Out of South Africa: When a father is no shield for his child

THIS is a story so run-of-the-mill in South Africa it barely qualifies as news. Ordinarily, it would pass unnoticed by the public - save in the context of a criminal statistic. Yet another sequence of break-in, assault and rape.

But I'll tell it anyway because it concerns a friend of mine by the name of Bheki Mkhize. He is a nephew of the Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is an active supporter of the ANC and has survived numerous attempts on his life in the past two years.

His would-be assassins have become so frustrated they have started targeting his family. Bheki lives in Johannesburg but his wife and most of his nine children have remained at the tribal family home in Ulundi, the capital of Chief Buthelezi's KwaZulu homeland. He had thought that they would be safe there.

Last Wednesday, at midnight, three men broke open the door of the house where his wife lives. Each carried a gun, a knife and a spear. Two had balaclavas over their heads. They stormed into her bedroom, where she lay with her three daughters and two babies, and said they were policemen searching for marijuana. But they made little attempt to stick to their cover story.

After bashing Bheki's wife across the back of the head with an iron bar they searched the house for money and succeeded in pocketing 92 rand ( pounds 17). Then one put a knife to her chest and asked: 'Where's your oldest boy?' She did not reply, so they hit her again until she confessed that he was in the room next door. That was Njabulo, who is 14, and lives in Soweto with Bheki's youngest son, Kingdom, who is eight. The two of them had gone down to Ulundi for the school holidays.

Two of the assailants marched into the boys' room and found Kingdom on the bed, feigning sleep. Kingdom has learnt cunning beyond his years since an episode on 9 June when a man put a gun to his head on a Soweto street and told him that if his father did not die, he would.

In this instance he put himself at risk to protect his brother. Njabulo himself was hiding under the bed.

They did not find him so they want back to beating his mother. Meanwhile, Njabulo escaped through the window. The three men then ran to the house next door, where Bheki's grandmother lives with one of his sisters and her five children. But they failed to find Njabulo. They did, however, find Thandazile, who is Bheki's niece, 18 and four-months pregnant.

One of the men grabbed her, another went back next door to grab Bheki's 12-year-old daughter, Nozipho. They took the two girls off to the bush where they raped them. When they returned, the one who had stayed behind said he, too, wanted Nozipho. So the other two stayed behind while he took her off for a second session in the bush.

'That means,' a disconsolate Bheki told me on Monday night, 'that two men raped my 12-year- old.'

At about 1am, the three men left, but not before telling Bheki's wife that this was nothing compared to what lay ahead.

At daybreak the family trooped off to the doctor and then to the police station. Now, if there is one organisation Bheki might trust even less than the South African police it is their malevolent offspring, the KwaZulu police. Funded entirely by Pretoria and run by a white general who cut his teeth in the counter-insurgency war against the ANC, the 'ZPs', as they are known, are in effect Inkatha's private army. They have been widely accused of killing ANC supporters and protecting Inkatha 'warlords' from prosecution.

Nevertheless, Bheki's family reported the case to a Detective Sergeant Mbatha, whom they furnished with the name of one of the assailants. Bheki, for his part, told the story to his lawyers in Johannesburg from versions he obtained from his wife on the phone and Njabulo and Kingdom, who are now back home. But Bheki has as little faith as his lawyers that the ZP will track the men down. So what is he to do?

'I'm very much confused,' he told me. 'But I've decided myself that I'll give them a month.' And then? Bheki thought for a long while. He is a union leader, a leader in his community in Soweto, a natural leader. People listen to him and one message he always tries to put across is not to fight fire with fire, not to avenge a death with a death. That is to play into the hands of the state. Inkatha's bosses in the security forces, Bheki knows, are never happier than when the blacks are killing each other.

'I don't know, my friend,' he finally answered. 'I'm afraid they've damaged my child. She might be pregnant. And you know, if they hit my children it's worse than killing me.' Bheki took a deep breath. 'I'll give them a month. That's what I'll do. Then if nothing happens I'll talk to my homeboys from Ulundi. I'll see what the family can do. You see, I'm afraid I'm losing control. I'm losing my faith in my principles. But if there's no law, well, I'm a human being myself.'