/ 7 November 1997

How ANC protected warlord ‘spy’

In an effort to protect its election chances, the ANC chose to shield warlord Sifiso Nkabinde despite his reign of terror in Richmond, write Sechaba ka’Nkosi and Wonder Hlongwa

The African National Congress was warned five years ago that KwaZulu-Natal warlord Sifiso Nkabinde was an apartheid spy – but chose to shield him to avoid losing votes.

The Mail & Guardian has begun to piece together the extraordinary story of how the ANC’s national leadership protected Nkabinde, even thwarting a plot by local members on the eve of the 1994 election to kill him, because it believed such action would split its support and damage its election chances.

Nkabinde, currently facing 18 murder charges, was instead allowed to build a virtually unassailable power base in Richmond, at the heart of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.

He ruled by terror an empire in which the murder of his opponents, many of them ANC members, was common, and where police needed his permission to patrol.

But the ANC only expelled Nkabinde in April this year, after finally deciding that it had enough evidence to accuse him of spying for the security forces.

Local ANC officials had been warning the party for years that he was a security risk. These warnings were apparently ignored. Instead the party ensured Nkabinde was shielded from retaliation, including, in 1994, preventing the assassination of Nkabinde and his mentor, the late Harry Gwala, by disgruntled ANC youths.

Many ANC members saw Nkabinde as a spy, and Gwala, ANC Midlands chair, as a fair target because he defended Nkabinde in public, failed to act on the spy warnings and denounced anyone questioning his protg’s rapid rise in the party.

Nkabinde only joined the United Democratic Front in 1989, but was voted the ANC’s provincial deputy secretary in 1991 after Gwala practically ordered local members to support him.

UDF regional secretary Skhumbuzo Ngwenya, the candidate who was favoured by the ANC Youth League, was gunned down by unknown assailants in Pietermaritzburg months later.

Outraged youth league members hatched the plot to murder Nkabinde and Gwala days after the March 1994 killing of Mzandile Mbongwa – the Richmond youth leader who had publicly stood up to Nkabinde. Two of Nkabinde’s henchmen were convicted of the killing.

But the plot was foiled when ANC intelligence structures tipped off the party’s national leadership. The party feared the killings could split the party and lead to a bloodbath among local branches.

The ANC was worried that any action against Nkabinde could cost them crucial votes needed against the Inkatha Freedom Party during the impending elections. Nkabinde was also seen as a useful asset given the bloody conflict with the IFP in the region.

ANC MP Ben Dikobe-Martins says the party had to look at the role Nkabinde was playing in the organisation, given that the election was approaching. “In dealing with that problem we could not exacerbate it and confuse the voters.”

Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela also visited the region in one of many attempts by the party’s national leadership to heal the rift.

The murder charges now facing Nkabinde include eight killings during his time with the ANC, and 10 after the party expelled him and he joined Bantu Holomisa’s National Consultative Forum.

At least six ANC members have been murdered in Richmond and surrounding areas since Nkabinde’s expulsion. The deaths have been blamed on Nkabinde’s bodyguards – all of them trained by Holomisa’s former Transkei Defence Force,

The bodyguards formed the core of Richmond’s self-defence unit in 1991, and were trained in the use of arms such as AK-47 assault rifles, R-4s, R-5s, mortars and hand grenades.

Nkabinde used this personal army to take total control of Richmond by 1992. Police could not enter the area without his permission, and residents who resisted Nkabinde were allegedly labelled informers, tried by kangaroo courts and then killed.

Gwala continued to promote Nkabinde, taking him on as his right-hand man in 1993, following the unsolved murder of Gwala’s former lieutenant, Reggie Hadebe.

Months before his death, Mbongwa approached senior party leaders in the province to raise his concerns about the power of Nkabinde’s self-defence unit troops.

As a sign of protest he resigned from all ANC structures in Richmond and then confronted Nkabinde with damning evidence of his activities.

ANC Richmond chair Siphiwe Ntinga then confronted Gwala, but says Gwala replied that he [Ntinga] was jealous of Nkabinde and his new position in the ANC.

Youth league provincial chair Isaiah Ntshangase adds that his organisation had denounced Nkabinde as an enemy agent early in 1992. The matter was taken up by the youth league’s national office, and from there to the ANC’s national executive committee.

“They did something, but the whole approach was not focused. Removing Gwala [from office] was just one part of a bigger process,” Ntshangase says.

Ntinga says senior leaders, including national and provincial ANC chair Jacob Zuma, knew as early as 1992 about the spying allegations.

But provincial leaders had said that “intelligence information was not equal to conclusive evidence” and that they needed more information.

Richmond mayor and ANC branch executive member Andrew Ragavaloo says numerous attempts were made to reconcile Nkabinde with his opponents, even when his expulsion was imminent.

But Ragavaloo, once a close friend of Nkabinde, said Nkabinde refused to co- operate. “We tried to contain the situation and told Sifiso that there was a possibility that things could be cleared within the ANC, but being the person he is, he refused to listen.”

Ragavaloo was forced to seek police protection earlier this year after he refused to resign from the Richmond council in support of Nkabinde. Rodney van der Byl, who also refused to step down, was shot.

The ANC trounced Nkabinde’s candidates in the subsequent Richmond council by-election in July. Days later two newly elected ANC councillors were shot dead execution-style, along with three other ANC members.

The area remains a war zone and the killings continue, even though Nkabinde is sitting in jail proclaiming his innocence.