The Freedom struggle in Nelspruit


A Cartoonist impression of Tricameral Parliament. © In Search of History Grade 12. Oxford: Oxford University PressA Cartoonist impression of Tricameral Parliament

Resistance to Apartheid

The Liberation Struggle in South Africa'

The designs of apartheid’s planners, with the backing of a brutal state apparatus, were successful in removing Africans from Nelspruit, and in containing conflicts which arose from workers and activists, but only to a certain extent. A consistent thread of resistance is part of the historical fabric of the area, and many people challenged the state and thwarted its designs.

In the 1980s, when the Tricameral Parliament came into existence, excluding Africans from political power and attempting to draw Indians and Coloureds into the white bloc, the tenor of resistance rose. People like Matthews Phosa, Phineas Mojapelo, David Mabuza and others joined the country-wide UDF to oppose government attempts to divide the oppressed groups. Even homeland leaders like Enos Mabuza used their positions of power to nurture activists and foster links with the exiled ANC in Mozambique.

Indian leaders like Yusuf Vawda and Moebien Wadee mobilised resistance to the Tricameral Parliament, formed a Detainees Support Committee, and forged links with African and Coloured comrades. They persuaded shopkeepers to close their businesses on specific occasions, such as May Day, or when strikes were called. Not all the shopkeepers supported the strikes, and they handed out stickers to help African people recognise sympathisers among the Indian businesses. Shopkeepers who had good links with the UDF were given stickers to paste on their shop windows to show their allegiances.

Coloured leaders like Okki Peterson mobilised support against the Tricameral Parliament in their communities, convincing people not to vote in elections, and to boycott apartheid sympathisers.

Many activists, especially the youth, were detained at the Nelspruit Prison. Dr Wadee would be called to examine them when they refused to be examined by state-appointed doctors, and he organised a network of businessmen to make donations of clothes to ease the plight of the detainees.

Enos Mabuza

Moebien Wadee

But the state went to great pains to monitor any forms of resistance, right up to the early 1990s, and didn’t hesitate to intimidate anti-apartheid sympathisers. When Nelson Mandela was due to appear at a rally soon after he was released in 1990, Yusuf Vawda was detained over that weekend. When trade unionists, UDF activists and members of the oppressed communities staged a march from Valencia to Nelspruit Prison to protest against detentions, they were brutally controlled by the police, using dogs and barbed wire.

In the late 1980s, when the state saw that links were being forged between the three oppressed communities, they placed a bomb at the mosque, which exploded at 4am in the morning. The activists who lived close to the mosque arrived minutes after the explosion, to find the police already there, suggesting that they had advance notice of the sabotage.

Some reports allude to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) activities in the area. Two MK cadres were killed in a skirmish with the South African Police (SAP) on 28 July 1986. Two days later, an anti-tank landmine exploded, but no injuries were reported. Also, on 17 August another anti-tank landmine exploded on the Stellen Rust farm near Nelspruit, but once again no injuries were reported. Early in November 1986, a landmine explosion near Nelspruit killed one woman, and injured one child.

Other reports indicate that an African National Congress (ANC) cell was fully operative in Nelspruit, and a Mr. Sambo testified at the TRC that Joe Nkuna, a Mr. Dombi, Joe Shabangu and Ntombi Shombi were running the Nelspruit offices.

A Mr. Ngxongo told theTruth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that a Mr Thalede was smuggling ammunition from Mozambique, and these arms were used to kill Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) members, especially in Ermelo. He was staying in Nelspruit, but was working for the IFP in Ermelo.

But it was the Nelspruit TRC hearings in 1997 that give us a clearer picture of the resistance to apartheid as well as official attempts to suppress resistance in the region.


Post-Apartheid Nelspruit

The coming of democracy saw Nelspruit cast in a new role. With the end of hostilities with the frontline states, Mozambique now became a friendly neighbour and an increasingly important trading partner. Nelspruit was declared the capital of Mpumalanga, one of the nine new provinces established by the post-apartheid administration of Nelson Mandela. Mathews Phosa was appointed the first premier of the new province.

The increasing exchange of goods and the movement of nationals to and from Mozambique inspired the Maputo Corridor project, a scheme to facilitate trade and other contacts.

