When Mercy Zani-Merriman's daughter was found murdered on a Yorkshire moor, it was just one more chapter in a tragic history covering three generations and two continents
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
MERCY ZANI-MERRIMAN lives in darkness. On a winter lunchtime without light in the West Yorkshire sky, she is slow to come to the door of her rented grey terraced house. Her doorbell emits a feeble, dying buzz. Then she is there in the drizzle: small and stocky and middle-aged, a mop of dreadlocks swathed in sweaters, moving slowly, as if dazed. She looks fine-boned, foreign and lost. She ushers me through the gloom of her living-room (she cannot always afford light-bulbs) to a lumpy black sofa, marooned on faded carpet. Her voice is cowed, almost inaudible. Yes, she will talk to me, she whispers, but other journalists have upset her and she wants to wait. She reaches for her diary, but her eyes are far away.

Journalists want to talk to Mercy for a simple reason. Her daughter, who was 15 and pretty and called Nobantu, has been murdered. Her decomposed body was found on the windswept top of the moors above Bingley at the end of September, hidden under branches beside an outcrop of rock called Druid's Altar. She was fully clothed, and had been strangled with her own chiffon scarf some time in the previous fortnight. Nobantu, who was also known as Mandy, had not been seen for certain since 11 September. She had not been to school since the start of term; she had not slept a night at home for months.

Since September, with the murder still unsolved, this apparent neglect has come to dominate the Zani story. "Tragic Mandy Zani's mother was warned 40 times about her daughter's truancy," began a typical article in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus; soon this view of Mercy - who was (and is) a single mother, poor, black, and seemingly unable to explain herself to the media - was being amplified in the national press. The news that Nobantu had spent the missing months leading up to her death in Manningham, an area of Bradford notorious for runaways and prostitution, made Mercy look even worse: oblivious to, or uncaring about, what the newspapers called her daughter's "double life".

Amid all this innuendo, Mercy Zani-Merriman's true past went largely uninvestigated. That she was in fact a widow, a South African with a political past, and a middle-class refugee studying for her third degree slipped by. Yet even Nobantu's name should, and could, have given a clue: for she was named after Bantu Stephen Biko, the black freedom fighter who died in a South African police cell two decades ago.

The path to Nobantu's tragedy can be traced back through those decades and beyond, through her family's years of political struggle alongside Biko, years of rebellious power and prestige followed by defeated wandering and exile across Africa and, ultimately, by their struggle to adapt to damp lunchtimes in West Yorkshire. In particular, it can be traced to a day in early 1985, when Mercy's tall, taciturn husband, Thami Zani, a leader of the Pan-Africanist Congress, died in a hail of gunshots on the border between South Africa and Lesotho. Then, as in September, Mercy worried, waited, and was bereaved. And her life was set on a new course. "If Thami Zani had survived that attack," says Tony Whittle, the detective superintendent investigating Nobantu's death, "where would he be now? And what lifestyle would the family have? They could have been living in some splendour in South Africa... certainly not in poor accommodation in Bradford, with the tragedy of Nobantu."

MERCY CHOOSES a sad cellar bar towards the centre of Bradford in which to describe her downward spiral. The mid-afternoon regulars seem to know her. "I hate being in the house," she says. She sits behind a half of lager with her 10-year-old son Thami, named after her husband and born on the day of his funeral.

She has come close to cancelling our interview twice, via a friend with a telephone, and she was not home at the time we finally agreed to meet. But now, after suddenly calling from the city centre and demanding to be picked up, she seems quite different. She is wearing a flaming red jumper, red earrings and a smart wool coat, her dreadlocks are tidier, and her voice is louder, more African, more resolved. She even laughs. "After all the reports in the tabloid papers I really became angry, so I had to come out and talk," she says, with a media-competent crispness. "Now I can read the papers critically - analyse them. Before, I couldn't do it. If I read a newspaper I had to flick past anything to do with Nobantu - and I'm normally an avid reader." She takes the Guardian.

