By the early 1980s, the Congress movement was becoming established as the most effective force in the fight against apartheid throughout the country. With the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in August 1983, this pre-eminence was sealed, and the Black Consciousness organisations began to wane. The strength of the unions after tentative beginnings since 1973 reinforced the tempo of resistance, and in the Steelpoort area miners began to take part in political activities. The Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) was especially active, recruiting members with the help of Chief Mampuru. Mawu split over the issue of allegiance to the UDF, and a breakaway was formed, the United Metal and Motorworkers of South Africa.  Later the Steelpoort Youth Congress (Seyco) was established.

At Turfloop, the Azanian Students Organistion (AZASO) adopted the Freedom Charter, shedding its allegiance to Black Consciousness, and took control of the SRC. The resources that became available to AZASO were used to support scores of activists and organisations in the surrounding region, and the campus came to be called “Lusaka”, after the capital of Zambia, where the African National Congress (ANC) had its headquarters.

In 1984 students resolved to mobilise people in the villages, and they set about gathering recruits and raising consciousness in these rural settings. They made contact with Congress of South African Students (COSAS), whose leaders visited the areas on various occasions.

When the Middelburg and Witbank areas became hotbeds of resistance, targeted activists fled and took refuge in Sekhukhuneland.

Meanwhile, the Nchabaleng household in the village of Apel became a centre of subversive activity. Peter Nchabaleng, acquitted in 1978 but banned for five years, saw his banning order expire in 1983, and was made president of the Northern Traansvaal branch of the UDF in 1986. But, Delius reports, it was his sons who played a more dynamic role in mobilising the youth of the Sekhukhuneland region.

Elleck Nchabaleng was released from Robben Island in 1984, having undergone an intensive struggle education at the “Struggle University”. By the end of August the Sekhukhuneland Youth Party was formed, consisting of youth from Apel and Nkwana. Nine of them attended a UDF rally in Seshego, just outside Pietersburg, and returned with forms for the UDF’s million-signature campaign. The petition echoed the million-signature campaign of the ANC in the 1950s.

Elleck began to work for the Community Resources and Information Centre (CRIC) at the end of 1984. CRIC, based in Johannesburg, was set up by former Nusas members, and became a bountiful source of support for Elleck’s efforts in the north.

Elleck’s brother Morris also played a leadership role at school, holding meetings at home where the youth discussed Congress politics and the Freedom Charter. Morris formed a partnership with Richard Magerule Sekonya, a student returning after the closure of Tompizeleka Agricultural College, which had been wracked by student protests. The duo began a brisk process of mobilisation, bringing already existing youth bodies into an overarching body, the Sekhukhuneland Youth Organisation (Seyco).  It held its first significant meeting on New Year’s Eve 1985, the students singing and chanting freedom songs in a march between Apel and Nkwana and back. The movement grew rapidly, drawing students together with unemployed youth into an enlarged Seyco by February 1986.

The Comrades Take Over

The Nwana/Apel community became embroiled in a dispute with the neighbouring Masha chiefdom, which had been resettled to areas where the Nwana/Apel inhabitants were based. The Masha tried to take control of the area, and in February 1986 the youth of Apel/Nwana marched to Masha, where the police responded by firing on them. A disabled boy, Solomon Maditsi, was killed, and a number of youth arrested.

A cycle of shootings, arrests and protests ensued. The UDF’s call to isolate the police was taken up by the youth, and certain areas became no-go zones for the security forces. When police shot and killed a boy in Schoonard, the youth resolved to close all the schools, and organised a mass protest on 3 March. Throughout Sekhukhuneland, buses and taxis were hijacked and, under the direction of the “comrades”, set out for Lebowakgomo. The Lebowa police stopped the procession and opened fire. In another incident on 10 March, eight comrades were killed in Motetema near Groblersdal.

The incident sparked a war on the Lebowa government. Vehicles were burnt, and buildings destroyed. Work stoppages were enforced, as were boycotts of shops and businesses. Crops and farm buildings in the Steelpoort area were burnt. Lebowa officials were told to step down and were targeted if they continued in office.

The youth were the driving force behind the revolt. They forced principals to work with the SRCs and turned assemblies into forums for student and political announcements; they criticised the syllabus, and eventually brought education to a halt.

The youths began to act on grievances against the chiefs, demanding that they account for funds the chiefs collected from communities. Some of the chiefs began to use security forces to maintain their positions, and the youth began to agitate for the removal of the chiefs’ altogether.

The youth, acting without any programme or coordination, soon began to make demands that alienated many, especially parents. They moved in bands, going from house to house demanding that people attend their meetings, threatening to beat those reluctant to attend.

The general decline in order saw businesses suffer as they failed to secure deliveries, and buses and delivery vans were hijacked. Parents formed a Parents Crisis Committee, which included Peter Nchabaleng and unionists from Steelpoort.

The youths began to set up People’s Courts in the villages, and young boys would deliberate on matters involving adults and elderly villagers, usurping the role of the chiefs and courts and overturning the structure of the community.

The Witchcraft Issue

From 1984 a spate of witchcraft killings began to sweep through the Northern Transvaal. This phenomenon took place against the backdrop of a widespread belief that witches were controlling the events of the day, and determining the fates of all the people. On 8 February 1986, the day of the funeral of Solomon Maditsi, a young boy was killed by lightning, a death that was blamed on witchcraft.

Some of the youth argued that the witches should be used in “the fight against the Boers”, while others argued that they were responsible for arrests and detentions and should be killed.

In the village of Ntsabeleng, the youth drew up a list of witches and announced to the chiefs that those on the list would be killed. They were dissuaded by James Nchabaleng, an activist who had been involved with Nelson Mandela in the 1950s. But in the Apel/Nkwana area, 32 people suspected of witchcraft were killed between February and April of 1986. The majority of victims were older women, and most of the accusers boys younger than 19.

