Every day at dusk, Inkosi Mbuyiseni Ntuli (74) locks his modest home in rural northern KwaZulu-Natal and heads into dense bush to find a place to sleep. The chief joins more than 100 families too afraid to sleep in their beds in the Mbongolwane district, near Eshowe.
They are part of a remote community being terrorised by a group of heavily armed gunmen whose attacks have left more than 10 people dead in the past three months.
Hundreds more have fled to Eshowe, Mandeni and Durban.
“It’s plain criminality,” said police spokesperson Captain Musa Khaba of the motive for the attacks. “These are young guys, aged between 16 and 24, armed with high-calibre weapons like AK-47s, R-1s and G-3s [assault rifles], who go around robbing people of livestock, money and cellphones.”
The trouble began in late 2001 after a feud erupted between residents of Edakeni and Ngudwini, presided over by chiefs Mbuyiseni Ntuli and Gamalikayise Zulu respectively.
More than 30 people died and hundreds were displaced in violence. During the unrest a well-organised gang led by six men from Zulu’s area began raiding abandoned homes and stealing livestock, Khaba said.
Zulu and Ntuli brokered peace between their communities, which residents say still exists, but the crime wave continued. Mountainous terrain and dense vegetation are making it nearly impossible for the more than 60 policemen and soldiers to snare the killers, who use the bush for cover.
“We’ve apprehended three of the original six ringleaders but now they are forcibly recruiting other men in the area, giving them arms and forcing them to steal,” said Khaba.
He said police believe the attackers have also recruited trained combatants from the Msinga area in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands.
“These guys also have relatives who are helping them with supplies to survive in the bush. People are just not cooperating with us; many are scared to be seen with police.”
The violence has brought life to a standstill. Schools have been closed and a water purification scheme at Edakeni suspended. Local shops have closed their doors and fear-stricken residents have been unable to tend vegetable gardens; residents are relying on food parcels from NGOs. The traditional leaders suggest relocating residents to higher-lying areas.
In this Inkatha Freedom Party-dominated region, some believe resentment over lack of development is part of the motive. “The attackers were heard saying ‘we’re going to finish you off — why are you getting development and not us?’” said an Edakeni refugee, who did not want to be named.
Ntuli also believes this access to resources may have played a part in the attacks. “We’ve got more goats and cattle and shops than [Ngudwini residents]. We have a water scheme and they have no water. Now they want what we’ve got,” he said.
Violence monitor Mary de Haas, who has been following the conflict, agrees that development might be a motivating factor in the attacks. She adds another possibility: “that this is being done to destabilise the area in an attempt to gain control of the land. You have to ask, ‘who stands to gain when people flee the land?’”