, 3 February 1991, allegedly on Contralesa business. But it is also likely that he used this trip to activate some of the Transkei connections he established while in Lusaka. When asked by a reporter what would happen if the attacking Nyavu did not vacate his land, Maphumulo responded: “I need not spell it out to them. I mean the writing is on the wall.”

On Monday, 5 February, he made an impassioned plea for peace in Natal at a press conference in Johannesburg. But he acknowledged that it was becoming increasingly difficult to continue with peace proposals. His relationship with ANC and SACP regional leader Harry Gwala, who had a reputation as a militant and uncompromising cadre and with whom he planned the launch of the Table Mountain ANC branch, also may have bolstered the chief’s militarism. The two often shared platforms at rallies and press conferences and expressed skepticism at continued peace talks. “The only realistic, meaningful and long-term solution to this problem is to arm the people in self-defence,” Maphumulo told the ANC on one of his Contralesa trips to London.

Arms on the move

Indeed, arms did begin to move in and out of Maphumulo’s territory. Interviewees affiliated with Maphumulo and the ANC at Table Mountain were firm they had little assistance in obtaining weapons and they would pool funds to acquire guns legally – as the ANC suggested self-defence units should – but only handguns were available legally and licences for these were often refused. While it is likely community members took up collections to purchase weapons for defence, as they did elsewhere, there is evidence that suggests the presence of arms in Mbambangalo in a quantity that goes well beyond individual ownership or communal defence.

Historian Thula Simpson identified systematic smuggling of arms into Natal from Maputo and at least one foiled attempt to bring them in from the Transkei. Midlands Crisis Relief Committee volunteer Tim Houghton recalled unknowingly transporting an ammunition cache out of Mbambangalo in June 1990, when he gave a ride to a group of comrades staying near the chief’s court to a meeting in Edendale. A South African Defence Force (SADF) roadblock stopped Houghton and the comrades on their way down the windy road from Maqongqo to search their car.

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“For 15 minutes,” said Houghton, “I watched flabbergasted as the beautiful but ruthlessly efficient hound unearthed over 2 000 rounds of assorted ammunition from behind the seats and under the carpets. At the end of it, I just stood there, staring at the gleaming pile of brass in utter amazement. While I had been running around with Thami, rounding up the rest of our passengers, others in the camp must have stashed the ammo in the car … There had obviously been more to this mission all along than getting the comrades to a meeting.”

Other evidence also suggests the circulation of weapons among ANC affiliates. One of the Natal Midlands-area ANC/MK underground units, commanded by Dumezweni Zimu and composed of Nhlanhla Nicholas Ngcobo, Fisokwakhe Michael Dlamini, Robert Msizeni Madlala and Musa Gwala, clandestinely provided assistance to areas under siege. Gwala was arrested for his work in the Table Mountain and KwaSwayimane region from 1990. Albert Sbangeliso Maseko, an ANC supporter and TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) amnesty applicant from KwaSwayimane, testified in 1999 that he received weapons from a “Baba Madlala” in Maqongqo. It is unclear whether this is a reference to Maphumulo’s deputy, Albert Madlala, or to Robert Msizeni Madlala of the ANC/MK unit. There is no evidence to corroborate, but one confidential source wondered whether Maphumulo promoted his area as a peaceful, neutral zone in order to provide cover for the presence of these underground operatives and their arms caches.

Violence at the mountain

By the end of November 1990, conflict had returned to Table Mountain in full force. Attacks were again directed at the chief’s homestead after the ANC announced it would launch a Table Mountain branch on 16 December at the court. Maphumulo cautioned that anyone who wanted to join must do so voluntarily and emphasised that those scared should remain at home. Inkatha expressed serious reservations on account of the existing tensions, and Maphumulo threatened legal action against Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi after local Inkatha leader Mshoki Gcabashe allegedly led a group of KwaZulu Police (KZP) into Maphumulo’s home, where the men confiscated licensed weapons and captured 14 people who had been staying at the chief’s home. Deaths, injuries, burning homes and allegations of police and military partisanship saw in the new year in Mbambangalo. Both Maphumulo and the Inkatha in Maqongqo organised separate meetings to discuss the ongoing violence.

