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ANC Fighters on 2010

Selay Marius Kouassi/ Twenty Ten

Location: Johannesburg, South Africa

These men once fought hard for the African National Congress (ANC). Their struggle ensured that apartheid was overthrown and the 2010 FIFA World Cup could happen in a democratic South Africa. Yet, they appear to have been conveniently forgotten by the party they once served.

For many anti-apartheid activists and former ANC fighters like Merchant Bonkonsi Mazibuko, Johannes Metula a.k.a Myza and Linda Bayi, life has barely changed since their party defeated apartheid.

Merchant, Myza and Linda didn’t have to think about giving their life for their country; they had none; they lived in Thokoza, a township southeast of Johannesburg.

Thokoza Township made headlines for the scale and intensity of violence that devastated its inhabitants between 1990 and 1994, during the power struggle between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

1990-1994: Brief overview of the 1990s conflict in Thokoza

The four-year transitional period preceding South Africa’s first multiracial elections held in April 1994 was particularly violent.

Many parts of the country experienced outbreaks of fighting, but Thokoza Township was the hardest-hit and its inhabitants witnessed the bloodiest violence of the apartheid era. Despite the official armed wing of the ANC having suspended its armed struggle in August 1990, informal and vicious armed conflicts continued between ANC fighters, the white regimes’ military and police, as well as with supporters of the IFP.

In Thokoza, neighbourhoods were clearly divided into ANC and IFP areas. Every Thokoza inhabitant had to adopt a political identity, and it was perilous to be caught in the enemy’s territory.

The struggle had pitted township supporters of the ANC against the inhabitants of the hostels, which were strongholds of the IFP – a predominantly Zulu political formation. Khumalo Street in Thokoza Township was one of the fronts for those gory showdowns.

Most official sources said ANC and IFP were fighting for political hegemony. But listening to survivors of the conflicts, and exploring the motivations that led to the 1990s violence in Thokoza, reveals a complex relationship between party politics and local agendas.

Personal vendettas, gangland feuds, ethnic antagonism and other rivalries interacted with the conflicts between the ANC and IFP to produce a range of violence, much of which does not fit neatly into the category of ‘political conflict’.

Today, Merchant and Myza, former ANC fighters who still live in Thokoza, consider the political struggles that dominated the end of apartheid era, in their locality and at the national level, as a combination of the apartheid government’s tactics designed to provoke ‘black-on-black’ conflict and a political contestation between the two most powerful parties representing the black majority.

But, 16 years ago, Merchant and Myza, could not escape the struggle in their neighbourhood. They did not even have time to reflect on the conflict; when the war broke out, they were caught in the eye of the storm.

Thokoza Youth in the ANC - IFP conflict

In Thokoza, youths were an active part of the ANC-IFP divide. Most of them were members of the Self Defence Unit (SDU), an armed combat unit formed by ANC at the height of township violence between ANC and IFP supporters.

Many young people risked their lives to fight for a national cause, but few survived unscarred. Embittered by the consequences those fights had on their personal lives, only few survivors would today speak openly of those terrible times.

“At that time, we were young and we were at school, we were told to stand up and fight to free our country […] As a young person, everything was explained to us that we were under the oppression of white people,” narrates Myza, the ex- Commander of a SDU in Thokoza.

“We gathered money and bought weapons […] everything was in chaos, it was when we began to fire at the enemy and burning shops and trucks that belonged to the people who were oppressing us. It was violence everywhere and many people died even blacks who had a bright future,” adds Myza.

If some youths joined the armed struggle as a result of a propaganda campaign run by the ANC, Merchant Bokonsi, like other youths in Thokoza, took up arms to seek revenge for the death of friends and relatives.

When the killings of his school friends and people from his neighbourhood by the workers from the IFP hostels intensified, Merchant decided to take revenge.

