The Ndebele and the apartheid state

When the Nationalist Party was elected to power in 1948 by a minority of the white electorate, their platform promised their followers that the white race would continue to dominate all aspects of South African society. Its ideology of "baaskap", or "white power", propounded that all black South Africans belonged to a perpetual rural proletariat, which could be trained to draw water, hew wood, and serve the wishes of its white masters, but which must ever be denied access to higher levels of education. They also held that the imposition of white rule was necessary to prevent the outbreak of "a racial holocaust", where competing tribal interests would inevitably precipitate the country into a state of violence and anarchy.

Although the nature of Nationalist policy did not change radically for the next twenty years, by the 1960s its dialectic had begun to move from its crude foundations of "white power", to a more systematized usufruct of South Africa's black population as a source of cheap labour. At the same time the Nationalist Government had begun to flesh out Apartheid into a policy of "separate-but-equal" development, which drew heavily upon the works of African-American writers who had begun to publish similar theories during the 1920s. Ultimately, it claimed, every black South African, whether living in an urban or a rural area, would be allocated to any one of nine self-governing homelands whose citizenship would be based upon the tribal, or ethnic, identity of its members. The anomalies presented by a growing black urban middle class who had found legal residence in the urban areas, and who had become increasingly distanced from its historical roots, were blithely ignored.

It is difficult to establish the exact period when the Ndebele began to develop the concept of a separate cultural polity. Their homesteads only began to be painted by their women in a distinctive polychromatic style sometime between 1937 and 1951, probably soon after the election to power of the Nationalist government in 1948. However, given their status as "Ndebele" immigrants in a highveld region inhabited predominantly by Sotho-Tswana, it is probable that the roots for this consciousness were always present and only became overtly manifest after the rise of white Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa.

Initially the establishment of an Ndebele homeland did not feature high on the Government agenda. By the early 1960s it had identified nine separate "ethnic" groups and the Ndebele were specifically excluded from these designs. Its own ethnographers believed that the groups were too scattered and numerically too few to warrant their own separate homeland. Also, they held that they had become too integrated with their Sotho and Tswana neighbours to be separated at that late stage.

It was true that the Ndebele were indeed scattered over a wide area, consisting of rural clans, labourers residing on white farms, migrating groups and urban elites, and that the two major groupings, the North and the South Ndebele, claimed separate historical roots despite widespread intermarriage. However both groups had managed to develop strong cultural identities separate from their Sotho/Tswana neighbours, which, during the 1950s were manifesting themselves in numerous tribal associations which served as a channel for migrant workers in the affairs of their rural groups and maintained links with their larger clan polities. Thus although the membership of individual groups was relatively small, cumulatively they constituted a large enough group to warrant recognition by Apartheid's planners, and as early as the 1950s they had begun to protest classification as either Tswana or Pedi.

The reality of the situation was that the ethnic cleansing necessitated by the implementation of a "bantustan" policy had already reached a scale and a level of rural hardship such as to warrant exposure by local researchers and unfavourable coverage by the international media. The removal of a widely scattered group such as the Ndebele presented Apartheid's planners with a problem which even they hesitated to implement.

Nonetheless the granting of "self-government" to Bophuthatswana and Lebowa did little to lessen the idea among many Ndebele that they too warranted a separate homeland. Although these demands were received with a certain amount of glee on the part of Apartheid bureaucrats, who saw this as justification of their ideological planning, the reality of these demands was far removed from Apartheid ideology. Much of it lay in the fact that both Bophuthatswana and Lebowa were refusing to implement separate education for their Ndebele citizens, to recognise siNdebele language, and to issue business permits, ID papers, passports, pension benefits and government jobs to Ndebele citizens who refused to forego their Ndebele identity and adopt Bophuthatswana or Lebowa citizenship.

The first known organisation which actively promoted a Ndebele identity was the Mandebele Cradle Association, founded in about 1957. They were followed in 1965 by the Ndebele Ethnic Group based in Mamelodi and Atteridgeville, and by the Ndebele National Organisation, based in Soweto. On 5 October 1967 members of various Ndebele political and cultural organisations met in Mamelodi and founded the Transvaal NNO. This was a coalition of both North and South Ndebele representing groups from both urban and rural areas. At their conference held in Mamelodi from 31 August to 1 September 1968, the call was first made for the formation of a Ndebele homeland.

