The Last Days of Bhambayi

R.W. Johnson

Just outside Durban lies the vast black squatter camp of Inanda, whose huddling shacks house half a million people or more – the only way to perform a census is to take an aerial photograph and allow for six people per shack. On Inanda’s eastern edge lies the historic Gandhi Settlement, founded by the Mahatma before he set off to lead the struggle against the British in India. Ninety per cent of South Africa’s one million Indians live in Natal, more than half of them in Durban, and the community is intensely proud of having produced the man who launched India’s independence. The Settlement itself became a focus of the Gandhian movement and a place of pilgrimage. It was also a place of reflection and refuge: during the hardest apartheid years this was where radicals of every stripe would retire for workshops and seminars or, on occasion, for Gandhian fasts of protest against the apartheid laws. Rick Turner and Steve Biko used to hold weekend retreats there, as did many of the activists who later built the trade union movement.

The surrounding African squatter population increased rapidly as waves of Zulu peasants poured into the Durban area. As was only to be expected, the densely-packed camps became increasingly unruly. In 1983 there was a bad outbreak of faction fighting, the losers fleeing to the Settlement, and staying there as refugees. For the Indians living round the Settlement life became increasingly dangerous, with their homes and shops more and more resembling miniature armed forts as they sought to fend off the depredations of the poor, sometimes starving Africans around them. In 1985 the insistent onward press of black poverty erupted into a four-day pogrom against the Indian community living around the Settlement. When the smoke cleared the Indians had fled, the Settlement had been covered with African shacks, and its buildings – a school, clinic, museum, community hall, Gandhi’s house and the building in which he had published his newspaper – had been sacked and looted. Today they survive as melancholy shells in an area known as Bhambayi – a Zulu approximation of ‘Bombay’.

The events of 1985 cast a heavy pall over the relationship between Indians and Africans, a relationship which had in any case not fully recovered from the far worse race riots of 1949, when Africans turned on Indian traders in Durban, killing fifty and injuring more than five hundred. Thousands of Indian houses and shops came under attack from Zulu mobs, bitterly resentful of what they saw as Indian exploitation. Over time, many hundreds of Africans were to be killed in reprisals by the forces of law and order. Indians in the Congress tradition, supporters of the Natal Indian Congress (NIC), the South African Communist Party and the ANC, have all striven over the years to heal this wound, and so have the Indian members of the Black Consciousness movement, who have tried, with some success, to get Indians to refer to themselves as blacks too. But the gulf remains, and occasional flare-ups of anti-Indian violence, combined with a sharp Indian consciousness of the unhappy fate of other Indian communities all the way up the East African coast haven’t helped.

After 1949 the heart went out of Indian radicalism; at best, a painful ambivalence remained. On the one hand, the resentment this sophisticated and cultured community felt at its barbarous treatment under apartheid knew almost no bounds. On the other, there were many for whom the real insult was that they were ‘being treated like Africans’. Yet after 1949 most Indians feared Africans (especially Zulus) and the temptation to cling to the skirts of white power was very strong. For the NIC/SACP intelligentsia it was a very painful business. After all, if the black masses were not on their side the whole rationale of radical politics was undermined. But what price self-respect if one had to look cravenly for favour from a white establishment which, under Leo Boyd, the Durban mayor of the time, was urging that the solution to ‘the Indian problem’ was ‘boats, not votes’ (i.e. ship them back to India rather than enfranchise them)?

The solution for many lay in a conspiracy theory which claimed to ‘prove’ that the 1949 riots had been set in train by white manipulation. The theory became so emotionally necessary that even today one can hear it propounded by old radicals, though the bulk of Indians have no such illusions. Some years ago Chief Buthelezi, enraged by criticism from Indian radicals, made threatening mention of the need to remember 1949. This has never been forgiven, although Buthelezi’s IFP is now wooing the Indian community just as hard as the ANC is doing. In practice most Indians feel that the ANC-IFP fight is not their affair and ask only – today as in the days of apartheid – who can best protect them. Many are anxious that the Indian Government’s provision of military training to the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto, will draw IFP reprisals. But ordinary working Indians are also deeply anxious about the ANC’s affirmative action policies, about whether, on those terms, they count as white or black – and about the fact that they seem mainly to count as white. Most would like to keep their heads down – but fear their cause will go by default if they do.

