Richmond's former mayor recalls the town's low-grade war in the early 1990s with Niren Tolsi.
Memories of the bloodshed are etched on Andrew Ragavaloo’s brain.
Driving around Richmond in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, the town’s former mayor stops outside a house or tavern and effortlessly reels off precise dates, times and the circumstances of murders which took place during conflict between the ANC and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) .
About 120 people, including four ANC councillors, were killed between April 1997 and January 1999. The picturesque village of about 3 500 inhabitants—rising to 80 000 when outlying rural areas are included—was devastated.
Richmond and the term ‘killing fields” became synonymous. ‘In the late Nineties, when anyone mentioned Richmond, it was usually followed by ‘How many dead?’” says Ragavaloo gravely.
‘Women, children and even babies were found with bullets in their heads. It was brutal, but we [the ANC] didn’t retaliate with violence the way many people expected us to. It was a sign of our political maturity,” says the ex-mayor, who was placed under 24-hour police protection.
Fifty-seven years old and walking with a crutch after a car accident, Ragavaloo is now the a principal at Richmond Combined School and speaker of the local council. Two weeks ago he launched his book, Richmond—Living in the Shadow of Death (STE Publishers), drawn largely from a diary he kept during the violence. It reads like a brutal political thriller—although perhaps a one-sided one, because of Ragavaloo’s political affiliation.
He believes the carnage was precipitated by the 1997 expulsion of local strongman Sifiso Nkabinde from the ANC on charges of being a police spy.
Nkabinde had previously refused to heed the ANC’s calls to disband the self-defence units he led against the IFP earlier in the decade. After his expulsion from the ANC he moved to the UDM. Ragavaloo says that in an attempt to ensure a continued hold on power, Nkabinde started a low-intensity war that left 120 people dead.
‘In four-and-a-half years Richmond had the highest turnover of councillors in the country. We had 31 in a town with 13 council seats. Many were forced to resign out of fear for their lives.”
There were also allegations of third force activity feeding the violence. Ragavaloo believes ‘this other hand” was intent on discrediting the ANC. ‘A third force sometimes isn’t a committee with a chair and members. They can be people who, unknown to themselves, become the third force because of their actions and the incidents they then trigger.”
Ragavaloo says Nkabinde’s expulsion led to the division of the outlying townships along party lines. Indaleni was an ANC stronghold, while nearby Magoda swore allegiance to Nkabinde and Simozomeni was favoured by the Inkatha Freedom Party.
Passing a flat patch of ground between the burnt shells of former homes in Indaleni, he says it used to be an execution site where the bodies of several ANC supporters were found.
He points to a pink house on a hill overlooking the township—his own home: ‘There was always a danger that they’d shoot at my home with a rocket propelled grenade from here. If they attacked my home, the escape route would be easy because you couldn’t cross the river [in pursuit] with a car,” he says.
Ragavaloo remembers being escorted by police to work every day and council meetings with ‘banks of security on the pavement outside”.
‘We were barricaded in there during meetings. We even had special burglar bars so that people couldn’t throw grenades into the municipal buildings while we were meeting.
‘The things I missed the most were simple things, like going outside my house to smoke a cigarette,” he says wistfully.
Ragavaloo and his wife Jenny had three children, one of whom, Dwight, died in 1998 after a car accident. When he speaks about his ‘moral position” not to condone violent reprisal and his refusal to resign as mayor during the violence, one senses that he felt the impact on his family more keenly than on himself.
‘My children liked going out and for a long while they couldn’t visit friends or even go to school without bodyguards.
‘There were so many police around our house that Dwight learned how to strip and reassemble a gun very quickly,” he says.
Guns and the sound of gunfire in Richmond were, at one time normal. Some of the more infamous murders included the Bharvic Tavern massacre in July 1998 which left eight people dead, including Richmond’s deputy mayor, Percy Thompson.
In January 1999 Nkabinde was assassinated and two of Ragavaloo’s bodyguards were implicated. One, Simphiwe Shabane, is still in prison, while Anil Jelal served time for being an accessory.
He denies knowing about the plan to kill the UDM warlord, but says anger was mounting in Richmond over Nkabinde’s reign of terror and that people were increasingly calling for a violent solution.
‘He died outside the supermarket on a Saturday morning at about 7.45am. The strange thing is that on that day the streets were empty. Maybe people had an idea.”