Part three | The killing of an unassuming activist

The final of a three-part series about the murder of Clare Stewart sees potential witnesses descend into silence and the next generation take on the mantle.

By all accounts, in the 27 years since Clare Stewart’s death, the once sleepy rural KwaZulu-Natal town of Manguzi had changed significantly. Among other things, a raft of new supermarkets and fast food outlets had sprung up along the previously untarred main thoroughfare. In between, traders crowded the pavement, sitting next to voluminous piles of cheap clothes and handbags. 

Now replete with lodges and guesthouses, the area had also become a hub for tourists exploring the nearby beaches and nature reserves, or making a last stop before heading across the border into Mozambique, which had undergone its own tourism rebirth after the civil war. 

But pieces of Manguzi’s troubled past remained, albeit in a sometimes slightly different form. The area was still a hotspot for cross-border crime and trafficking syndicates, while the police and municipality were routinely under-resourced and beset by corruption and factionalism.

I’d come to Manguzi in an attempt to find former colleagues of Stewart’s from the Nguni cattle project she’d managed here. I also hoped to track down various witnesses and suspects in her murder who seemed to have fallen off the radar in the intervening years.

The first name on my list was Khotiza Ngubane, a well-known traditional healer who had previously been the chairperson of the cattle cooperative, but who some locals had suspected of having Stewart killed to consolidate his power, a claim he strongly denied.

25 November 2018: Khotiza Ngubane, the former chairperson of the cattle cooperative Clare Stewart helped set up, on the road near to where Stewart was abducted in 1993.
25 November 2018: Khotiza Ngubane, the former chairperson of the cattle cooperative Clare Stewart helped set up, on the road near to where Stewart was abducted in 1993. 

Ngubane lived in a vast but perennially half-built concrete compound surrounded by fruit trees on the outskirts of town. When I arrived, I found his wife, Doreen, slouched on a plastic chair on the stoep at the back of the house. When I told her that I was looking to speak to her husband about Clare Stewart, she began to cry.

“It has been so many years since I heard someone say that name,” she told me, then raised her hands towards the sky and thanked God in isiZulu.

For months after Stewart’s death, Doreen said that she had frequently tried to call the Empangeni police station for updates on the case, until one day a Zulu officer told her to stop if she valued her life. 

When Ngubane appeared from somewhere in the dark recesses of his home to greet me, he also wiped away a tear that had begun to form in the corner of his eye at the mention of Stewart’s name. He pointed at a lemon tree Stewart had planted in his garden shortly before she died. Its branches hung heavy with vibrant, yellow fruit. 

“We were so lucky to have Clare,” he told me. “She was wonderful. I am proud of what we tried to achieve together.” 

Part one:

Ngubane told me that the cattle project had collapsed soon after Stewart’s death. “There were no funds,” he said matter-of-factly, while the fragile trust between opposing political affiliations within the cooperative had also been promptly undone by allegations that certain Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leaders had a hand in Stewart’s murder.

Ngubane volunteered to take me to see Stewart’s old homestead, which was perched on a verdant hillside just a short drive away. Most of the property appeared to have either been torn down or burnt, while the dense surrounding vegetation had largely reclaimed the few remaining foundations. 

When we walked back down the hill to my rental car, Ngubane plucked a ripe granadilla from a vine by the side of the road before climbing into the passenger’s seat. “The earth here is rich. It has so much potential,” he said as he turned the granadilla over in his hand. “Clare understood that.”

25 November 2018: Clare Stewart’s former homestead on the outskirts of Manguzi now lies in ruins.
25 November 2018: Clare Stewart’s former homestead on the outskirts of Manguzi now lies in ruins. 

People don’t talk

After dropping Ngubane off at his home, I headed back into town to meet with Mcabango Mthiyane, an ANC stalwart and former regional Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) leader with a greying beard, who still worked at the local municipality.

When I read out my list of possible suspects in Stewart’s murder, Mthiyane told me that most of them had moved on soon after the 1994 elections. “They took an early pension or retirement package,” he said, “and then they disappeared.” 

But even in their wake, Mthiyane said that a culture of fear and silence had persisted around the area’s history of political violence. “Most people don’t ever talk about the past,” he said. “I don’t think the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] did their work properly. There’s still a lot of information hidden under the carpet here, and a lot of people are still afraid.”

The Khulumani Support Group, founded to assist those testifying before the TRC, estimated that around 11 000 of the almost 22 000 human rights abuse victims that the TRC identified were from KwaZulu-Natal. But according to Musa Ndlovu, who works for Khulumani in KwaZulu-Natal, “many of these victims were never incorporated into the TRC process”.

