South African Elections: History repeats itself for family of white Zulu chief: Karl Maier reports from Mangete after tracing the fortunes of the descendants of a colourful 19th-century patriarch

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The Independent Online
A LIGHT-SKINNED young man guided heavily armed troops in rural areas just north of the Tugela river in preparation for battle with the impis of the Zulu king. Zulu chiefs in the area regarded him as a traitor to the African people for his collaboration with a foreign power whose troops, they feared, were bent on the destruction of the monarchy based in the capital, Ulundi.

The scene first occurred in 1879, at the outbreak of the Anglo-Zulu war, when a Natal-born white hunter and trader named John Robert Dunn, who had become one of Zulu King Cetshwayo's most trusted advisers and a full Zulu chief, came under great pressure from the British and defected to the colonial cause. It was repeated two days ago, when Dunn's great-great- grandson, Bertie Strydom, 34, served as a guide for the South African Defence Force as it moved into the Mangete area to enforce the state of emergency declared by President F W de Klerk on 31 March.

Mr Strydom and a clan of roughly 60 other mixed-race 'coloured' families in Mangete, about 60 miles north of Durban, are direct descendants of Dunn, who by the time he died in 1895 at the age of 61 had married 49 black wives and fathered 117 children. At the peak of his power, Dunn had 7,000 mainly Zulu people living under his reign.

His legacy is immediately apparent upon entering the Mangete area in the heart of Zululand. All of a sudden light-skinned, mixed-race people are everywhere on the dirt roads and footpaths, while just a few miles down the road the complexion of the people is many shades darker.

Dunn's switch of allegiance from Cetshwayo had been a painful decision, but he could see that the king was doomed in his confrontation with the far more powerfully armed colonial army.

The equation is much the same today, with the impis of the KwaZulu 'homeland' government of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the uncle of King Goodwill Zwelithini, outgunned by the SADF, which has moved into the region with tanks, armoured personnel carriers and, so far, 3,000 troops.

But as divided as was Dunn's heart, so too are those of some of his descendants today. Bertie Strydom's older brother, Duncan, 36, is a key adviser to the local Zulu chief, K W Mathaba, who is locked in a battle with the Dunn clan over rights to the land left behind by their forefather, John. 'It is amazing the way history goes around in circles,' said Patty Joshua, the sister of Bertie and Duncan.

The battle between Chief Mathaba's people and the Dunn clan has been bubbling for the past 70 years, but was stilled for a time after the South African parliament passed a John Dunn law in 1935 awarding the families the land in Mangete. It was stoked up again after the Second World War when returning South African troops were given large tracts of land in northern Natal, and the black residents were forced to leave. Many arrived in Mangete as refugees and were allowed to live there as temporary residents.

The apartheid system struck Mangete in 1976, and the refugees were again forcibly removed, to the nearby Wangu area near the Amatikulu river controlled by Chief Mathaba's father. With their removal, the Dunn clan obtained title deeds to the land, but it was a form of ownership never fully recognised by Zulu tradition.

Today their control over the 6,000 acres of sugar-cane farms is slipping. Since May last year, their Zulu neighbours have been pushing into the area, building small huts, cutting fences and allowing their cattle to graze in the sugar-fields. Chief Mathaba has said publicly that the land belongs to the Zulus and is bitter about the practice of several families of using police escorts to tear down shacks built by his people.

There have been death threats, especially against the most active of the clan - Dan Dunn (former head of the now dissolved Dunn's Descendants Association), Bertie, and his brother, Fred Strydom, 45.

'There is a force that wants chaos here and throughout the country,' said one family member. 'I am sure it is coming from central Ulundi (the KwaZulu capital). I think this is a method to disrupt the normal way of life.'

The death threats are taken seriously by the family members, given that the continuing war in the region between Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress has spasmodically exploded into violence, especially at the Sundumbili township in Mandini, the main town about five miles way. 'Three Sundays ago, two men were shot and a third had his throat slit, down by the beach,' said Fred Strydom. 'We have put bars up on the doors and we cannot let the children out to play in the garden.' The home of one of his uncles, Cuthbert Dunn, has been firebombed.

But a lack of dynamism has clouded the clan's future as well. Nolan Strydom, who married John Dunn's great granddaughter, Silvie, in the Forties, tried to revive the clan but left the area in frustration at the family's lack of ambition. Others have emigrated to Australia and New Zealand, or simply moved to southern Natal. 'The active people have either died or left the area,' said Fred Strydom, who works as a car mechanic in Mandini. 'The farming is dwindling, and the troubles here have forced the big company here, Hullett, to consider withdrawing. We are thinking of moving out.'

(Photograph omitted)