Although at this stage a number of rural Ndebele Chiefs had become prominent within the TNNO, the impetus behind the organisation lay with migrant workers on the Witwaterstrand. These included a number of traders, teachers and intellectuals who perceived that their middle class aspirations would be best met by Nationalist Government's policies of "separate development."

Calls for a separate Ndebele homeland were given additional impetus in 1968, after the establishment of a Ndzundza Tribal Authority in the Weltevreden district of Lebowa. Prominent in the movement were SS Skosana, who was later to become Chief Minister of KwaNdebele, Chief David Maisha Mabhogo, Paramount of the Ndzundza, Chief Mabena of the Manala, and Chief Johannes Shikoane Kekana of the North Ndebele. Together they consolidated their grass-root support for a separate Ndebele "Bantustan". Although their efforts at first proved fruitless, by 1972 the Nationalist government had begun to look upon their demands more favourably. In March 1972 a group of Ndebele leaders and officials from the Department of Bantu Administration and Development met to discuss the issue of a separate Ndebele Homeland; by September these reached draft stage, and these were finalised in 1973. By this time four South Ndebele tribal authorities had been established: the Ndzundza, Manala and Litho, which fell under the jurisdiction of Bophuthatswana, and Pungutsa, which fell under Lebowa. The four areas were excised from the two homelands and combined into the Mnyamana regional authority, the first step in the formation of a future KwaNdebele.

On 21 April 1972 the Nationalist Government announced to the Ndebele leadership the formation of a separate homeland for the South Ndebele, despite their wishes that the two Ndebele groups be included into one governmental authority. The decision to exclude the North Ndebele was based upon advice given by government anthropologists who persisted in their opinion that this group had been well integrated into the North Sotho and Tswana societies about them and thus could not be effectively separated from their social, cultural and political contexts. The South Ndebele, on the other hand, were held to have maintained their Nguni cultural roots to a greater degree and thus to warrant separate homeland status.

It is ironic that the contradictions inherent in an ethnocentric mindset should have been so conclusively exposed by a group who supposedly supported this policy.

Despite repeated representations from North Ndebele leaders that they wished to secede from their respective Tswana and Pedi homelands, the Pretoria government remained steadfast in its decision to exclude the North Ndebele from KwaNdebele. In February 1973 they announced that henceforth, it would only deal with officially accredited chiefs on this issue, and that North Ndebele should enter into separate negotiations with the relevant Bophuthatswana and Lebowa authorities on the issue of secession from their respective administrations.

At this point the TNNO appears to have collapsed, and was replaced soon thereafter by the Northern amaNdebele National Organisation, whose aims were specifically the inclusion of the North Ndebele into KwaNdebele. These moves did not go unnoticed by the Homeland administrations of Bophuthatswana and Lebowa, both of whom began to mobilise their considerable resources of wealth and patronage in order to minimise the North Ndebele secessionist movement.

Key figures in this movement were Chief Shikoane Kekana II of Zebediela and the Rev Molomo, chair of NANO who, prior to 1973, had already been urging North Ndebele chiefs to secede from their respective homelands. Both men now began to organise their followers, through a vigorous campaign conducted both in the press and through the medium of personal mail. On 24 March 1978 Chief Kekana issued a press statement, claiming that the Ndebele "were tired of being the children of other ethnic groups by being distributed among the different homelands", and that "if the central government was prepared to go ahead with its policy of ethnic grouping, then it must be prepared to unscramble the egg" and allow each group its rights "wherever they were."

Molomo echoed the Chief's call and wrote letters to different Northern Ndebele chiefs urging them not to allow their subjects to vote in the coming Lebowa elections on the grounds that the homeland was foreign to them. Lebowa, he argued, had been established for the baPedi, and already the Northern Ndebele had been made to feel excluded. In a memorandum to Pretoria, he pointed out that only meetings related to tribal matters could be held, that Northern Ndebele teachers were prohibited from teaching the history of their people and that Northern Ndebele leaders had been incarcerated on flimsy pretexts. As history has shown, these protests fell upon deaf ears.

