/ 24 April 2014

KZN’s Romeo and Juliet, two decades later

Cindy Mlaba.
Cindy Mlaba.

The home of former Inkatha Freedom Party strongman Sipho Mlaba, in the Mpumalanga township of Hammarsdale outside Durban, is now the domain of women.

Along with Meshack Hadebe, now the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for agriculture and environmental affairs, Mlaba – who died in 2006 after defecting to the National Democratic Convention (Nadeco) – was instrumental in brokering peace in the township, which was one of those worst hit by political violence in the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1994.

In 1993, Mlaba's 18-year-old son, Bruce, had a child with Nomama Meyiwa, then a shy 15-year-old girl from "Extension", a part of the township in which the ANC was dominant.

In the years before her pregnancy, the young couple met in secret – the township was divided into garrisons split along political lines.

"The day I met Bruce, Inkatha had a meeting at the college, which was at Section Two," she recalls, now a 36-year-old married woman who uses the surname Mlondo. "I was at Section One at the time, so I was forced out the house and forced to go along to the meeting. Bruce was there and his dad was speaking at that meeting. He said he loved me at that meeting but it took me like a week to respond to him."

Mlondo says her father was from Section One, so she would sometimes go there. But having met and fallen in love with Mlaba, she would go to a secluded hangout that the couple frequented.

"The other time I was there making out with Bruce, my cousin saw us and took my clothes and left me naked. I had to get clothes from one of his sisters."

Their romance hit the headlines and was held up as a symbol of truce being brokered between the warring parties in the province.

Mlondo says that when Cindy was born (a few months premature) her mother and grandmother didn't want her to join the Mlaba family because they feared the baby wouldn't get there in one piece.

Though she was a Meyiwa, Mlondo is not related to the prominent Meyiwa family in the neighbourhood, that of former Robben Islander Matthew Meyiwa.

"My parents weren't even politically involved," she says, sitting on a couch in her mother's home, fidgeting with a hairpiece. "It was just the area of the township we were from. I didn't experience any direct violence but there were times when it reached our neighbours in the streets above our house."

By the time Cindy turned three, the relationship between Mlaba and Mlondo had petered out, even as the situation around them was stabilising.

"Who knows what would have happened had the circumstances we met under been different?" Mlondo says. "People break up anyway. Our relationship ended because the love had ended. That was that."

Cindy is now a 21-year-old woman with sharp eyes. She has a mixture of her mother's shyness coupled with a combative streak. She says she hardly remembers her dad.

Although Cindy passed matric several years ago, she can't enrol for further education because of a technicality involving her identity documents and matric certificate: they bear different surnames.

She is currently looking after her diabetic grandmother.

Her father has been behind bars since 2004 in connection with a "robbery, rape and murder rampage" involving two other men who, according to newspaper reports, "killed seven people and attempted to murder 11 people" in both Hammarsdale and Pietermaritzburg in July 2003.

Mlondo says the imprisonment of Mlaba has had a visible effect on her daughter. "It's affected her attitude. She's rude and she doesn't have someone to run to. If we had fights in the past, she would run to her dad. She still tells him if we shout at her and he gives us hell from prison for disciplining his daughter."

Nana Mlaba, Cindy's aunt, says her niece's attitude changes whenever she visits the Mlaba household. From early on in her life, Cindy was raised as a Mlaba, in a house that was recovering from the volatility of a violent province. Nana, Zethu and Zama, Sipho Mlaba's three daughters from his first wife, describe life in the household in the 1980s as a harrowing, traumatic experience.

"We spent most of our lives in boarding school," says Zethu. "During school holidays, we would be taken to hiding places because of the ongoing violence in the township. They threatened to burn our house I don't know how many times."

Zethu remembers lying flat as the house was sprayed with bullets from AK-47s, breaking all of the windows.

Nana says: "So, growing up, we would hardly see our dad or Bruce. My mom would come visit us at school but if we were going to the beach we would have to travel under guard. When we came into the township, we would do so under the cover of sails. We would lie flat inside the car and they would cover us."

The sisters say the situation at home became so bad that their father decided to live alone with only his guards and moved his wife and son Bruce away. His businesses were also attacked and razed. The sisters say these events hardened Bruce, a "quiet, caring, young man" who became a hardened, repeat offender.

"It wasn't only Bruce; most of the people here who grew up around that period are disturbed in some way, be it too much liquor or drugs," Zama says. "None of them are functional beings. Maybe they should have gotten some kind of psychiatric help."

Nana adds: "Section One North, where our family lives, was an IFP stronghold. As a result of the IFP losing power politically, people here feel neglected, so they get swayed easily by other political parties promising them improved conditions. For example, there are hardly any taxis going past One North. Your skin can peel off while you wait in the sun for a taxi.

"Even if there are projects happening in the township, One North gets overlooked when they are looking for labour. It's one of the reasons why there is a lot of housebreaking, raping of old women. It's part of that confusion that people are feeling, that thing of feeling leaderless."

Partly because of the relationship the family built up with Hadebe during the brokering of peace, and his continued respect for their father's role in it, the Mlaba fold is now an ANC family.

But Zama is cautious. "I don't like politics; it destroyed my family," she says. "Even after the peace, it's not good to see how my dad was regarded [as a warlord]. Meshack Hadebe is the only person who remembers my dad's true legacy in helping to bringing peace in Mpumalanga.

"I don't care for politics but I have seen the difference some political parties make. Meshack, I would say, inspires me to vote. If I could vote for him personally, I would …

"I can say he is following in our father's footsteps, in that he approaches politics as a civic duty towards your fellow man. He's the reason we're ANC members in this family. He's doing work my dad would be proud of."