Mercy's Zulu father read psychology and politics books in his spare time as a factory worker in Durban. He was poor: the promise of a bicycle lured him to sign up for service in the Second World War. The bicycle never materialised, but he survived campaigns in North Africa, Italy and Germany and came back to the city to make a family with a nurse who became Mercy's mother. Mercy was born in 1950. Coastal Durban was less viciously racist than the Afrikaaner hinterland, and beautifully subtropical: "I loved the climate, the lovely beaches. It was green right through the year." She looks at the tobacco-stained ceiling: "Real lush."

Unusually for then and there, Mercy wanted to have a career, and took a job at the YMCA in Durban. One of her colleagues there was a social worker and a political activist, and from time to time a medical student used to come round and discuss black politics with him. It was the late Sixties, and the ANC leadership had been locked up for years; the medical student, who was four years older than Mercy and would shift her life in a new direction, was Steve Biko, who had an idea about how to fill this political void. He called it Black Consciousness - the rebuilding of a sense of black dignity and independence. "He was a genius," says Mercy, her eyes shining.

Biko co-founded a new student union, breaking away from the old, white- dominated one, and set up Black Community Programmes to help the poor. Mercy was prepared to help, but saw the risks: in 1973 the government banned Biko from political activity in Durban, and he left to work on a Community Programme in the small colonial city of King William's Town, 300 miles away in the Eastern Cape.

Mercy stayed behind and, the following year, met her husband. "I had a friend at the student union office. I used to go and see her at lunchtime. He was there too. He was studying politics and psychology. He offered to buy me a meal; we started talking. I'd known him for only six months when we married." She smiles: "I'd always vowed I'd never get married."

Thami Zani was the general secretary of the black student union, following in Biko's footsteps; his father was a wealthy schools inspector. The dissident South African journalist Donald Woods described Zani in his biography of Biko: "Another remarkable friend of Steve's was Thami Zani, who at one stage held the Black People's Convention record for solitary confinement (423 days) and was as tough and as dedicated to the cause as it was possible to be. A big, strong man, he looked like a boxing champ but was... one of the biggest brains in the movement." Telephone Woods or one of Zani's surviving colleagues today and the memories are fond: "Ah, Thami," they say.

In 1975, Mercy received an early indication of the price of this reputation: Thami was arrested without charge and held in preventive detention for a year. They had been married three months, and Mercy was pregnant. "When he went to prison he would hear police in the next room saying the baby had died," she recalls. She was not allowed to visit him.

When Thami was released, the baby had grown into a six-month-old boy called Uhuru. Together, the family moved down to King William's Town. Biko had made the local Community Programme the centre of Black Consciousness; Thami quickly became his lieutenant.

Life was comfortable: "We had a nice house," says Mercy, her voice sweetening. "It had two gardens - I love gardening - a flower garden and a vegetable garden..." Her son Thami fidgets on the seat beside her and interrupts in his new Bradford accent: "The garden was as big as a massive field." Mercy smiles indulgently. "When I came here [to England], I saw people parked their cars in the road. I couldn't understand it." She laughs, a sudden, cackling laugh that cuts through the hubbub of the red-faced regulars.

But the Zanis' prestige and comfort were overshadowed - as that of dissidents tends to be - by the state's hovering, oppressive presence. Like Biko, Thami had been put under a banning order, forbidding him to leave the King William's Town area and confining him to his house from 6am to 6pm. Mercy had to assume a more subservient role than she had previously aspired to: "I had to be with him, to be there for him." She was "supportive" of his work, but not too directly involved. "You had to be careful not to be seen as a political activist, or they'd send you to prison - and then who would look after your kid?" She counselled other wives with husbands in detention and taught children with learning difficulties: "I always had a job." But there were also her two labradors, and a collie, and her gardening; Mercy's life was better than those of most black people in South Africa. She and Thami even had white friends.

In his book, Donald Woods describes the "stream of visitors who beat a path to unlikely King William's Town" to see Biko. He was one of them; today, he remembers Thami as "rather reserved until you got to know him. He looked quite a menacing figure: very dark, and wearing dark clothes." Nevertheless, they became friends: later, Woods dedicated his book to him, among others.