Amid condemnation from the press, UDF-aligned leaders such as Peter Mokaba proclaimed that many of the killings were carried out on the instructions of witchdoctors. Progressive lawyers argued that the killings had been ordered by conservative tribal elders.

Lebowa police, who pinned the blame for the entire debacle on the UDF, descended on Nkwana on 10 April and arrested Peter Nchabaleng, telling his wife that she would never see him alive again. They took him to Schoonard police station and battered him to death. The next day they arrested Morris Nchabaleng and other comrades.
About 20000 people attended Peter Nchabaleng’s funeral, bearing ANC and Communist Party flags.

The comrades, who by now had alienated many sections of the community, held sway until June, when a second state of emergency was declared, and police declared war on the youths, assisted by community elders and others. The youth movement was effectively squashed by mid-1987.

Two youth leaders were sentenced to death during trials in the period after mid-87. In all, 82 youths appeared in seven murder trials. Lawyers began to enter guilty pleas so their clients could get off with lesser sentences.

An uneasy calm descended on the villages, and schooling resumed, although morale was low, the authority of the teachers and principals having been undermined. The matric pass rate plunged to unprecedented depths. Chiefs who had fled returned under police protection.

The New Order

Mankopodi’s son Rhyne, who had withdrawn his candidature for the position of paramount, reasserted his right to the position in 1982, and a campaign to have him installed began. The campaigners’ efforts were blocked, until the death of Phatudi in 1987 saw Nelson Ramatlodi assume the leadership of the homeland. This led to a chain of events that saw Rhyne installed as the paramount in 1989.

But Rhyne was denied effective control of Mohlaletse, and was challenged by Ramodike. Rhyne was backed by the Lebowa police, who prevented his detractors from farming, causing deep anger in the community. On 23 December 1989 the police opened fire on people demonstrating against the limit on their farming activities, killing three.

Against this background, the country was entering a new period that would see apartheid and the homelands abolished. The unbanning of the ANC in February 1990 opened up a new era in the country and in the region. While the UDF set out to establish local civics and garner support for the ANC in anticipated elections, local communities regarded the ANC wih some suspicion, associating the party with the brutal reign of the comrades.

Nevertheless the comrades were at the forefront of the ANC’s campaigns, and rallies were organised to welcome local heroes, especially Elias Motsoaledi and John Nkadimeng, who made some progress in establishing a certain continuity with the struggles of the 1950s and the ANC of the moment.

Yet the ANC was having to deal with the question of what to do about homeland leaders and officials, and also had to establish diplomatic relations with the very chiefs who had been reviled in these communities. Mandela, seeking to maintain African traditions, lauded the chiefs, and hosted many chiefs on ANC platforms at rallies in the region. The chiefs, for their part, rushed to join the ANC, and affiliated to the Congress of Traditional Leaders (Contralesa), an ANC-aligned association of traditional leaders.

Some of these chiefs were popular figures, but others were despised for their use of Lebowa security forces to maintain their positions. The chiefs prevailed upon the ANC to limit the power of the youth and the civics, which they saw as a threat.

Just as the chiefs were wooed by the ANC, so was Nelson Ramodike, who the party mistakenly believed commanded a strong electioneering capacity. But Ramodike did have the support of many chiefs. A senior delegation of the ANC held talks in October 1990 with Ramodike, who denounced the civics, and led the ANC to believe that he could play a role in the forthcoming elections.

Ramodike was invited to share an ANC platform at a June 16 rally in Soweto in 1991, at the same time that he was conspiring to limit the power of the civics in Northern Transvaal. This resulted in a tense relationship between the local and national levels of the ANC, the locals complaining that they had less access to the ANC than the reactionary homeland leader.

Mohlaletse, the Pedi heartland, was particularly aggrieved at the new developments. In June 1991, Rhyne’s appointment was deprived of legal force by the Supreme Court, and Kenneth was reinstated, but the issue was far from settled, and continued to divide key players in the region and the party.

Nelson Mandela made several visits to the province, and addressed the members of the Zion Christian Church gathering at Easter in 1992. He shared the stage with Cyril Ramaphosa, Secretary-General of the ANC, Thomas Nkobi, ANC Treasurer-General, and Joe Nhlanhla, a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC, Ngoako Ramathlodi, Peter Mokaba, as well as Bishop Barnabus Lekganyane of the ZCC, President FW de Klerk, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Mandela said to the congregants:

“The bond between you and the ANC is even clearer, when we consider that many members of our organisation belong to the Zionist Christian Church. Among them, Peter Mokaba and Ngoako Ramatlhodi who are with us today, grew up and have become what they are in the struggle in great measure inspired by your teachings. Many others have fallen in struggle. Many have been subjected to terms in jail. But their spirit remains with the people.”

Meanwhile, civil servants and teachers flocked to the ANC. The Sekhukhuneland Progressive Teachers Union was founded in 1990, but was absorbed into the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) by the end of the year. The new overarching teachers’ union played a key role in mobilising demoralised younger teachers, and mounted strikes in the three years before 1994. The teachers defied educational authorities, and rejected attempts to monitor their performances, amid a general disruption of schooling. But the teachers were being wooed by the ANC, which tended to fall in line with Sadtu’s programmes.

Other problems added to the turmoil. A new wave of witchcraft accusations and killings in early 1994 saw 70 people killed.

The ANC’s continuing support for Ramodike saw him picked to represent the party in the 1994 election. But a storm of protests eventually saw him removed from the list.

The ANC was elected with an overwhelming majority in the first democratic election. Among all the provinces, the party got its highest majority in the Northern Transvaal, with 92% of the vote and all but two of the seats in the legislature.

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