In 1977 the problems suffered by both Ndebele groups were compounded by the granting of "independence" to the territory of Bophuthatswana, under the leadership of Lucas Mangope. This process had begun some time earlier, in the late 1960s, when Tswana vigilantes began a programme of ethnic cleansing in Garankuwa, a black dormitory suburb of Pretoria. They began by ordering Ndebele residents to leave the township, but soon extended this to include all non-Tswana families. In time this spread to other areas, and by the time Bophuthatswana was established in 1977, non-Tswana residents were being denied identification documents, trading licenses, access to housing, social benefits and mother-language education. This persecution was especially severe against Ndebele citizens who, unlike members of other ethnic groups, did not have the benefit of a "homeland" they could move to under the provisions of Pretoria apartheid planning. Understandably Tswana chauvinism, layered over the existing system of white bigotry and Apartheid racism, led many Ndebele, Northern and Southern, to organise themselves along ethnic lines.

This process of ethnic separation needs to be understood in the larger context of Apartheid planning which initially only provided for the racial segregation of the country's four main groups, so-called European, African, Indian and Coloured. One of Apartheid's main concerns was inter-racial miscegenation, most specifically between whites and any of the three other groups, and although the Immorality laws prohibited inter-racial mixing between all four groups, the only times when these were applied was when one of the parties was white.

Ethnic separation, on the other hand, extended the scope of such chauvinism to inter-black relationships, and allowed each group to initiate its own programmes of ethnic cleansing. Needless to say, parallel developments were also taking place in the Transkei, and were soon to spread to Venda and Ciskei upon their own granting of "independence" and Lebowa and Gazankulu when they were granted "self-determination". It is not difficult to see therefore, how, by 1990, when the Nationalist government and the ANC began a process of rapprochement and pacification, the country had reached the brink of a racial and ethnic holocaust.

The Pretoria Government was not unaware of such developments, and in 1976 its representatives in the township of Ga-Rankuwa were advising non-Tswana residents to exchange their houses for dwellings elsewhere before they began to feel the full consequences of Tswana ethnic discrimination, most particularly in the field of education. Mangope reinforced this by closing down Ndebele-medium schools and by ordering his police to raid the homes of political opponents.

The neighboring "homeland" of Lebowa had been granted "self-determination" in 1969, and after its first elections in 1972, its government was led by Chief Minister Cedric N Phatudi. Although Lebowa shared in the same broad ideals of ethnic separation as the Tswana state, Phatudi was much more tactful in his dealings with Ndebele groups within his jurisdiction and, for a time, many Ndebele saw secession from Bophuthatswana and a union with Lebowa as a solution to their political aspirations. However, schisms within the secessionist movement and Phatudi's extension of political patronage to Ndebele chiefs willing to abide by his policies ensured that NANO remained a spent force in Lebowa. However, when these failed, Phatudi was not above using his police against political opponents, and in 1978 Molomo was arrested and savagely beaten by the Lebowa police. However, since they could lay no charges, he was eventually released. Chief Shikoane, on the other hand, was charged with "incitement" after he had urged his followers to boycott the Lebowa elections of 1978. Although found guilty and sentenced to a fine, Chief Shikoane continued with his campaign until the Lebowa government was able to prove a case of financial mismanagement against him. He was then deposed and replaced by one of his uncles, Mr F Mathibela Kekana, who was much more amenable to Phatudi's policies. Having lost all credibility, Shikoane retired to KwaNdebele where he died in 1981.

Despite these setbacks NANO continued with its campaign for Ndebele secession. In 1978, six South Ndebele MPs in the Lebowa government began a boycott of the Legislative Assembly, thus making common cause with the North Ndebele who had been denied access by Pretoria to a unified KwaNdebele nationhood. Although the North Ndebele were now organised under NANO, the two groups continued their dialogue and their representatives attended each other's meetings and cultural functions. However, apart from police repression and political intimidation, it was clear that the single most powerful factor standing in the way of political unification between the two groups was their physical relocation to KwaNdebele and consequent loss of ancestral lands. As a result, when KwaNdebele achieved political separation in 1981, there was no mass exodus of North Ndebele into the new "homeland."

In 1978 a number of regional authorities were constituted into the KwaNdebele Territorial Authority, and the following year it was granted legislative assembly status, the penultimate step in Pretoria's road to "independence". By 1984 it was the home to 261,875 persons of whom 5% originated from Lebowa, 29% from Bophuthatswana and 55% had been removed from white farming areas. Despite this, the tribal elites which had motivated for the establishment of a KwaNdebele state, continued to mobilise for unity between North and South Ndebele groups. Needless to say, these were ignored by Pretoria.