Another white friend of the Zanis, who were committed Christians, was Father Aelred Stubbs, a member of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection. He had been working in a seminary in the Eastern Cape since 1963 and since 1973 had been visiting dissidents under banning orders. Thami's politics were turning more radical - he became a leader of the Black People's Convention, which even Biko thought too overtly political for safety - but he and the Old Etonian Stubbs got on well. "Thami was a very warm person," says Stubbs, now wispy-bearded and living in a small room in the Community's London priory just off the Strand. "He was tireless in his efforts for the Black People's Convention. His attitudes to liberation had hardened through the treatment he had received, but he suffered no psychological damage. He was very balanced."

Thami was a fixture at the Community Programme's hilltop clinic outside King William's Town. Here, he and Biko and the others could treat the sick and hold illegal meetings, even parties. But for Mercy, it was all increasingly stressful: "I really used to hate the country [South Africa]. I used to say I'd grab the first chance to go somewhere else." In August 1977, Biko was stopped and arrested at a Security Police roadblock; three and a half weeks later, he was dead, beaten to death in custody. In October the Black Consciousness Movement and Thami's Black People's Convention were banned. Woods was put under his own banning order; Stubbs had already been expelled from the country. King William's Town seemed less comfortable. A year later, the Zani family stole across the border into Lesotho, the nearest foreign territory.

At first, they could still lead their middle-class life. With the help of a bursary from the UN, Thami enrolled at the University of Lesotho to study law. Stubbs, too, had moved to Lesotho, for a new life of isolation and prayer, and the University was full of South Africans, killing time and gaining qualifications like all political exiles. A fellow student remembers: "The political refugees were introverts. But Thami was a hard- working student."

Thami also tried to get a Black Consciousness group going. But he lacked Biko's charisma, and another black organisation - the Pan-Africanist Congress, a more racially separatist splinter of the ANC - was already well established. It fitted the way Thami's politics were moving, and he joined in 1981. He became the PAC's diplomatic representative in Lesotho; he also began working for its military department, crossing back into South Africa to smuggle arms and carry out acts of sabotage.

Although the PAC was illegal in Lesotho, Thami's activities were widely known. As usual, Mercy had to endure his long, dangerous absences at home. "I did worry," she says, her eyes clouding over. "He did worry himself. He always said to me, 'Be prepared. I may die any time...' But you get used to the threat of death." Around this time, Mercy gave birth to a daughter. She called her Nobantu.

IN MARCH 1985 Thami was told to slip into South Africa with five PAC colleagues and a van-load of explosives. He was two months away from his law finals, and he had misgivings. The Lesotho government was dependent on trade with South Africa, and was anxious to clamp down on anti-apartheid exiles.

But Thami had his orders. So he and his colleagues loaded their van and drove up into the highlands where the two countries met. They were followed: the Lesotho government had learnt of the operation, and despatched a patrol from its Paramilitary Unit (PMU) to cut them off. Somewhere near the border on 10 March, the PAC van was ambushed. Thami and the other passengers returned fire but were overwhelmed. All six of them were shot, repeatedly and fatally. Their bodies were buried and the van set ablaze.

At first, no one knew. Then news reached London, spread back to South Africa, and the bodies were discovered and exhumed. The South African press carried a short report. For Mercy, this was confirmation of a fear that had become dread: "I was in my 14th week of pregnancy [with Thami junior]. We lived quite a few miles from the nearest hospital, and he had the car. I was thinking, 'Oh gosh, when is he coming back?' But my dogs were psychic. The collie gave birth to seven puppies while he was away. One day it just devoured them. I could hear them wailing..." Her voice has shrunk to a whisper again. "I didn't hear for three weeks, but I knew." Thami giggles beside her, a young child wanting to skim over a painful adult thought, then says, "Just like Nobantu." Mercy grimaces, then looks into space. "I was devastated," she says.

