Out of South Africa: For Bheki, revenge is sweeter through the ballot box

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The Independent Online
JOHANNESBURG - When you write as a newspaper reporter about the damage human beings do to one another in places like South Africa, Bosnia or Somalia you do it, initially, because it's your job. But also because you hope that, by publicising the horror, someone out there - someone with power - will be persuaded to do something about it.

The thought came to mind, rather wistfully, after re-reading a story I wrote a year ago about my friend Bheki Mkhize. Bheki's 12-year-old daughter, Nozipho, was raped by two men in balaclavas who burst into his tribal family home in Ulundi, the capital of the KwaZulu 'homeland'. The whole community knew who the attackers were but an investigation by the KwaZulu police yielded no results. Then in January the same people shot one of Bheki's brothers. He took four bullets but survived.

It is clear to everyone there that people are trying to get at Bheki through his family. He is a nephew of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the man who runs the Inkatha Freedom Party, KwaZulu and the KwaZulu police. Bheki is also an active supporter of the African National Congress (ANC) and has survived, in the past three years, numerous attempts on his life. He lives in Johannesburg, where he works as a security guard. Until a year ago he lived in Soweto with two of his boys, but he had to move out. Now he lives in hiding, alone.

A few weeks back - it was a Friday - he called me. He was in Ulundi, a place he never visits unless absolutely necessary. Something had happened and he needed a big favour. His mother, who was 62, had been kidnapped a month earlier. After six days they had found her, alive but with several 'body parts' missing. Three weeks later, in hospital, she died. That night, he said, they were holding the vigil. The next day was the funeral. He needed 2,000 rand ( pounds 400). He'd pay me, if he survived the weekend, on his return home. 'There is great unsafeness here,' he said.

Four days later he appeared at my house in Johannesburg's tranquil northern suburbs, money in hand. He told me the whole story, as his family had told it. 'It was nightfall. My mother went outside to the toilet and she never came back. She disappeared. The next day my family went to a witchdoctor to find out where she was. Then to another witchdoctor and then to another one. They paid big, big money but they were full of nonsense. They gave us no light.

'Then another witchdoctor said he knew where she was. But he said it was dangerous for him to tell us. We had to pay him 800 rand.

'My family went to the place and there she was, lying. She said they had just brought her here, she had been tortured somewhere else. And those were the last words she spoke. She died in the hospital. Very slowly.'

And the body parts? 'They didn't tell me everything. They didn't want to tell me. All I know is they took out a part from her side,' he said, gesturing towards his kidneys. Why? For magic potions, for muti? 'Yes. For muti. For witchcraft.'

During the night vigil people lit fires on the hills all around, to show they were ready to fight if anyone attacked. And for the funeral a thousand people turned up. As a photographer friend of mine said when I told her the story, each person there should receive a medal for bravery. The funeral, like it or not, was political. It was pro-ANC, anti-Inkatha - sentiments in Ulundi which you simply don't express.

I saw Bheki again on Sunday in central Johannesburg, at a voter education session he had helped to organise. Some 30 people had arrived from all over the country, Ulundi included, to be trained in how to teach the black rural population how to vote. How was he? Was he going to take the traditional Zulu road of revenge? 'Yes,' he smiled. 'We must convince the people that the ballot is secret. Then Inkatha will lose the election, in Ulundi and in KwaZulu. That will be my revenge, the peaceful, sweetness of revenge.'