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Massacre of a hero’s mourners

As is the case for several years now, Khulumani participates again in the commemorative anniversary of the Nangalembe Massacre in Sebokeng this year. In 2012 we commemorate the 21st anniversary of the massacre. This related article about Christopher Nangalembe was recently  published in The Star newspaper.

IT WAS January 12, 1991 in Sebokeng's Zone 7. And news that ANC Youth League and Sebokeng (community) Crime Prevention Unit member Christopher Nangalembe, 29, had been murdered, reportedly by gangsters, had sent shockwaves through the Vaal.

The activist had been abducted on January 5 and was believed to have been strangled. His body was found later at a rubbish dump close to the township of Boipatong.

Nangalembe's sister Bella said only his shoes and belt were missing when he was found tied with wire.

The ANCYL member had opposed gangs who had been spreading terror in the community and had often made things difficult for them, pestering the police to investigate them. Some say this is what led to his death.

Years later Nangalembe's death was ascribed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to "com tsotsis", those who mixed crime with politics, with allegations that his killers had been IFP members, who were involved in fights with township dwellers at the time.

The assailants had reportedly sent messages to Nangalembe's family, warning his relatives not to bury him in Sebokeng, or risk a bloodbath. Preparations for the funeral were under way and a tent had been erected for the night vigil on the eve of his planned burial.

Inside the tent, comrades sang, chanted slogans and prayed.

A few of those inside were armed, having promised the mourning family some protection.

Bella was walking to the opposite house when she heard people saying "other comrades were coming".

She recalled what happened next.

"A group of people wearing long jackets were approaching the house and everyone thought they were coming to join in the night vigil."

Nangalembe's brother Mandla also saw the approaching group.

"They were singing and coming from two different directions," he said.

"I was just about to walk out of the house again when the first shot rang (out) and two guys, (who were twins and whose names I remember as Lovey and Lavo), pushed me back in. When I opened again a while later, they were lying there dead just after (having saved) my life."

Mandla remembered the shooting to have gone on for a good 10 minutes.

"People were screaming. They shot at the tent and it was riddled with bullets," Mandla told the TRC, five years later.

"They also threw hand grenades... according to the information we got thereafter... they wanted to throw one into the bedroom because they thought my brother's coffin was (there). Luckily, it (landed) outside, but it injured so many people."

Mandla and Bella said the frantic screaming continued for a while. The tent had collapsed on mourners.

Nangalembe's uncle David Ncube died in the attack.

Describing the events, Nangalembe's close comrade Mandla Mazibuko said he had felt like he was leaving a movie set behind as he ran for his life into the streets.

"Only one of us was armed with a pistol and another with a pump-action firearm. After being informed of the intention by gangs to attack people at the night vigil, police promised regular patrols, but not once were they seen passing by.

"I was leaving the tent at about 2am when I saw a group of people approaching and I believed they were our comrades, but then they started shooting from a few houses away. I ran aimlessly into the streets and hid in Zone 8."

Mazibuko later returned to a bloody and horrific scene.

"There were bodies all over the place and blood spattered all over. Some people were still lying there, groaning in pain," he said.

"Bodies were still being collected the following day at about 10am.."

Bella and Mandla described the aftermath of the massacre as bloodcurdling and horrible. At least 38 people died on the scene and about 40 were ferried to hospital, injured. At a mass funeral held for the victims of the massacre, 42 people were buried at Evaton Cemetery while three others were buried outside the Vaal.

It is believed that more people died later from their injuries – gunshot wounds and injuries from hand grenades that were thrown at mourners.

"People were lying dead on top of one another. The kitchen and the whole house was a mess from people running for cover," Bella said.

Inside the Nangalembe house, the devastated family took an abrupt decision to cancel the funeral.

Nangalembe's body was smuggled from a mortuary in Sebokeng to another one in Soweto to place it beyond the reach of the assailants who were believed to be looking for it. A private funeral attended by about 20 people was held for the Sebokeng activist at the Avalon Cemetery, where he was buried days later.

The Nangalembe family was forced, for their own safety, to abandon their own house in Sebokeng and were moved to Soweto. They returned to the house in 1994.

Nangalembe was described by his brother as a "firm person, who was never afraid to state his thoughts and beliefs".

Said Mandla: "He was determined to expose criminals, most of whom were mixing their political involvement with crime. He died because his former friend, and then a gangster who had joined the IFP, hated it when he was always on their case about their criminal activities."

The Vaal has had its fair share of massacres over the years and the Nangalembe massacre was not the end of it as more people died in political clashes and at the hands of apartheid forces afterwards.

Five people were later killed on May 23, 1991 when an AK47-wielding man opened fire on a packed Gobies Entwana Korporasie Beer Hall in Sebokeng.

On June 17, 1992 – almost a year later – 46 people died during what was to be later known as the Boipatong massacre.

On the eve of SACP secretary-general Chris Hani's funeral in April 1993, unknown gunmen drove up and down Sebokeng, shooting randomly at residents, and left 19 people dead and at least 10 injured, according to the TRC report.

For the period March 1992 to February 1993, about 1 650 murders took place in ( the Vaal), according to the report.

The earliest incident in which people were mowed down was the Sharpeville massacre in which 69 unarmed protesters lost their lives on March 21, 1960, at the hands of the apartheid forces.

How do Vaal residents deal with the trauma and losses now that apartheid is no more?

As in every other year, starting with the Nangalembe massacre, old wounds will be reopened as commemorations of these atrocities are held throughout the Vaal.

In two months, the Vaal community will gather again in remembrance and honour the 69 people who died in the Sharpeville massacre.

Sedibeng district municipality mayor Simon Mofokeng said commemorating all the lives lost in the Vaal was going to become a tradition in the area.

"We can forgive but it will be a big mistake forgetting what had happened and where we come from," Mofokeng said.

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