But from her bereavement Mercy gained a new, more individual resolve. She had her third child on the day of Thami's funeral, and named him after his father. She stayed in Lesotho for a year as the baby grew. The police knocked on her door with increasing frequency. Then, in 1986, the newly self-reliant Mercy reluctantly did a self-reliant thing - which changed her situation as sharply as her husband's death had. She found the money to send her children to her mother's in Durban. She did this, she says, because "I was scared for their safety." Yet her anxiety brought dangers of its own: it was from that moment that her hold on her children began to slip. She was not to see them for four formative years - formative for her as well as them. Later, the freedom which she now began to experience would be hard to give up.

She fled first to Zimbabwe, then to Tanzania. Living in a refugee camp - her nice house and garden a distant memory - she soon contracted malaria. She fought it off, regained her health, and found herself alone. "How could I have provided for the kids there?" she asks. But her solitude led to other things; in 1987, Mercy won a scholarship funded by the South African Communist Party (close allies of the ANC) to study for a master's degree in international politics somewhere much safer, and colder: Durham University. "This was my great break," she says.

Mercy smiles as she remembers the date she arrived - 19 October 1987. It was to be a happy, independent time. For three years she walked between over-warm libraries along the tumbling medieval streets, pondering the politics and economies of Western Europe: "It was like being in a different world. People were friendly on campus. I loved the studying." Her children were in a different world, a world of communal violence; she wrote to them, phoned them, waited while the Anti-Apartheid Movement lobbied for visas and fundraised for tickets to England, then waited for the appointed day to come. But the waiting was not all painful: her life in Durham was a release from more than political danger.

Mercy received settling-in money from a trust fund for exiles set up by Donald Woods, by then also living in England. And yet again Father Stubbs was within reach, now working for his Community in an inner-city area of nearby Sunderland. Graduating in 1990, she immediately embarked on another master's degree - "Mercy has tremendous faith in qualifications," says Stubbs. Then she won a place in the pioneering Peace Studies department of Bradford University. In other ways, too, Bradford seemed suitable. It was closer to London, where most South African exiles were, and famously multicultural. An Islamic mission occupied the old church behind the house she rented; the streets around it were boisterous with Asian families; she encountered little racism.

Mercy made friends in Bradford and neighbouring towns, got invited for supper, drank in local pubs, and relished her Peace Studies, pointing out to her new liberal acquaintances - eager for tales of oppression in South Africa - rather awkward similarities between her country and Northern Ireland. "They said, 'It's so different,'" she remembers. "Even the supervisor discouraged me."

When her children finally arrived, later in 1990, they seemed fine. A local friend called Angela Dale, whom Mercy had met through the Peace Studies department, drove her to the airport to pick them up. "They were beautifully dressed - almost in Victoriana - and they had pictures of a lovely seaside retreat [in Durban]," says Dale. Stubbs had the same impression: "I remember Mercy coming to an open day at the Community with her eldest son. And I was very impressed. He was only 14, and had only been in the country three months, but he could cope, find his way round. He was a quiet kid, but remarkably poised."

Mercy, however, was less poised now. With the arrival of her children, she needed more money than a student grant and the odd cleaning job could provide. A degree in Peace Studies did not suggest an obvious career path, so she decided to become a social worker. In early 1991, she abandoned Peace Studies for a practical diploma at the University of Humberside. It was just the course she wanted, an hour east along the motorway.

Unfortunately, Mercy couldn't afford a car. Lectures began at 9.15am; for her this meant getting up at 4.30am in Bradford and catching two different trains to Hull, leaving her children, then aged 16, 12, and seven, to get themselves to school. "They used to end up not going to school," Mercy admits. Nobantu and Uhuru (whose name had been Anglicised to Wallis) hated Buttershaw Upper School. After a strict and demanding education in South Africa, they found the housing estate comprehensive both too easy and too rough. Uhuru was two years ahead of his classmates; the well-mannered Nobantu was intimidated by hers. Their ambitious, middle-class mother, struggling to acquire a professional training, was not best placed to give them the support they needed.

At the end of 1991, Mercy persuaded her mother to come over from South Africa to help out. It was a disaster: "All winters are cold in Yorkshire - especially if you come from Natal," says Stubbs. "Her mother endured three months... and said, 'I can't stand this. I'm going home.' " Mercy shifted her studies back from Hull to Bradford College, where she could continue the same diploma and keep more of an eye on her children.

