VISIT TO SOWETO_INSIDE THE NECKLACE Pointless deaths but real victims

By GENE MUSTAIN and MICHAEL O. ALLEN, Daily News Staff Writers, Wednesday | April 6, 1994

SOWETO—He was an unidentified man, a weekly newspaper reported, and lucky for him that the police and paramedics came along when they did.

He was walking past the Dube Hostel, a decrepit barracks-like encampment where the so-called Zulu royalists live, when a man from the hostel came up and shot him in the face as the day sank toward night.

“Bastards!” he screamed, through his fractured jaw.

But the shooter and some other Zulu royalists were not finished. They wrapped the man in plastic, put him in a cardboard box, doused the box with gasoline and set it afire.

As the royalists ran back into their hovels, the Soweto police came by and doused the flames. As onlookers gathered around, two army paramedics extricated the unidentified man from the box and placed him on the discarded bucket seat of a stripped car.

Still alive, the man was taken to a hospital. The crowd dispersed, the police went away and darkness fell across Soweto, washing away until the next time the brutal insanity of the terror that threatens to drown South Africa.

The “necklacing” occurred 10 days ago. In the bulging catalogue of violence the nation’s march to democracy has produced, it was recorded as just one more horrible and unexplained footnote, a caption in the newspaper.

But the unidentified man had a name, a life, a family. And he was, like his attackers, a victim of a political history that through many twists and turns now has blacks threatening genocide against each other just as their freedom vote draws near.

He was a randomly chosen target, and a particularly ironic one, as two newcomers learned during a visit to the overwhelmingly dour landscape of Southwest Township—the cradle of the black liberation movement.

The post-election anarchy that white South Africa fears was rampant in Soweto the day the man was attacked. Two days earlier, many Zulu royalists had died when gunfire erupted at a rally in nearby Johannesburg, and since then they had been attacking anyone who happened past the Dube Hostel.

At seven million, the Zulus are South Africa’s largest tribe—about one-fourth of the black population. About 4.5 million live in KwaZulu, an apartheid-created “homeland” run like a tribal kingdom. Many, including the Zulu migrant workers of Soweto, consider themselves subjects of a king.

The only government they know are the 300 autocratic chiefs who control life and death in rural KwaZulu, under the direction of an apartheid-appointed chief minister, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who is King Goodwill Zwelthini’s uncle.

Most of these rural Zulus are illiterate. Most have little knowledge of the system by which for many years minority white rulers paid Buthelezi and the chiefs to administer KwaZulu and maintain the racist laws of apartheid.

Under the interim constitution to take place after the election, however, the paychecks will end and government in the rural areas will be the responsibility of democratically elected leaders.

Buthelezi and the king are refusing to recognize the election, no doubt because polls show that a rival political force, the African National Congress party, has made headway in organizing KwaZulu over the last four years.

They have cast the election as a plot by the ANC, and the ANC-dominated Xhosa tribe, to destroy Zulu culture, and appealed to the highly romanticized fervor of the only African tribe ever to defeat the British army in battle.

If the ANC prevails, Buthelezi said recently, violence with “no parallel” in the exceptionally bloody history of Africa will be unleashed.

In KwaZulu, the election has turned Zulu against Zulu. In Soweto, though the line is not always neat, it has pitted Zulu against Xhosa. The bloodshed in Johannesburg, with each side blaming the other, was oil on the fire.

It was into this cauldron that the unidentified man wandered. As no one witnesses too much in South Africa these days, and as the police hardly ever solve such crimes, it was hard to find many more details about the attack.

However, Soweto—which is home to at least two million people and maybe as many as four million, no one really knows—has only one hospital, and it was there that a fuller story began to unfold.

Baragwanath Hospital, built by British in the 1940s to treat soldiers wounded in the desert wars of north Africa, is today the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere and it still specializes in trauma. Soweto’s murder rate is ten times the U.S.’s and twice that of New York’s.

The necklacing victim was admitted to the burn unit, said a nurse who was more helpful than regulations permitted. He suffered severe burns over 60% of his body. His face was practically seared away.

A  ventilator was inserted into his throat and he was heavily sedated. The only thing he said was, “I’ll get the bastards.” He kept saying it between excruciating fits of consciousness, and then, a day later, he died.

He carried no identification, the nurse said, but the police did find a scrap of paper in his pocket on which someone had scrawled, “747A Zola.”

Soweto, which spills across several low hills and copper-colored plains, is a city of many distinct neighborhoods. Most, including all five neighborhoods that include the word “Zola,” are dirt-poor.

The road to the right Zola took several hours, up and down rutted roads, past thousands of tiny concrete bunkers and wood-and-tarpaper shacks, and on through an oddly nice section known as Beverly Hills where successful black businessmen, politicians and drug dealers lived.

Few streets had names and those that did ended in blind alleys and confusing junctions—the result of Soweto’s ad hoc development. Finally, however, the numbers painted on one street of bunkers looked promising.

It was one of the few streets with names—Buthelezi Drive. A milkey mixture of ash and water on the windows of one bunker—a sign that the occupants were in mourning—confirmed the find before the address of 747A did.

A knot of surly young men gathered on Buthelezi Drive, but the younger mourners of 747A invited the strangers inside and led them to a small room where a father sat hunched on a chair and a mother lay on a mattress, beside one glowing candle and a roll of toilet paper.

The father said the police had come to tell him about his son, Henry Ngcobo, who was 34 and the second of his six children. The mother said he lived with them and had made his living washing cars in Johannesburg.

The father said his son had no interest in politics and the mother said the only trouble he’d ever had was in 1976, when apartheid oppression was at its peak and he was jailed for a year for riding on a train without a ticket.

“All I know is that he was walking past the hostel dwellers and that was it,” the father added.

Some relatives and neighbors jammed into the tiny room and began singing religious songs. The father, 74, then escorted the visitors to the door. He grabbed a hand and said he wanted to say something more.

“I came here 50 years ago,” he said. “We are Zulu.”

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