African resentment of Indians was and is quite patent: Inkatha, ANC, PAC and Azapo supporters will all tell you – often quite openly – how, even after forty years of apartheid, they still prefer whites to Indians. Most of the reasons are the familiar ones heard of the Indians in East Africa, of the Chinese in South Asia or the Jews in Central Europe – and the economic success of the Indian community is indeed striking. During South Africa’s four-year recession Indian incomes alone have kept growing; the community is increasingly sophisticated, travelled and cosmopolitan. Africans find this success provocative and many will tell you that if an African cannot get a white man’s job they would prefer the job to stay white rather than go to an Indian. A further twist is that Indians are often accused of attempting to steal leadership positions in the liberation movement on fraudulent grounds. In Natal in the Eighties the leadership of the UDF – effectively the internal wing of the then banned ANC – was dominated by Indians. With the setting up of the ANC in 1990 the latter were swept aside almost to a man. The major Indian figures within the ANC – men like Ismael Meer, Mac Maharaj, Aziz Pahad and Billy Nair – generally belong to an earlier generation. It now seems unlikely that more than a few particularly resourceful Indians will be able to make it up through the ranks of the ANC – though there is no shortage of keen triers.

The dominance of this older generation of NIC/SACP militants is reinforced by the fact that in its ten years of life the House of Delegates (HoD), the P.W. Botha-created Indian parliament, has entirely failed to generate an alternative Indian élite. Its most famous member and former leader, Amichand Rajbansi, was found unfit to play any further role in public life by the James Commission of Enquiry which investigated charges of corruption and extortion laid against him. But ‘the Raj’, as he is known, continues to play a colourful role and has been helping to negotiate the new constitution as head of a party of which he is the only ascertainable member. The HoD (commonly known as the House of Dogs) is a chamber in which corruption has been so general and the tendency of MPs to switch parties so frequent (most have sat for four or five parties) that its sole merit, after a decade of existence, lies in the way it has brought to the wider nation an entertainment hitherto enjoyed by Natalians alone.

On one memorable day the HoD’s majority party saw large-scale defections turn it into a minority party by the afternoon, only for redefections to turn it back into the largest party again by evening. The chamber once spent an entire day debating the cost of lavatory paper in Indian schools (school supplies are a favourite scam area). On another occasion, an MP accused of being drunk in debate rushed from the chamber to return with a doctor’s certificate attesting his sobriety. Sometime later the chamber spent a few furious hours seeking redress against one of its members who had claimed that the wives of his fellow MPs were lusting after his body. One minister sadly lamented to the chamber that the Indians had come to Natal to cut grass and plant (sugar) cane, but had ended up drinking cane (spirit) and smoking grass.

Some HoD MPs are now jumping on board the ANC electoral juggernaut, much to the fury of the old NIC intelligentsia, which thought its time had come at last. Most of its vocal élite and both its newspapers, the Leader and Post-Natal, support the ANC and even carry special supplements in which Indian captains of commerce and industry take out ads to wish the ANC the best of electoral luck. Rajbansi has not thus far joined the ANC – but he has applied for the ANC to join him. At the same time, opinion polls consistently show that anywhere between 65 and 80 per cent of Indians intend to vote for de Klerk. The community seems doomed to live in a complex state of emotional ambivalence. This year saw the Gandhi centenary celebrated in a spirit of triumph over apartheid, with proud crowds of Congress activists marching through the streets of Durban in vindication of their long-standing tradition of protest. Yet how to avoid sorrowful speeches about the Gandhi Settlement, now torn from the Indian community by the blacks who are supposed to be its allies? Worse still, across that Gandhian holy ground rages an apparently senseless little war which has cost around two hundred and seventy lives so far this year.

Another quite separate drama has been unfolding at Bhambayi. The 1983 fighting there had seen conservative, older elements driven out by better educated and more radical younger leaders. The 1985 violence, on the other hand, was a battle of African have-nots against Indian haves. On that occasion the violence was brought to a summary halt by the heavy-handed intervention of the Inkatha feudal boss of nearby Lindelani, Thomas Shabalala. Shabalala is a classic figure of squatter life – the shacklord who takes rent or tribute from his subjects, providing them in return with law and order enforced by his own impi of strong-arm men. Thanks to Shabalala, Lindelani is a peaceful and indeed rather prosperous and entrepreneurial community. A Swiss businessman has just signed a large industrial investment deal with Shabalala, the aim being to make Lindelani, somewhat improbably, into the Beverly Hills of Durban. But Shabalala’s ruthlessness is legendary and he is a greatly feared figure throughout the Durban region. Innumerable murder allegations made against him have failed to come to anything because the witnesses were unwilling to testify. In recent times he has given a welcome to embittered former ANC guerrillas who have arrived home with angry tales of torture in ANC prison camps in Angola. These askaris, as they are known, were in danger of death in ANC areas and have simply followed the logic of polarisation: they have further reinforced Shabalala’s might.

