South Africa’s transition from the system of apartheid to a democratic state is often applauded, and rightly so. Given the long history of oppression experienced by the vast majority of the country’s citizens, the changeover from one government to another was incredibly well handled, especially when you consider what might have been. Perhaps the events that took place in Mpumalanga in the late 1980s and early ’90s served as warning enough for the country’s leaders.
Mpumalanga has an interesting history that is detailed in an essay, written by Durbal Local History Museums’ researcher, Steven Kotze. There are various reasons that Kotze cites for the violence that erupted during the final stages of apartheid, including land ownership, disputes regarding customary versus Christian leadership, industrialisation, and apartheid town planning. From an outsider’s perspective though, the tension seems largely due to political differences, with violence frequently witnessed between members of the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement (now the Inkatha Freedom Party) and supporters of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Described by some as ‘Little Beirut’, in the late 1980s the township of Mpumalanga became enveloped in violence, with no room for escape:
One of the most distinctive elements of this conflict was the absence of impartiality; literally everyone was forced to take sides regardless of their own privately held opinions. The simple fact of residence in one place or another largely indicated the allegiance held by the people living there, and exposed their families to indiscriminate attack from the opposing side”Steven Kotze, The oral history of political violence as an education tool at Mpumalanga Township, July 2015
While previous efforts at peace had failed, there came a time where there seemed no option but to attempt to reach some form of ceasefire. By April 1990 the violence in Mpumalanga had escalated to such an extent that thousands of people had been forced to flee their homes. With the region largely deserted by its residents, Mpumalanga became a full blown battle ground. Realising that things couldn’t continue they way they were, leaders on both sides of the political divide made a decision to re-establish peace talks, with Inkatha and the ANC eventually endorsing a code of conduct that had been drafted by the South African Council of Churches. Within the space of a few short months the violence that had wreaked havoc in the township was finally quelled. In 1993 the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes awarded the community of Mpumalanga the inaugural Africa Peace Award for the significant contribution that the residents had made to peace by turning one of the most violent areas in South Africa into a haven of relative peace.
If you’re interested in learning more about the story of Mpumalanga, then pay a visit to the Mpumalanga Heritage Centre. A permanent exhibition at the centre explains the history of the area, and its transition from a virtual battleground to the place that more than a hundred thousand people call home today.
Image of IFP funeral courtesy of digitalcollections.lib.uct.ac.za