Next year would be his last in politics, David Dlali told his friends and family. He had spent a lifetime fighting in the struggle, first by slipping across the border right under the noses of the apartheid military, then by preparing to do battle in the townships during the transition years and later in Parliament and in executive government.
At 52, his burning ambition was to fix up the farmhouse on the land he owned near Cedarville in the Eastern Cape, not far from where he had been born in Mount Frere, and dedicate himself to farming the picturesque hills. Perhaps, on occasion, he would load his bakkie with pumpkins and drive down the road to Kokstad, as he had once done. Mostly, though, he would tend his sheep, cattle and goats and know peace.
When Dlali’s bloodied body was found last week, 15 minutes before sunrise, the first suspicion among his neighbours was that he had run afoul of the stock thieves that plague the district. With Lesotho to the northwest, the former Transkei to the southwest and rural KwaZulu-Natal to the northeast, sheep have a habit of disappearing en masse. The raids are usually peaceful, but farmers have little doubt that the thieves are armed and capable of violence if cornered – and Dlali did not strike them as a man who would stand idle if he stumbled across a rustling in progress.
As news of his death, probably from a gunshot wound rather than the blunt trauma to his head, filtered through to family in Gugulethu and colleagues in Parliament and the Western Cape ANC, the immediate concern was that it had been a political killing. Dlali was not involved in anything particularly fraught as far as they knew, but as a medium-profile political leader and a Cabinet-level adviser for the minister for women, children and people with disabilities, there may have been a motive somewhere. The lack of immediate evidence of robbery fuelled those concerns.
Elsewhere, various groups were trying to determine whether Dlali’s death should be categorised as a farm murder.
For some – those who claim a political motive behind what they describe as the genocide of white farmers – it would have been inconvenient to have a black man die in such a crime. Those on the other side of the spectrum considered using his death as a way to deracialise farm murders to show that it is isolation and opportunity that results in farmers dying brutally, rather than hatred based on skin colour.
But Dlali did not die because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or directly because he had been an operative of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or because murky politics had caught up with him, or even because robbers took sick pleasure in wreaking violence on him. Not exactly. His death was a family matter, it seems.
Three days after Dlali’s body was discovered, police announced the arrests of 22-year-old farm manager Simthembile Jakalase and a slightly younger herdboy. They had also recovered a few thousand rand in cash and an AK-47, they said. The implication was that the murder had been an insider robbery gone wrong.
Or perhaps not quite. The Mail & Guardian has established that Jakalase was Dlali’s son and the illegal assault rifle, the presumed murder weapon, had mostly likely belonged to Dlali, a relic from his MK and self-defence unit days.
The rest is speculation and extra-polation. Although police will confirm that there has been a confession and a pointing-out exercise in the case, they will not release more information or speculate about the motive.
“We had an indication early on that we would make a breakthrough, so we made a decision not to place too much information in the public domain and so jeopardise a successful prosecution,” said Eastern Cape police spokesperson Brigadier Miranda Mills. And although a legal aid representative has been appointed for the accused, he has barely had any consultation with the other alleged killers, who remain behind bars.
However, a variety of sources paint a likely picture of a man who, although a former member of Parliament and a staunch proponent of harsh punishment for criminals, kept an illegal weapon on a farm in an area where stock theft is rife and had a son who felt abandoned to poverty by the man who was both his relatively rich father and his employer. Perhaps there was a verbal tussle that escalated because there was nobody to intervene and no witnesses, resulting in a death and an ill-concealed body discovered on a chilly winter morning.
So, perhaps Dlali did ultimately die because he had fought in the struggle and because he had feared stock theft and because of the isolation of farmers. Perhaps his death will be classified as a farm murder by those who keep statistics. Or, perhaps not.
A caring combination of toughness and charm
He was a daring operator for Umkhonto weSizwe, said ANC leader Mcebisi Skwatsha of David Dlali, the man who recruited him to the party. He was a disciplined and diligent soldier with entertaining stories of the disguises he used to slip into and out of South Africa. Others have described him as a fearless soldier and commander, but tend to dwell on incidents such as the time he talked himself out of trouble at a police roadblock.
This mixture of toughness and charm seems to have defined Dlali’s struggle career, throughout his efforts to establish self-defence units, his arrest in Gugulethu on weapons charges, his stint as a ANC provincial leader in the Western Cape after the unbanning of the party and his work with various trade unions.
For his eight years as a member of Parliament, he is best remembered as a hardliner, especially in terms of land redistribution and the tenure of farmworkers. “The social basis for expropriation and provision of land assistance is at the centre of meeting the national developmental goals and meeting the challenges of poverty in the context of the millennium development goals,” he said in a 2008 speech, arguing for the expropriation of underused land. “The ANC has a revolutionary obligation to make sure that we do realise this goal.”
Accusing all white farmers of illegally evicting workers from their land was controversial, but not uncharacteristic. “His passion for defending those who are vulnerable in our society will remain indelible in our memories,” said Lulu Xingwana, minister of women, children and people with disabilities. Dlali had served as her special adviser, occasionally delivering speeches in her stead.
But when he himself took to farming, his passion and politics did not cause trouble with his white neighbours, who said they looked forward to him becoming a permanent member of their community.
“He was always worried about the condition of the sheep and the goats,” one neighbour said last week. “Any man who cares about his animals that way is a good man.” – Phillip de Wet