When warlords die

Monday, 25 January 1999

Even amid devastation, there are to be found those who are aware of the advantages of reigning in hell instead of serving in heaven. So it was that not so long ago, there was man named Mohammed Farah Aidid who — through a combination of intelligence, charm, and a propensity for violent use of power — took control of a large section of Somalia.

People who do such things in Eastern Europe are referred to as leaders. In Africa, they are known as warlords. And it was as a warlord that Aidid's name first became known to the rest of the world. The build-up of foreign troops and artillery around Somalia in a vain attempt to restore some semblance of what could be considered to be normality in the war-ravaged country proved to be incapable of affecting Aidid. The troops were withdrawn with bloodied noses. The world despaired of seeing Somalia reborn.

Until Aidid died.

In some ways, the town of Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal is not that dissimilar to Somalia. It makes an almost non-existent contribution to the economy of the planet. It is not a singularly attractive place to live in. The inhabitants live on or below the poverty line ...

Out of this insignificant piece of turf came Simon Sifiso Nkabinde. The son of the Richmond chairman of the Inkatha Freedom Party, Nkabinde went on to carve out a career with the African National Congress, culminating in his taking over the party leadership in the Natal Midlands after the death of firebrand stalwart Harry Gwala in 1996.

Nkabinde then stunned the country by publicly declaring himself to be a warlord and calling upon other warlords to join him in bringing peace to the Midlands. He was immediately supported by IFP MP David Ntombela, who pledged to do the same. And the province heaved a collective sigh of relief at the thought that the violence which continued to devastate the Midlands would finally begin to dwindle.

What is clear is that the ANC knew something that the rest of the country didn't. In December of 1996, the party's national leadership ordered Nkabinde to not stand for the position of provincial secretary. (Nkabinde disobeyed.) Then in April 1997, the ANC announced Nkabinde's expulsion from the party. He was accused of being a police informer, an agent provocateur, acting to destabilise the party from within, and fomenting violence. Details were not disclosed. Nkabinde denied the allegations and thousands of ANC members in the Natal Midlands called for his reinstatement. The ANC stood firm

Then on May 9, ANC Richmond councillor Rodney van der Bijl was shot dead outside his home. Addressing several hundred mourners at Richmond stadium, in the week after Van der Bijl's death, President Nelson Mandela said: "We know who ordered this bloody murder." He said the perpetrator was still free because certain policemen in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands were working with him.

In July of 1997, Nkabinde tested his support at the ballot box in the Richmond by-election, but failed to win a seat against an ANC line-up.

Two months later, Nkabinde was arrested and charged with 16 counts of murder. In the time up to his arrest, 45 people had been murdered in the Richmond area. He was imprisoned, pending trial.

And the murders stopped.

In May 1998, in the Maritzburg High Court, a triumphant Nkabinde was cleared of all charges and released from prison by Mr Justice Jan Combrink who launched a scathing attack against "improper and irregular police investigations and a lack of credible state witnesses".

Now whatever the learned Judge — whose contribution to a culture of human rights is legendary — may say about procedures, what cannot be disputed is that immediately after Nkabinde's release, Richmond was once again rocked by assassinations. These have continued — unsolved.

Nkabinde died in a hail of bullets on Saturday morning. There have been reports of people dancing for joy in the streets of Richmond. Is this to be the peace of Somalia after Aidid? Time only will tell.

But the ANC, and President Mandela especially, now need to give us answers. What information was available to them that led to Nkabinde's expulsion? And was Nkabinde the man they believe ordered the murder of Van der Bijl?