Ndlovu said the same was true for a number of the central protagonists of the violence, some of whom went on to become important post-apartheid state figures.

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Many of the firearms used in violence between the IFP and the ANC, which often passed through the porous Mozambican border, were also not accounted for during the post-apartheid disarmament and demilitarisation process that began in 1995.

This distinct lack of justice and accountability has provided fertile ground for the ongoing militarisation of politics in KwaZulu-Natal, although more contemporary iterations have largely been an intra-ANC phenomenon fuelled by the scramble for state resources and contracts. 

Since 1994, there have been more than 500 political assassinations in the province, accounting for more than 90% of political killings countrywide. 

“A lot of the violence we’re seeing now wouldn’t be so bad if things had been handled differently during the 1980s and early 1990s,” said Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, a researcher with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. “That’s where the barrel-of-the-gun approach stems from.”

25 November 2018: Khotiza Ngubane looks through the window of his home at the lemon tree Clare Stewart planted shortly before her death.
25 November 2018: Khotiza Ngubane looks through the window of his home at the lemon tree Clare Stewart planted shortly before her death.

Bygones should be bygones

The small town of Jozini was about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Manguzi, through a smattering of dilapidated rural towns, and perched on a rocky hillside overlooking the striking Pongolapoort Dam, a popular spot for tiger fishing. 

On the outskirts of town, a typically nondescript red-brick building served as the police station, where I’d come to enquire about former members of the notorious Jozini Special Branch. 

I was shown through to the office of an affable but rather bored-looking detective, who asked to remain anonymous but happily recounted how he had previously worked as an underpaid “garden boy” when the property was still being used by the apartheid security police. 

“I used to see a lot of fishy things around here in those days,” he told me. 

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The detective had gone on to work with a number of those same officers after apartheid ended, including Aubrey Mngadi, one of the key suspects in Stewart’s case. He pointed me in the direction of another former Special Branch officer, Lappies Labuschagne, who, uncommonly, was still in the area.

Labuschagne lives in a meticulously tidy house at the end of a precarious gravel road. Having left the police service in 1995 because of “medical issues”, Labuschagne went on to run a construction company that built RDP houses in the area. He’d recently retired as his health continued to deteriorate. 

Labuschagne claimed he had never received any intelligence on Stewart, though he admitted “checking out” other ANC members in the area. Seasoned investigator Gail Wannenburg’s TRC report suggested that a certain Sergeant Nel had been tasked with monitoring Stewart and had concluded that she should be eliminated for “mobilising the ANC”. 

“We were defending our country,” Labuschagne proffered by way of a defence for such actions, then added with a wry smile: “Now the enemy is our friend.”

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Labuschagne also told me that Mngadi, who he described as a “good, honest guy”, had died some years previously. I subsequently managed to track down his death certificate, which confirmed that he’d died of pneumonia in the Pietermaritzburg township of Imbali in 2004. 

“Most of my colleagues from those days have passed on,” Labuschagne said. 

He’d been cagey throughout our conversation but seemed reluctant for me to leave, following me out to my car. “You know, we had a much better South Africa in the old days than what we have now,” he said, fixing me with a grave stare. “But bygones should be bygones. These old stories should be left alone. It’s finished. Let’s move on.”

A reckoning

According to her friends and family, Stewart’s passionate and consistent political application was matched by her unwavering commitment to her children. Her sister, Rachel, told me that not long before her disappearance, Stewart had been looking into leaving Manguzi and moving to Cedara, an agricultural college near Pietermaritzburg, to be closer to Themba’s boarding school and to give both of her children “a better life”. 

But for a time during her teens, Stewart’s second child, Puleng, who by that stage had been formally adopted by Rachel and her wife Lis, felt that her birth mother had made a choice: activism over her children. 

“I found very little solace in that choice,” she told me at her home in late 2019. “I was the unchosen.” 

However, when Puleng, now a 27-year-old artist and filmmaker with deep brown eyes and a broad smile, had her own children, she began to feel a strong desire to better understand her mother, to “demythologise” her and in doing so better understand herself. Then she could give her own children what she felt she had lacked.

Puleng’s personal reckoning coincides with a national one. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) has belatedly begun revisiting 15 of the 300 apartheid-era cases that the TRC recommended for further investigation and possible prosecution.

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“For the victims’ families, this history has been like a malignant tumour on their everyday lives,” said Garth Stevens, deputy dean of the humanities faculty at Wits University and a primary researcher on the Apartheid Archives research project. 