It was not enough. During 1993, the determined balancing-act of personal survival, aspiration, and family cohesion that Mercy had managed - with help from others - since her husband's death began to break down. She failed to attend any lectures for the Bradford course; she did some teaching at a social services centre for people with learning disabilities, then gave it up; she considered becoming a nurse. She reached out for the help her mother couldn't provide, marrying a local man called Paul Merriman. After a short time - so short her friends deny that the marriage took place at all - they separated. In the local pubs, Mercy went from cheery face to eyebrow-raising fixture.

Thami and Uhuru coped relatively well. Uhuru got into a local college, and the tiny Thami grew cheeky but remained his mother's boy. (In the bar, he keeps trying to grab Mercy's drink away from her, but stays glued to her side.) Polite little Nobantu was the problem. She had eventually adapted to Buttershaw by copying the hard kids. Now, "short of Mercy locking her in her room - which she couldn't do - there wasn't much she could do with her," says Detective Superintendent Whittle. "She didn't want to go to school."

Nobantu, now 14 and unusually pretty, stopped coming home every night. "I warned her," says Mercy despairingly, voice dropping again, "about this girl I saw on TV, a black girl from Leeds: she died, and was found somewhere in South Yorkshire. I said, 'Nobantu, you'll end up like her.' I really did worry. I sent her for counselling. I talked to lots of people... I used to spend hours..."

THIS SPRING, Mercy tried locking Nobantu in the house; she escaped through a window. An education welfare officer was assigned to escort her to school; Nobantu began to disappear before the officer arrived each morning. Finally, Mercy asked Bradford social services to take her daughter into care. Again, she admits, she was asking someone else to carry the burden.

They didn't take Nobantu away; instead, Mercy decided to let her stay at a friend's. "This friend of hers used to spend weekends at my house, and Nobantu used to spend weekends at her house. One weekend [in July], she didn't come back. I went through her diary. Then I realised she had this boyfriend in the same street... I put a stop to it, and she didn't like that... Then she started defying me again. She was still going to Manningham."

No one is exactly sure what Nobantu did there. Two or three miles from Mercy's house, Manningham is a ribbon of temptations along one of the main roads in and out of Bradford. There are late-opening cafes with pool tables and pinball machines, a huge purple-fronted night-club, takeaway pizza kitchens and all-night petrol stations - sanctuaries for bored teenagers. There are also sex shops behind steel shutters on Manningham Lane, prostitutes getting cold, and hard young men cruising by. "Teenagers will always find company there," says Whittle. "Not the right company, necessarily."

By late July, Nobantu was seeking this company nearly every night. She would come home to change in and out of school uniform, but she was not going to school, or her friend's. There was a rumour at Buttershaw that she was pregnant; Mercy believed she was getting involved with the prostitution scene. There is no proof of either, but Mercy was worried enough to report her missing to the police at least once.

On 9 September, a Saturday, Nobantu went missing again. That Monday, Uhuru saw her outside the City Hall, catching a Halifax bus. (Nobantu may have taken this bus before; there is a stop for it outside her mother's house.) The next Saturday, she may have been spotted in the Kirkgate shopping centre in Bradford. After that - nothing. Again, Mercy waited at home.

Early in the morning on 30 September, Mercy thought she heard her daughter at the door. But it was a policewoman: Nobantu was dead.

Mercy was used to mourning. She was not, however, used to mourning in public. Within days, the press were on her case. "The reporters would come at 7am - just wait on the doorstep. They went to neighbours' houses, they went to pubs all over to ask if they'd seen a black person. It was very insensitive of them..." Now, she says this calmly, anger only in her phrasing, as she stares across the bar from her protective bundle of clothes. Then, she failed the modern bereavement test: "I refused to be interviewed by them... It was still too early. I was still trying to absorb the shock of the news."

Eventually, she agreed to talk - or, rather, she agreed to be interviewed; she said very little, freezing despairingly on local television and greeting newspaper reporters with blank silences from her lumpy sofa. Another moral panic about bad parenting was underway; Mercy received abuse in the street.