The critical point in the relationship between the Ndebele and their Tswana and Pedi neighbours appears to have been reached in 1982 when a move was made by Pretoria to incorporate the district of Moutse into KwaNdebele. Moutse was predominantly inhabited by the Rathoke-Ndebele, a Sotho-speaking group which had separated from the Kekana-Ndebele in the late nineteenth century. During January 1982 its councillors had met with Pretoria officials who had reported to their minister, Piet Koornhof, that the Rathoke were eager for incorporation into KwaNdebele. This eventually took place in August 1985, but only after a conflict had taken place between North Ndebele traditionalists, favouring incorporation into a larger Ndebele polity, and urban-based Ndebele, who opposed the wider concepts of Apartheid "homeland" independence.

In order to assert their authority over the district of Moutse, the political leadership of KwaNdebele had formed the Mbokodo, a vigilante group dedicated to removing opposition within the Ndebele state. On 1 January 1986 Mbokodo invaded the Moutse area, imposing upon its residents a reign of terror which has been equated to the actions of Inkatha in Kwazulu Natal during the 1980s and early 1990s. The people of Moutse responded by organising mass resistance against this intimidation, leading to a series of campaigns of civil disobedience and unrest. Faced with developments in Moutse, NANO began to reconsider its stance towards incorporation into KwaNdebele, and many North Ndebele instead began to identify with the movement against Bantustan government and for a unitary South Africa. Although plans for KwaNdebele "independence" had reached an advanced stage of definition by 1986 to the point that even its stamps had been designed and were about to be printed, the continuing waves of civil unrest within Moutse eventually spread to encompass KwaNdebele as well, and in 1987 Pretoria was forced to announce that these had been shelved indefinitely. By 1990 these had been overtaken by the CODESA negotiations, and KwaNdebele had become a footnote in South Africa's unhappy chapter of Apartheid government.

Social and economic changes at kwaMsiza

The location of KwaMsiza near Pretoria has made it possible to document their transformation from a land-based agricultural peasantry to an urban and industrialized proletariat. Prior to their move in 1953, their prevalent economic activity was one of mixed farming and cattle grazing. Small amounts of cash were earned by the men working as farm labourers, although they were generally expected to provide their time for free to the owners of Hartbeesfontein in exchange for the land they occupied and farmed on their own behalf. After their move to KwaMsiza, however, they began to rely increasingly upon the income earned by their men, working as migrant labourers in the nearby towns and on the Witwatersrand gold mines. Some of the women also entered the service of white families as domestic workers, although these jobs were generally poorly paid. As a result, from the 1950s through to the 1970s, the demographic composition of the village began to be transformed dramatically, with an increasing bias towards women and children below the age of 16. Although the men did return home, on a regular basis, this was only for a month of every year on their annual leave.

The adverse effects that the migrant labour system of Apartheid brought about upon the personal lives of rural families have been widely documented and need not be detailed here. In the case of KwaMsiza one of its more noticeable effects was an increasing focus upon the role of women in their society, and the leadership roles they began to play in their social structures. As the focus of agricultural labour fell increasingly upon the shoulders of women, so then their families became increasingly reliant upon them, where mothers not only exercised greater controls over food production and their homesteads, but over other resources as well. This was in sharp contrast with the historical values of Ndebele society, where the men are the heads of the family (patrilocal), and give their names to the family line (patrilineal). Thus, the migrant labour system also placed traditional family and social values under severe stress. The result was that the women continued to pay lip service to the principles of patrifocality but effectively established matrilocal controls over resources and began to develop a visual system of symbology, centered on their use of beadwork and painted wall motifs, to signify a growing matrilinearity. It does not appear that this growing polychromatic decorative movement was intended to supplant the historical symbols of their men, but merely to give Ndebele society an added social dimension parallel to its traditional established order.

In 1976 a country-wide drought followed by riots and an economic downturn caused widespread unemployment, and the men of KwaMsiza began to return home, resulting in many of the older patrifocal patterns of family life being re-established. This was assisted from 1979 onwards, when the availability of employment in the nearby industrial suburb of Rosslyn, made it possible for a semblance of normality to return to this community. However many of the cultural patterns, social and material, initiated by the women in the post-1953 era have been maintained, whilst some older symbols of patrifocality have suffered a concomitant reduction in status.