Nearer to Bhambayi, at Mshayazafe (which is Zulu for ‘we’ll hit you till you’re dead’), reigns another Inkatha feudatory, Nyati Khazi, and Khazi it was who gave Bhambayi its distinctive character by inviting a number of Pondos to settle there. The Pondos, a sub-tribe of the Xhosas from the Transkei, are renowned in Natal as odd-job men of every kind; the particular kind that Khazi wanted being manufacturers of Kwashas – lethal home-made pipe guns. In 1989 some of these Pondos, feeling insecure among so many Zulus, decided to join Inkatha. This precipitated the usual bloody conflict with local ANC supporters, who were ultimately successful in insisting that anyone who wanted to stay in the area was obliged to support the ANC-SACP alliance. The Inkatha supporters dutifully changed their allegiance.

Late last year, however, two opposing factions appeared within the local ANC, the Reds and the Greens, their original quarrel being over the question of whose sangoma (medicine man) provided the stronger muti (magic potions – in this context, almost invariably a muti that wards off bullets). Things became heated and some of the Greens attempted to assassinate Michael Mkhize, the local SACP leader. Mkhize came into the ANC office in Durban, showing his stab wounds and pleading for help. The ANC leadership, nervous about opting for one side or the other, merely gave him the impossible advice that he must ‘reconcile himself with the community’. Mkhize, finding himself under continuous attack, cast ideology to the winds and fled with his followers to seek aid and support from the only power in the district able to protect him – Shabalala.

Meanwhile, the struggle between the Reds and Greens intensified (these battle colours are worn as headbands to make sure you don’t shoot down your own side as you advance into battle). Much of the fighting has been done with knives and pangas, but the local gunsmiths have been doing a roaring trade too and there has been some necklacing. The end result of the battles is always the same – the mass burning of shacks; so that today Bhambayi looks as if it has been shelled by heavy artillery, with evidence of war and human misery all about. As you move along the narrow paths between the shacks you see dozens of maimed and wounded in every direction. In addition, this being ANC territory, both sides operated ‘people’s courts’, dispensing summary justice – sometimes death, but more usually whippings or ‘modelling’, in which the guilty party has to strip naked and walk through the camp amid a crowd of jeering onlookers. All these forms of punishment are formally prohibited by the ANC, but little real attempt is made to enforce the ban and savage punishments continue. In August several victims were found dead, tied to trees, their faces slashed to ribbons.

All this is going on in an area without electricity, water or sewage, with clean water sold only at five private boreholes. With male unemployment at around 80 to 90 per cent (and no dole), it is hardly surprising that criminal activity is endemic. Whereby hangs a large, though usually well-hidden side of the story. For some of the best dagga (marijuana) in the world is grown in the Transkei, and with buses ferrying Pondos to and from the Transkei a major part of Bhambayi life, Bhambayi has become the centre of the dagga trade in the Durban area. To make things even worse, the gunsmiths have become weapon-dealers as well as manufacturers, which is why the police, on raiding these buses, began to find AK-47s, grenades and pistols amid the dagga. They then took measures to inhibit the commerce in both commodities, causing a calamitous fall-off in the only two lucrative trades Bhambayi has. This sudden cut in the resources going into an already desperately impoverished community was, without much doubt, the basic cause of the conflict, as the various factions dress themselves in whatever political colours are to hand in order to fight over the very little that is left to fight over.

The arrival of the Police Internal Stability Unit added a fresh element, for the ISU is almost wholly Indian and was quickly accused of wanting to ‘avenge 1949/1985’. With the Reds clearly outnumbering the Greens, the ISU inevitably found itself ‘siding’ with the Greens, or at least trying to prevent their complete slaughter, though it would be surprising if some of the criticism of the police was not well founded. The ANC, anguished at the split among its own supporters, chose the Reds simply because they looked like the winning side. It has led the outcry against the ISU, though in this it is also speaking for the gunsmiths and dagga traders, who want the ISU out of the way so that they can get on with their business. Implicitly, the ANC and the Red warriors know that these people are the wealth-providers in the community and thus rally to their defence. The irony is that the ANC Reds go into battle wearing precisely the red flecks and headbands which distinguish Inkatha warriors on the Reef. While all this was going on the local ANC was paralysed for some weeks by a sit-in organised in their Durban regional offices by disgruntled former ex-guerrillas demanding more money. Various emissaries arrived to attempt to persuade the protesters to leave the building, but even a mission from Walter Sisulu was rebuffed. Only when Mandela arrived in person to read the riot act did the sit-in stop.