Merchant’s commitment to retaliate against violence carried out by the IFP against ANC residents turned him into a charismatic and remorseless fighter. He would later lead a band of armed and determined young people from his neighbourhood and was elected Commander of the Slovo section - a SDU in Thokoza.

“At that time, we were considered true heroes […] we fought hard. When we defeated the enemy in Khumalo Street, next to Thokoza Park, we were congratulated and we were given honour due to our rank,” says Merchant, who is now confined to a wheelchair for life.

As Merchant can hardly move his handicapped arms to greet the many passers-by who pay compliments to him, or respond to the kids who shout his name, he simply nods and continues: “During the fight, this street was empty, many people flew away but we stayed here to fight, to push away the enemy and protect this community […] We gave to this community everything we had; our strength, our freshness, our future”.

Linda Bayi, the young man who pushes Merchant’s wheelchair across Thekwane Street in Thokoza adds: “The whole community here relied on Merchant and men like him who were on the frontline of the war.” He slows down as he comes to a hump and started to narrate his own experience of the fight.

“I was too young, but I remember it was a very hard time. Me and other kids set up some barricades on the streets; we used to burn tyres. Many of my friends were shot here by the enemies and they died on the spot. Today, some are living with handicaps others are bearing awful scars.’ Linda stops, hitches up his sleeves and displays a scar between his thumb and forefinger, ‘I was shot once, I got a bullet here,’ he adds.

Linda stops at a place which is symbolic to Merchant; a grassless football pitch where three of his comrades, former ANC fighters, got shot the same day while trying to cover the masses who had gathered there for a meeting.

Their love for Football turned into a nightmare

The 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted by his country helps to suppress Merchant’s bitter memories of the carnage he has witnessed. He was irritated by the poor performance of South African players who lost 3-0 to Uruguay. He felt Bafana Bafana failed to honour the efforts undertaken by ANC fighters to liberate the country by not defeating Mexico and Uruguay at the FIFA World Cup.

“We fought hard to overcome the apartheid government. We fought to acquire freedom. South Africa welcomed the whole world for the FIFA World Cup. Bafana Bafana ought to have played their part. They should have behaved like soldiers on duty. They didn’t play for themselves; they played for a country […].”

South Africa has travelled a long way to achieve freedom and peace, and struggled to organize the 2010 FIFA World Cup as well. 2010 will forever be Africa’s first World Cup, but for the former militants of Thokoza, it is the 1994 FIFA World Cup which was held in USA that remains an indelible memory.

1994: A Memorable Landmark

Three months after Nelson Mandela was elected, the violence in Thokoza did not stop.

In July 1994, when Brazil was playing Italy in the FIFA World Cup finals, some ANC fighters gathered in a ‘safe house’ to enjoy the beautiful game, but their joy was short-lived as they were attacked by members of the IFP. Four of the match viewers were killed on the spot and only two survived the assault by pretending to be dead, lying under lifeless bodies of their comrades.

Many years have elapsed, but the memories of the bloody attack that claimed the lives of those ANC militants can’t be easily effaced from Linda and Merchant’s conscience.

“Small Jack is away now. He is one of the survivors of this attack. He could have told you more about it. The only thing I know is that it was very violent. These ANC fighters thought they were safe in their hiding place. They didn’t expect this would happen to them,” said Linda, pushing Merchant’s wheelchair back home.

Linda stops at a crossroads, greets some passers-by and points with his forefinger to a black spot on the ground, next to a wall bearing some illegible graffiti: “A guy was burnt to ashes here for traitorous cooperation with the enemy”.

Linda was very young at that time, but he still carries the memories of this cruelty. His psyche, it seems, has survived the trauma of the massive killing. However, post traumatic stress is one of the biggest challenges facing people of his generation in Thokoza.

Challenging Growing Poverty

Some former ANC fighters and people who were exposed to the violent scenes in Thokoza have been suffering from shell shock. Abandoned to their fate, these ‘human wrecks’ have to find ways and means to get overcome their extended trauma. No one is supporting them in this tough challenge.