“At the same time, the promises and fantasy of a new, inclusive South Africa have simply not been borne out for the majority, so these cases have become a proxy theatre of engagement.”

Adding insult to injury, many families have claimed that the NPA routinely rebuffed requests for more information or progress on cases. NPA officials have blamed political obstacles and alleged that the ANC obstructed their work, fearing party members could face indictment or be exposed as apartheid informants.

But for any such obfuscation, the recent momentum around high-profile cases such as those of Ahmed Timol, Nokuthula Simelane and Neil Aggett buoyed Puleng’s sense that some kind of justice for her mother’s murder might eventually be achieved.

25 November 2018: Clare Stewart’s daughter, Puleng, at home in Cape Town with a picture of her mother on the coffee table.
25 November 2018: Clare Stewart’s daughter, Puleng, at home in Cape Town with a picture of her mother on the coffee table. 

“I always thought that at some point I was going to be able to sit in front of someone and have an acknowledgement,” said Puleng. “I do still think that’s going to be part of what I do. The more I know about it all, I realise it’s a part of what I need to do in my life.”

But Puleng was also aware that revisiting Stewart’s case could serve a broader social function at a time when the role of women within the struggle, as well as the role of white activists, is being reinterrogated. 

“We’re at a moment where it’s imperative to undermine the hegemonic narrative that we’re often given. To complicate the way that people view what history was and who it was made up of,” she said. “It’s important to keep injecting people into history that shake up the idea that it was simple.”

The trail goes cold

When I left KwaZulu-Natal, Labuschagne had promised me that he would chat to former colleagues who might know something about what had happened to Stewart. But after a few evasive replies to my follow-up messages, he started ignoring me. 

Similarly, calls and messages to an IFP member called Isaac Ntsele, who had allegedly withdrawn his cattle from the cooperative shortly before Stewart’s death, went unanswered. Gideon Zulu, the royal prince and IFP leader who’d ordered this boycott, as well as allegedly telling his followers that ANC members who came under the guise of development projects should be eliminated, had died in 2006. 

I didn’t have much better luck on the ANC side of things. Ronnie Kasrils, who’d recruited Stewart into MK, denied any recollection of her, although Rachel and a former-MK colleague specifically remembered Kasrils meeting with Stewart at her brother John’s house in Harare. According to his colleague, after that meeting, Kasrils said he would personally be Stewart’s handler.

Meanwhile, I was unable to trace the other alleged perpetrators from Wannenburg’s TRC report, including two more former security police officers with the surnames Nyawo and Van der Merwe. And a man from out of town who’d introduced himself to Manguzi residents as Hazel Buthelezi and inquired about where Stewart lived the night before her abduction, only to disappear immediately afterwards, had not resurfaced. 

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There are likely additional accomplices or conspirators, too. And as with most cases from the apartheid era, the window of opportunity to find them is getting smaller. Many of the perpetrators who are still alive are now in their 70s and 80s and often in ill health. The same applies to the ever-dwindling list of victims’ immediate family members. 

But for Puleng, it has become the responsibility of their descendants to take up the mantle. “Clare’s siblings tried at the hardest and most hurtful time to do it,” she said. “Now it’s up to us, her children.”

25 November 2018: Puleng inherited a colourful scarf that Clare Stewart used to wear. She has no memory of her mother, only stories that have been passed on to her.
25 November 2018: Puleng inherited a colourful scarf that Clare Stewart used to wear. She has no memory of her mother, only stories that have been passed on to her.


In August 2019, out of the blue, Puleng received a message on Facebook from somebody called Thembalethu Cele, who claimed to be the first-born son of Sipho Cele, and who had attended Stewart’s funeral with his father in 1993.

Puleng checked out Thembalethu’s Facebook profile and was immediately drawn to the cover photo, a dated image of a striking man with angular features and a short, neat goatee.

“It was the first time I had seen a proper picture of my father,” Puleng told me.

She and Thembalethu subsequently had an emotional WhatsApp conversation, during which Thembalethu told Puleng that one of the last thing’s Cele had said to him was that he must find Puleng and take care of her.

“It was a big deal, because I’d always thought that side of the family was actively not interested in me,” Puleng said.

Since then, she’d tentatively been thinking about taking a trip to KwaZulu-Natal to meet Thembalethu and the rest of her father’s family, when time permitted.

“There’s a whole process that must happen there, a whole other part of myself that I still need to grapple with,” she said, her eyes widening at the expectation. “But knowing that and doing the work are two different things.”

This is part three of a three-part series.

Reporting for this series was supported by a Taco Kuiper grant from the Wits Journalism programme.

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