The Greens, finding themselves abandoned by the ANC, finally accepted the logic of the situation by allying with Shabalala, and in August joined Inkatha. The fact that some Greens were in the Inkatha group forcibly dissolved after the 1989 fighting has led their enemies to say they were ‘secret Inkatha’ all along. This may be true – but the logic of polarisation is far stronger than loyalty to any cause. Shabalala then boldly headed an Inkatha march through Bhambayi. It was, inevitably, hand-grenaded and shot at, leaving eight dead. Shabalala led his followers in Christian thanksgiving to God for sparing his life, but it is also known that his life was saved thanks to the superior muti of Shabalala’s sangoma.

With the Greens thus herded into the Inkatha camp – and a protector who does not know the meaning of losing – the stage was set for a classic ANC-IFP battle for territory. The limiting factor was that the Greens could only win if they drove the Reds out and this they lacked the strength to do. Shabalala, for his part, has always had a shrewd sense of the limits of his own little empire. He has supported the Bhambayi IFP but made no attempt to take over Bhambayi. The Reds, on the other hand, had the numbers, but couldn’t beat both Shabalala and the ISU. The result was a stalemate, of which the local Peace Committee took advantage to arrange a fragile truce in September.

This lasted until early November, when Mandela arrived in Bhambayi to electioneer. He had a rapturous reception from a large crowd but, as often on his tours of Natal – and the same is true for Buthelezi – the net effect was simply to inflame passions in an already deeply divided community. I spoke that evening to the ANC official who had organised the visit. He was fearful of what the night would bring – rightly, it turned out. Fighting flared up again and is still going on. Another dozen people (including a policeman) have died and Bhambayi is now half-empty. The women and children have fled and the only men who remain are those preparing to fight it out to a finish.

The Bhambayi refugees have moved to Cato Crest, immediately behind Natal University, causing alarm and despondency in the white suburbs as they pitch thousands of new shacks in vacant land, wherever they can find it. Nearby, homeless Africans have invaded and occupied 799 houses built by the HoD for Indians – many of whom have already paid deposits on them. The ANC, whose representatives have been blocking the area’s redevelopment so that they can do it and get the credit for it after the election, is gravely embarrassed. On the one hand, the squatters who have seized the houses are their own members; indeed, they have sought to ‘legitimate’ their take-over by daubing ANC and Umkhonto slogans on the houses. On the other hand, the seizure has – yet again – dramatised Indian fears of what black rule may mean. Mandela came and told the squatters to move out. Nobody moved. Now the local ANC say Mandela was too influenced by Indians and should stay out of it. It has emerged meanwhile that the African who led the squatter invasion already owns a dozen houses in the nearby township.

The local Indians have armed themselves to the teeth and vowed to defend their houses and their families. All that needs to happen now is for a bunch of roving squatters to try to grab an Indian house. If, in the ensuing shoot-out, an Indian guns down Africans, a tidal wave of African wrath could break over the Indian community the following day. Potentially, the situation is far more serious than it was in 1949. Meanwhile, the sixteen to twenty Africans occupying each house are performing their ablutions as if the sewage system was connected up, which it isn’t. Manhole covers are lifting; we shall, we are told, have typhoid soon. The Africans, long in the habit of boycotting rent and rates payments, seem likely to be joined soon by protesting local whites and Indians. The police appear fitfully, do nothing. ANC marshals do much the same. The situation drifts. Amazingly, people accommodate, life goes on. Government shrinks, there is no government.

For those who have escaped from Bhambayi there must be a powerful sense of déjà vu; once again it’s Africans and Indians, Indians and Africans. But in their new shacks at Cato Crest the squatters are undeniably better off on a day-to-day basis – and how else can you think when you squat-live? There can be no going back to Bhambayi, which is now a shattered wreck. It would be nice to say that the spirit of Gandhi will prevail, but as you gaze across the battlefield of Bhambayi you can, in every sense, see that Gandhi doesn’t live there any more.