“These kids have seen bad things; they saw brains, inside parts, no one has tried to counsel them […] They need counselling, but I have never heard about that here in Thokoza, never up until today […],” says Thandi Magarett, a 60 year-old woman living in Thokoza.

Catherine Ayoub, a health expert and psychologist interested in child/youth development and the impact of trauma, says that the younger a person encounters trauma, the more long-lasting its impact, having no context in which to place such upheavals.

“Most of our boys are traumatized, they are now racked with inner turmoil and their pain is also exacerbated by strong poverty […] the community is now in danger of being targeted by its former defenders if nothing is done to help them,” says Thandi who has witnessed the damage that former fighters did to themselves and to the community.

The stories of Merchant, Myza and Linda are South Africa’s biggest irony. The men struggled hard to free South Africa from racial oppression and they have been ‘damaged’ as a result of this struggle. Yet, they are still struggling to find a place for themselves in a democracy they fought for. Year after year, they have been waiting for the many promises that hardly or never come.

Linda Bayi has languished for years at the bottom of waiting lists for decent housing. Recently he was granted a tract of sub-economic RDP houses by the government in ‘Eden Park Extension 5’, on the outskirts of Thokoza. But he has been waiting for electricity since.

“I am the beneficiary of this house, but I can’t watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup games inside because there is no electricity. I have to walk miles away to enjoy the games,” says Linda, sitting in the only armchair in his tiny living-room.

He sometimes looks back with regret, but he can’t complain about his life all the time as he has to eke out a living to support his wife and baby daughter, who live elsewhere because he has not been able to pay the traditional Zulu bride price.

Linda has now turned to religion. He also strives to be a musician to make ends meet. Sitting in his armchair, he leafs through a hardcover notebook and comments on the different lyrics he had written in English and local dialects. He comes to ‘Kulomhlaba’ (In This World) and pauses; a look of sadness crossing his face.

He breathes in and starts singing ‘Kulomhlaba’ - a song that tells the bitter memories of the struggle in Thokoza. He is more determined to earn his living from music as he is convinced it will be difficult for the government to solve their problems. Likewise, Myza’s dream of seeing the government tackle the problems in Thokoza is shattered.

“Since 1994 ANC has been making empty promises. They are not representing the people. They promised jobs and decent education for all, but we are still stuck in here […] we can’t sit and wait for them,” says Myza.

Sitting on an old beer rack at the entrance of his one single-room house in Thokoza, Myza’s fingers pluck the strings of his old guitar effortlessly. Kids who play football in the yard next to him stop the game. They wiggle and jiggle happily when he begins to sing. Myza has also turned to music to survive. He started to teach basic guitar lessons to youth in his neighbourhood, but it is hard for him to find his way.

“I want to show my talent. I want to lead a real music band and tour the whole country, but I can’t afford to hire a car for transportation,” says Myza.

Linda and Myza are not the luckiest former ANC fighters, but they are luckier than Merchant. In the absence of any support from the government, they are trying to use music as a catalyst to release themselves from the traumatic episodes of their lives and as a mean to earn money and lives as well.

Merchant had to turn to crime to survive as many other SDUs members. One of those crimes saw him shot down and confined to a wheelchair for life. He is now disabled. He lives in a rough tin shack. Unlike his fellow former ANC fighters, he can’t attempt to turn the hands of fate anymore as he can hardly raise his own hands.

Merchant has very mixed feelings about South Africa hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. This embittered and damaged fighter is quite pleased his country was the first African country to host the FIFA World Cup, but he wishes the government would have allocated part of the money they used to build sport facilities to meet the basic needs of people living in Thokoza and other townships.

Now that the famous Soccer City Stadium has switched off its lights after the last whistle of the 2010 World Cup, the South African government should have a close look at the condition of people living in townships. There are so many and their struggles and sacrifices truly ensured that the 2010 FIFA World Cup could happen in South Africa.

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