"I think they were racist in their reporting," she says. "There are always children taking parents' credit cards and going abroad, and yet they go on about Nobantu's 'Double Life'. I don't know what a double life is. I hate that labelling. She had a single life - and that's been cruelly taken away from her."

THE MORE articulate, more confident Mercy of assertions like this rests on shaky foundations. You sense she could be staring at the walls tomorrow. "She's very bored," says Angela Dale. "Keeping house is not her forte." Mercy's daughter has not yet been buried - the police still need her body for forensic evidence - and the circumstances of her death remain vague. "I believe that her murder was directly connected to her lifestyle," says Whittle. He insists she was not a prostitute, and suggests that the lack of a sexual assault may indicate she knew her attacker.

Could the Zanis' South African past, which Whittle discovered while reading Woods's Biko biography on holiday, offer a clue? It seems unlikely. West Yorkshire police have contacted the South African High Commission, and the High Commissioner - an ANC veteran whom Mercy knows - has offered to help the investigation. South Africa House arranged a telephone for Mercy to call her mother in Durban with the tragic news. But that was all. No suggestion of embittered Afrikaaner Security Police following Nobantu on to the West Yorkshire moors - just one murder investigation among many in the region, "at a bit of a standstill".

For Mercy, meanwhile, Bradford seems colder, and less welcoming, than it did. "There's no South African group," says Whittle. "Asian people can come here and settle into a group... The Zanis don't fit in with the Afro-Caribbeans - but people assume they are [Afro-Caribbean]. They are not recognised as South Africans." Mercy's piping speech can confuse English ears, and her children have all suffered abuse at school from Asian classmates. After Nobantu's murder and the subsequent publicity about Mercy, Dale says that she "sat all day in the incident room and the phone didn't ring once." And even some of Mercy's friends may not know what she's suffered - one of them told me he wasn't sure whether to believe what he'd heard about Thami and the PAC. When I ask Mercy if her view of the city has changed, she says, "Oh yes. It has. It has. It has," repeating herself softly as if she cannot understand how her life there has gone wrong.

Does she want to go back to South Africa? She pauses for a long time. Weary chat drifts through from the other side of the bar. "I would like to go back and see how things are and maybe explore the possibilities of settling," she says. Later, she adds: "I do think of things I could be doing there to contribute to the new South Africa, using my talents, my qualifications that aren't appreciated here."

But Mercy can't even afford to telephone her mother, now in an old people's home in Durban, let alone an air fare. And since her husband died in Lesotho at foreign hands, there is little chance of compensation from the new South African government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She seems to sense that her chance to flourish in that country - perhaps as a cabinet minister's wife, with gardens to match, or at least as a war hero's spouse - died in Thami's ambush. "That was the axial moment in her life," says Father Stubbs. "Her old life was shattered, and she had to make her own way." Not every member of the diaspora scattered for so long by such a brutal struggle - and this includes Stubbs himself, praying in his small room in Covent Garden, and Woods, listening to the cricket from South Africa on Radio Four - is going to return home now.

To look quickly at Mercy's house is to see her as doomed. There is a mattress rotting in her front garden, student neighbours watching television behind closed curtains, laundry being hung in grimy back passages by the street's poor pensioners. But look closer, and there is a new front door and a new kitchen; her landlord is a housing association. She has been through periods as bad, or far worse. In fact, her whole life has been made up of defiant reaction, wise and unwise, to adverse circumstances. (One effect of this life has been to make Mercy an expert at enlisting help: the friend who drives her to our meeting cites her charm, and her bossiness.) "She's a trier," says Whittle, who has seen a lot of victims. Mercy recently went up to Druid's Altar to see where Nobantu was found.

In the melancholy fug of the bar, I ask her if she feels unlucky. "When I was 21 my father committed suicide," she says, almost apologetically mentioning this for the first time. "Then my husband was shot dead and then..." She trails off; I have a sense of peering into an ever-deepening abyss. "Yes, I do feel unlucky." Then, louder: "But anything that doesn't kill one makes one stronger... You've got to edit the past and start again." A minute later she walks back out into the cold. !