A little before 7am on 10 November 1993 on the outskirts of the sultry KwaZulu-Natal border town of Manguzi, Clare Stewart, a 34-year-old rural development worker, prepared to leave her modest, thatched homestead to attend a meeting with local Department of Agriculture officials.
She drew a bucket of water from a well at the bottom of the grassy bank in front of her stoep and washed herself in an old zinc basin. Then she put on a loose khaki blouse, a floral-print dress and plastic sandals, and perfunctorily tidied her tousled brown hair, which framed kind hazel eyes and an assertive jaw.
With her eight-year-old son, Themba, away at boarding school in Howick, Stewart was living alone in this far-removed rural outpost with her 18-month-old daughter, Puleng, which means “blessing of rain” in Sesotho. Puleng had been born towards the end of the previous year’s drought, when the well had nearly run dry and Stewart had caught typhoid as a result.
At around 7.15am, Stewart left Puleng in the care of her domestic worker, Busisiwe Mngomezulu, then climbed into a white Toyota bakkie and set off down the rutted dirt road that snaked away from the homestead towards town.
A moment later, Mngomezulu heard the vehicle come to a stop and a sharp blast of its hooter, which she initially took to mean that Stewart had forgotten something and was trying to get her attention.
But before she could venture outside to check, she heard the car moving off again and, assuming that it had been a false alarm, continued with her work.
A precarious position
Stewart had moved to Manguzi about four years previously with the aim of setting up a cattle cooperative and breeding a strong Nguni stud herd to reinvigorate impoverished local cattle populations and to enable local farmers to control the lucrative sale of bulls. Nguni cattle had recently been registered as a distinct breed.
Although Stewart was at pains to keep politics out of the cooperative – where, against the odds, she had brought together members from across the fraught political spectrum – she was herself an active ANC member. She had been recruited by Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) commander Ronnie Kasrils in Zimbabwe in 1987 and given a camera to carry out reconnaissance work, which she allegedly continued when she moved to Manguzi.
As political violence between the ANC and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) – the latter often backed by the state security apparatus and white right-wing groups – escalated across the province, ultimately leaving more than 4 000 dead, Stewart’s family worried that she was in an increasingly precarious position.
Stewart was certainly not oblivious to the potential risks: she had spent almost two years living and working with Neil and Creina Alcock at their agricultural project in Msinga in the late 1970s. As famously and rather luridly recounted in Rian Malan’s book, My Traitor’s Heart, Neil Alcock was later killed returning from a peace meeting between warring local factions in 1983.
Stewart had also been friends with the anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist David Webster, who was assassinated in Johannesburg in 1989, allegedly for uncovering evidence of the involvement of apartheid state structures in illegal ivory and rhino horn trade not far from Manguzi.
Most recently, in mid-1993, Puleng’s father, Sipho Cele, a charismatic trade unionist and ANC activist, had been abducted and tortured by the security police. The injuries they inflicted were severe enough that he was hospitalised for almost a month.
There were other friends and acquaintances, too. And although the vast majority of victims of KwaZulu-Natal’s political violence were black, the relative immunity that Stewart and other progressive whites might once have felt was no longer a given.
Although Stewart spoke good isiZulu and made an uncommonly determined effort to integrate, she inevitably became a somewhat conspicuous presence in the area. She had been the only white to attend the launch of the ANC’s branch in the town of Empangeni a little further down the coast. She also organised for an ANC-supporting black lawyer to defend members of an ANC youth group from the local high school who were accused of a “witch killing”. And she attracted attention, and a certain amount of ire, as a single mother of two mixed-race children.
At the behest of Gideon Zulu, a firebrand local IFP leader, some of the party’s members had recently withdrawn their cattle from Stewart’s cooperative in protest against her ANC allegiance.
With all of the above in mind, when Stewart and her older sister Rachel made an agreement that should anything happen to Stewart, Rachel would take care of her children, it was not a frivolous pact.
“It was real,” Rachel said recently. “We realised that it could really happen.”
About six hours after Stewart left home on 10 November, a dutiful traffic officer by the name of Frans Gunter had been called to the scene of a crash in Empangeni, which had become a particularly violent flashpoint in recent clashes between the IFP and the ANC.
Gunter quickly surmised that a young man driving a white Toyota bakkie without a licence had crashed into a postal vehicle at an intersection. The driver, who Gunter later described as “well-built with ‘kroes’ hair”, initially told him that the vehicle belonged to his father. But when Gunter pressed him further, the man fled, leaving the keys to the vehicle in the ignition.
Gunter began to meticulously inspect the car. When he slid the front seats forward, he found an AK-47, a magazine with 12 rounds and two spent cartridges hidden behind them. There was also a jersey, a black bag full of dog-eared school textbooks and a cigarette butt in the front.
Gunter was joined at the scene by another local officer named Christiaan Nel, who then drove the abandoned vehicle to the Empangeni central police station, where he noted down the registration number and opened a case file.
According to the subsequent South African Police (SAP) investigation diary, by the end of the following day, police had discovered that the car belonged to an Nguni cattle project in Manguzi and had been routinely driven by “a Clare Veronica Stewart”. After initial questioning, “it was found that Ms Stewart was due to meet with two members of the Department of Agriculture in Manguzi”, but had not turned up for the meeting.
“So far, there has been no information in regards to her movements,” the day’s diary entry went on, before proffering a chilling conclusion: “It is assumed that she has been murdered.”
To make our own way
Most of Stewart’s formative years were characterised by flux and dislocation. Although she was born in Johannesburg’s now-defunct Marymount hospital on 2 October 1959 and always considered herself South African, by the time she had reached adulthood, she had also lived or attended school in Lesotho, Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Her parents, Jimmy and Joan, whose radical Catholic faith was firmly underpinned by principles of social justice, were staunchly against the National Party government and were adamant they would not raise their children in apartheid South Africa. They chose instead, as Stewart’s aunt Anne Hope later wrote in an unpublished biography of Stewart, to “take on together a life of voluntary poverty”, albeit relative, in self-imposed exile.