On 25 February 1991, a hit squad including Caprivian Phumlani Mshengu and the KZP assassinated Maphumulo as he pulled into the driveway of his rented home in Pietermaritzburg. Like many of his people who fled to refugee camps and other safe havens, he found that life in the shadow of Table Mountain had become simply too dangerous. He and his family moved into a house at 95 Havelock Road in a grey area of the city, where he was closer to his subjects in refugee camps at Mason’s Mill and Cosatu house.

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On the night of his death, he was returning home after a parent meeting at Clarendon Primary School – where one of his children became one of the first African pupils to attend in early 1991. He usually drove with a bodyguard due to previous attempts on his life, but that evening he was alone, an irregularity that led some to suspect bodyguard Jabulani Dennis Hudla was a police informant. One man who often guarded the chief and wished to remain anonymous remembered: “He was with Jabulani and Dumisani [his MK bodyguard]. I was not with them because I started working at the time. Dumisani suggested sleeping at Havelock but Jabulani said they must go and then the chief was left alone.”

His assassination so soon after a 29 January 1991 ceasefire agreement between the ANC and Inkatha at the Royal Hotel in Durban sparked fears that the nascent peace talks would halt. The Jwili chief in Dundee, Mzomdanza Mpungose, was killed the same day. Contralesa’s Natal publicity secretary Siphiwe Thusi expressed little surprise at Maphumulo’s death and said numerous chiefs were aware their names were on a hit list.

Struggle hero

In the wake of Maphumulo’s assassination, the ANC embraced the chief as a struggle hero and organised a mass political funeral. The chief’s memorial service and funeral embodied what sociologist Belinda Bozzoli describes as the “political theatre” of the end of apartheid. These ceremonial rituals became the arena for the formation of African identities and sites of mobilisation in the struggle against oppression. Two thousand sympathisers gathered at a 7 March memorial service at Edendale’s Lay Ecumenical Centre with representatives from the ANC, Contralesa and Cosatu. On 10 March, thousands attended the funeral at Wadley stadium.

ANC Youth League President Peter Mokaba called upon the youth to take up the chief’s spear and join MK. The SACP’s Blade Nzimande declared, “Maphumulo laid down his life so as to attain the aims of the Freedom Charter. Those of us who continue to live must fight on with his spear until the objectives of the Freedom Charter are realised.” From the mass funeral, a cavalcade of cars and buses travelled to Maqongqo to bury the late chief. Family members and mourners found a crowd of Inkatha supporters awaiting them at the bottle store near the route to the shell of Maphumulo’s homestead. Happiness Memela recalled that Jacob Zuma, Chris Hani and Tokyo Sexwale were there, and that during the salute of the late chief, Hani leapt upon the grave.

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The ANC also pushed for a high-profile inquiry into the assassination after Sipho Madlala confessed to being a member of the hit squad that murdered him. Just days after his death, a man claiming to be a state intelligence agent with information about the chief’s death phoned the Natal Witness Echo. Two months later, in late April 1991, Madlala walked into the paper’s office and confessed to the murder. Madlala claimed he had operated as part of a five-man team acting on the orders of the security branch of the SAP and SADF Military Police based at Natal Command. Witness reporter Lakela Kaunda, who had earlier travelled to Lusaka with Maphumulo, sat down with Madlala for an interview in which he detailed the events leading up to the assassination. Madlala’s claims sparked a high-profile investigation, or, more accurately, a state cover-up of counter-revolutionary activities at the highest levels.

Individuals with reputations for obfuscation oversaw the investigation. The SAP Commissioner General Johan van der Merwe announced a special team headed by Major General Ronnie van der Westhuizen, also known as “General Fix It”. Many in the ANC, opposition Democratic Party and the press expressed disbelief that a police investigation would carry the weight of a judicial enquiry. Indeed, Van der Westhuizen announced he had completed the investigation only days after arriving in Natal and without speaking with Madlala.

Police began to discredit Madlala, labelling him an unreliable police informer, and on 30 April announced Van der Westhuizen’s investigations had revealed no evidence to substantiate Madlala’s claims. But evidence for such collusion mounted throughout mid-1991 with regular revelations of such cooperation in the press. In the midst of these exposés, the province set up a formal inquest to investigate Maphumulo’s assassination. The inquest was riddled with inconsistencies and it quickly became clear the state was defending itself. In the end, the judge found that “persons unknown” murdered the chief.

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