The killing fields of Zululand

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers | Sunday, April 17, 1994

DURBAN—Andy Cox wept for South Africa last week.

He cried when his frantic search through the lush green bush of Zululand came to its dreadful end, and he wept again when he faced the relatives of the missing men. Two days ago, the horror was still so close he could not describe what he saw without breaking down twice more.

“How can we ever have peace when people are this way?” he said. “This was so savage.”

The dead were poor young Zulus. They were day laborers for Cox, a young white businessman hired by the government to distribute non-partisan pamphlets about the upcoming election — which has created a figurative Mason-Dixon line of killing hate in KwaZulu, the Zulu homeland surrounding this seaside city.

Last Monday, they wandered over the wrong side of the line—into an area controlled by KwaZula’s chief minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who sent mediator Henry Kissinger packing later in the week by demanding the impossible, the postponent of the nation’s first non-racial election.

Around noon, shortly after their driver telephoned Cox’s office and said they were thinking of leaving because the area seemed tense, the victims were kidnapped, tortured, shot, hacked and set afire. As different points along the frenzied bloodletting, the driver and two others managed to escape.

“I lay on the ground and pretended I was dead,” said one of the survivors, a teenager named Lucky Mkhwanazi. “Then I ran.”

The murders, which Buthelezi’s police and government refused to talk about on Friday, offered a grim preview of what a future now less than two weeks away may bring to Natal Province, which includes KwaZulu.

Many now fear that Buthelezi—unable to get what he wants, which is a separate Zulu kingdom for his nephew, King Goodwill Zwelthini—seems intent on plunging Kwazulu into a civil war that might spread across the country and cause a stillborn democracy.

“The outlook is very grim,” he said on Thursday, after the mediation effort involving Kissinger—which most people here regarded as a loser going in—collapsed like all the other attempts to mollify Buthelezi have.

He added that he could not control his supporters. But Buthelezi, a diabetic insomniac given to temperamental rages, controls everything in KwaZulu—from the police to the parliament to life and death in the huts—through a network of 300 tribal chiefs and appointed cronies.

And evidence is mounting that he has been preparing the mainly rural and illiterate Zulus who’ve never known any authority but him and the king to wage terror against more urban Zulus who want to vote in the election.

Voter-education workers too frightened to give their names said this week that Zulu chiefs loyal to Buthelezi and the king issued orders on Feb. 18 that no voter education will take place in areas controlled by them.

The workers said Zulu men have been issued rifles and handguns—purchased with funds provided by the departing apartheid government—and are preparing for battle in the traditional Zulu warrior ways: staying away from women, drinking tribal concoctions, communing with spiritual ancestors.

“All I know is, we don’t go into many parts of KwaZulu because we don’t want our people dead,” said Carol Baekey, the American director of a community legal center in Durban that conducts voter-education programs elsewhere.

The area where voter-education workers fear to tread is roughly north of the Tugela River, “Tugela” meaning “fearsome” in the Zulu language. There, in an area known as Thafamasi, Andy Cox’s pamphleteers met their gruesome end.

Lucky Mkhwanazi and the two other survivors fled back below the river and alerted Cox, who notified police in Durban not controlled by Buthelezi.

Otherwise, the Thafamasi Massacre might not have come so soon to light. Twenty-four hours afterward—even though one survivor had staggered into a rural police station and told his story—Buthelezi’s police still had not visited the scene.

Cox, whose office is about 80 miles away, got there before they did. One of the survivors, the driver of the van the men were using, had called and said that while he had escaped, he feared something terrible had happened.

The driver had last seen the others at an elementary school in Thafmasi. They had gone there believing it to be a good place to distribute pamphlets about the election, and asked the principal for permission.

The principal turned out to be the local Zulu chief, Eliott Shangase, a staunch member of Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party. He ordered all students out of the school, and the pamphleteers into a classroom.

Some 18 men armed with guns and pangas—homemade machetes—then showed up. A few told the driver they were taking him to a police station. Halfway there, they stopped, ordered him out and set the van afire.

“My driver told me he ran at that point because he decided he would rather be shot in the back than hacked to death, so he ran,” Cox said.

Meanwhile, back at the school, the chief questioned the pamphleteers, including four cousins who called each other brothers. He accused them of working for the African National Congress party of Nelson Mandela, whom Buthelezi once admired but now reviles.

The victims denied it. They told the truth—that they were being paid about $6 each to distribute election materials that they themselves could not read. One victim, however, wore a belt with the ANC’s colors.

The chief then left. “He said we must sort this out with our kidnappers,” Lucky recalled from his hospital bed, where he was being treated for a shotgun blast that took most of his right hand away.

The kidnappers ordered the victims to strip, tied them up in pairs, then began beating them with metal yardsticks and clubs. The victims screamed their innocence, but the kidnapers began hacking at them with the pangas.

“The blackboard, the walls, everything was splattered with blood,” said Cox, welling with emotion. “I saw a hunk of flesh on a desk.”

Still alive, the victims were marched out of the school and into the bush until they were ordered to lie down in a copper-colored ravine. The attackers began hacking at them again; one produced a “zippo”—a homemade shotgun—and began firing rounds into heads.

That’s when Lucky and another survivor broke free from their ropes, got up and outran shotgun shells.

All but one of the unlucky eight were found where they died. At the end of his search for them, Cox fought back a retch, then angrily confronted the Zulu chief and told him to come see what his men had done.

But the chief’s bodyguard stepped forward and told Cox, “The chief doesn’t look at corpses. It’s against our tradition.”