Stewart inherited her parents’ social engagement from a young age. While still in her teens, she worked in a multiple sclerosis centre in Wales. In England, she looked after the aged at a care home and volunteered for Meals on Wheels. In New York, she joined the Catholic Worker, a radical activist newspaper.
Both Stewart and her four siblings also mostly attended predominantly black schools, which Rachel believes was “a bit of social engineering” on the part of her parents, but also a “reasoned political and social position”.
Stewart’s unusual upbringing continued to inform her decisions when she returned to South Africa in the late 1970s. While working on a sugar cane farm in the small KwaZulu-Natal town of Melmoth in 1981, she refused the invitation of the white farm owner, a family friend, to stay in the main farmhouse. She chose instead to lodge in the same basic cottages as the black farmworkers and insisted on receiving the same meagre pay.
During her time in Melmoth, Stewart was also arrested for distributing ANC literature and spent a short stint in the local jail.
“The way Clare had lived growing up, she just carried on living like that in South Africa in the 80s, which was quite remarkable at that time,” Rachel said. “Her life was consistent with her beliefs, which many do not achieve. She was very determined.”
But by the same token, Stewart was prone to bouts of depression and frequently burdened by crippling self-doubt and diffidence. “She was a remarkable person, but she didn’t feel remarkable,” Rachel said.
Stewart and her siblings also experienced their share of tragedy. On 11 July 1984, their parents were driving home from Lesotho’s Roma valley, where Jimmy had been giving a lecture at the local university, when a drunk Tanzanian professor crashed into their car. Joan and the professor were both killed instantly. Jimmy died three days later in hospital.
“Too early, we all had to make our own way without parental support,” said Rachel.
Just three weeks before the accident, Stewart had told her parents that she was pregnant with Themba. Her relationship with the father, a handsome Zimbabwean called Mostead Venge, had ended a couple of weeks before that, after his family had allegedly convinced him that the cultural chasm was too great.
After Themba was born in 1985, Stewart worked at an agricultural research station in the Matopos in Zimbabwe before returning to South Africa again in 1987 to take up a position as an agricultural assistant managing the dairy herd of a worker-managed cooperative farm in Bethlehem in the Free State.
But as she travelled around some of the province’s backwater towns with a young Themba, the flagrant racism the two of them encountered began to take a toll. So when a fellow rural development worker called Steve Hulbert invited Stewart to come to Manguzi to help set up the Nguni cattle project, she jumped at the opportunity.
According to Mandla Ntuli, who as a bright teenager had worked as driver and fixer for Stewart and is now a successful lawyer in Durban, Stewart quickly won over most of the locals in Manguzi, helped by her fairly adept command of the language. “She tried as much as possible to be part of the community,” he said.
“In terms of the ANC thing, she was not a revolutionary activist; she was more of a quiet activist,” he added. “Her kind of activism was just to sit with people as if she was one of them, to treat everyone equally. She was very much loved by the people. She was an incredible person.”
After she moved to Manguzi, Stewart also reconnected with Cele, who she had first met through activist circles while living in Durban and working in a bookshop in 1980.
They started spending more time together after Stewart was severely assaulted at her homestead on New Year’s Eve in 1989. Cele, who was charming and jovial, offered Stewart “a little bit of relief”, Rachel said. Although he was married and had six children, he and Stewart soon began an on-off romantic relationship.
With Stewart still doing reconnaissance work for MK, Cele also served as a direct link to regional ANC structures. Some friends of Stewart’s said that she would pass him information about cross-border gunrunning from Mozambique and IFP training camps in northern Natal, which he would then pass up the ANC chain of command.
“Clare had a way of digging up information about all sorts of things, even if people didn’t want her to know, just through the way she would ask questions,” said Nora Seleka, who’d been sharing a flat with Stewart in Durban when Stewart was first introduced to Cele.
Seleka still had fond and vivid memories of her time living with Stewart. Among other things, she recalled that Stewart, who she described as “profoundly principled and rather stubborn”, had framed a beautiful hand painted leaf on the wall of the flat. It was inscribed with an excerpt from the gospel: “Unless a seed falls to the Earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit.”
As the road from Manguzi towards the border between South Africa and eSwatini nears the town of Ingwavuma, it begins to climb sharply into the rugged Lebombo mountains, offering expansive views of the undulating sandveld that stretches back towards the coast.
At around 9am on the morning of 24 November 1993, two weeks after Stewart went missing, in a valley below the road, 14-year-old Mbuso Mngomezulu, his 13-year-old brother Phiwayinkosi and a neighbour called Bongani Mofuleka left their family compound and set out in search of their father’s cattle.
As they neared a dense clump of bushes where the cattle often grazed just above the road, which cut into the rocky hillside, they came across a shallow ditch, presided over by a tall red aloe, and noticed a body lying face down with its wrists bound behind its back with a leather belt.
Terrified, the boys ran home, where the two brothers told their mother what they had seen. “Although they said the body was decomposed, my children suspected that it was a female, since they noticed a dress,” their mother, Ngodomane Mngomezulu, subsequently told local police.
After the body had been retrieved from the scene, an initial autopsy noted “fractures in facial bones, skull and cervical vertebra consistent with having been caused by a high velocity bullet”. The victim had been shot twice in the back of the head at close range.
The following day, after dental records had confirmed the identity of the deceased, a curt closing entry was added to Stewart’s SAP investigation diary: “Body is found.”
Reporting for this story was supported by a Taco Kuiper grant from the Wits Journalism program.