This has been most noticeable in the marked shift in the location of the cattle byre. Originally this was a central circular space which acted as the focus of the community, and provided the men with an area to gather, drink beer and discuss the affairs of the village. Many of the community's rituals were centered about the byre, and the space in the upper part of the circle given over to the cattle also acted as a burial ground for their deceased. The link between the byre and their ancestors is therefore inescapable.

The Msiza and Bophuthatswana

The final blow to the Msiza's depleted finances came on 6 December 1977 when the South African government proclaimed the "independent" state of Bophuthatswana, and the district of Odi was incorporated into one of its six scattered fragments. The idea of creating a number of rurally-based independent Homeland states based upon the white government's perception of "ethnic" divisions in South Africa's black population was intended to be the culmination of Apartheid's policy of social engineering. It was based upon Verwoerd's vision of a balkanized South African society where each of the country's nine "tribal" groupings was to be allocated its own homeland area to govern independently. The inadequacies and contradictions of such a policy were self-evident to all but their originators, and it never achieved much meaningful recognition either in South Africa or overseas. Nonetheless the existence of a Tswana ethnically-based state was to create untold hardships for the Msiza for the next sixteen years.

This hardship took many forms. The first came almost immediately when the South African Tourist Board cut off its subsidy of paint and building materials to the village, and took KwaMsiza off its tourist itineraries, claiming that tourism to the area was now a matter for the Bophuthatswana government to manage. The next arose when the Bophuthatswana government refused to allow its Ndebele subjects the right to educate their children in their mother tongue, siNdebele, a Nguni dialect, claiming that all education in the Tswana state must be conducted in seTswana. Then Bophuthatswana demanded that all its Ndebele subjects swear loyalty to the Tswana state, as a pre-condition to being given state or state-subsidised jobs, and being issued with travel documents. As, for the purposes of Apartheid policy, South Africa was now a "foreign state", all Ndebele were now disenfranchised, legally prevented from traveling in their own country, and rendered stateless. Driven to the point of exasperation, a number of Ndebele leaders visited Pretoria in about 1981 and requested permission to establish their own independent state of KwaNdebele in the Dennylton-Groblersdal region. Delighted Apartheid bureaucrats saw this as visible justification of their "ethnic" policies and quickly made arrangements to add a tenth puppet state to the nine already in operation. Fortunately a popular uprising in 1986 brought these plans to an end, and the Ndebele had to wait until 1994 to have their civic rights restored fully to them. One of the results of this struggle, however, was that the village of KwaMsiza began to run out of residential land, and not wishing to impinge upon their already meagre agricultural resources, the Msiza opened negotiations for a fresh allocation of state land from Bophuthatswana. Although a stretch of open common was available alongside their village, not unexpectedly these requests were denied.

One positive development during this time was the establishment during the 1980s of the new industrial suburb of Rosslyn immediately north of Pretoria, some 20km from KwaMsiza. This increased the level of employment in the village and allowed its men to return to their homes each day, thus reasserting the structure of the nuclear family. Despite this, the historical role of tourism in supplementing the economic base of the village appeared to be beyond repair.


To make matters worse the village's water delivery system was driven by an ageing single-stroke diesel-powered water pump which, at best, could only deliver 5 litres per minute through a single water tap. By 1986 it had begun to break down to the point that, during the nation-wide drought, it could take up to 4 hours to fill a 25 litre container. As a result the community had begun to lose some of its younger families. It was found that, as their elderly parents had begun to pass away, so then the children's links to the settlement had grown more tenuous. At the same time the prospects of better education and a higher quality of life in the city had also begun to override traditional family loyalties. At its height in 1980 KwaMsiza had been the home to some 49 families, but by 1994 this number had dropped by 20% and the village had begun to take on a run-down appearance. Few wall paintings were being maintained, and gaps had begun to appear in its architectural fabric as the homes of deceased family members were abandoned to the elements.

KwaMsiza in the post-apartheid era

KwaMsiza appears to have reached a turning point in 1993 when a local NGO, funded by a grant from the Canadian Government, put in place a new water reticulation scheme which upgraded the village's water delivery to 21 litres per minute and gave every two households access to a shared water tap. More recently, in 2001, plans have been unveiled for the opening in the village of a tourist center and a marketing facility, which will give its residents greater access to the national tourist market.

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