By all accounts, Nelspruit began to be transformed into a city, outgrowing its former role as a larger than average town. The projections of growth saw to it that Nelspruit received serious attention from developers and corporates. Nelspruit’s first mall, the Riverside Mall, became a retail mecca that transformed the nature of the town, modernising the shopping experience and bringing it into line with other large cities in the country.

But questions as to its accessibility for the disadvantaged remain, and the city has yet to achieve a more equitable socio-economic dispensation. The apartheid structure of the city remains more or less intact; although some of the more affluent African, Indian and Coloured citizens have begun to live in previously White residential areas.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Nelspruit

The TRC began its first hearings in Nelspruit in the Van Riebeeck Park hall in August 1996. The choice of venue angered the city’s Black residents, who wanted the hearings to be held in Kanyamazane township. Mpumalanga TRC committee member Thoko Sithole explained that the hall was chosen for its size and for security reasons.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was due to attend the first hearings, which dealt with Third Force activities conducted by Eugene de Kock, as well as attacks by the Kabasa gang. From May 1997, the TRC’s Amnesty Committee convened in Nelspruit, in Nelsville town hall in Grace Street. Brothers Joe and Conrad Makuna applied for amnesty after launching a grenade attack against ANC regional treasurer Joe Shabangu in November 1992. They had suspected that he was an informer. One person was injured in the attack. The brothers were accused of attempted murder and the unlawful possession of fire-arms; they were sentenced in 1995 and were still in prison at the time of the hearings.

The application of Derrick Skosana, was also due to be heard on Thursday, 12 June. Both the Nkuna brothers and Skosana were asking for amnesty for the same incident. However, their versions of events were essentially in conflict, particularly pertaining to the source of instructions for the alleged deed.

Mr Joe Nkuna had been assaulted during October 1991 and was allegedly left for dead. Nkuna claimed that Chris Hani, then secretary general of the South African Communist Party (SACP), had ordered him and his brother Conrad to launch a hand-grenade attack on he house of Shabangu. But a statement by the SACP, issued on 9 May 1997, denied that the SACP had issued the orders, since it had ceased ordering attacks after 1990. It furthermore pointed out that Shabangu had been sentenced to death by the apartheid judiciary and that, by implication, he could not have been an informer.

In November a team of investigators exhumed the remains of three MK members killed in a skirmish with police. Victor Lunga Khayiyana from Bethel in Mpumalanga, Barney Molokoane from Tladi in Soweto and Vincent Sekete from Meadowlands in Soweto were buried in Piet Retief after they were killed in November 1985. Their families had requested that their bodies be exhumed in order to give them a decent burial. Premier Mathews Phosa attended the exhumation. Six policemen who were involved in the killings applied for amnesty.

The graves of two other MK operatives, Steve Tsotetsi and Kenneth Mabuza, who were killed in 1986 by security police and members of the Kabasa gang in Nelspruit, were also identified and shown to their family members, but the bodies were not exhumed. Their graves were located in Msogwaba, a rural village 30km outside Nelspruit city centre. The men had been burnt beyond recognition before being buried in unmarked graves. TRC investigations head Dumisa Ntsebeza announced that the necklace method of killing had been introduced to SA by secret service agitators, repeating a method used in then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

At a hearing in Springs on the East Rand in February 2000, Eugene de Kock, Dawid Britz and Daniel Snyman applied for amnesty for the killing of an informer who they alleged had committed a robbery. De Kock was convicted by the Pretoria High Court of 89 counts of fraud, conspiracy and murder. Among these he was found guilty of killing five men who were ambushed by the police outside Nelspruit in 1992 and for conspiracy to murder alleged double agent Brian Ngqulunga.

The application of Hendrik Johannes Slippers, an Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) member who had killed a man in 1990 in an attempt to enforce a white-by-night policy in Belfast, was refused in December 1997. He was granted amnesty for abducting George Ngomane, but not for killing him. The committee, under Judge Bernard Ngoepe and Sisi Khampepe, argued that the AWB members had acted out of proportion to their stated objective to keep Blacks indoors after 21h00 hours.

Last updated : 18-Feb-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 29-Mar-2011