The viciousness and racism of apartheid grew to a crescendo just before its collapse was imminent. Activists disappeared and freedom fighters died suspiciously while others in the resistance were incarcerated, banished or banned. Brutality rose, torture was more widespread and ‘the era of secret slaughter’* began in earnest in South Africa in the mid-80’s.
In the Eastern Cape, the Transkei security police harassed activists like the Ntsebeza brothers, Godfrey Silinga and Matthew Goniwe. When the activists circulated political literature, provided legal assistance to other activists or tried to gather, boxes of books would be carried off, telephone lines were tapped and death-threats were made by the police:
‘It is no use arresting communists like you, you just come out and do the same things. There is only one solution’* – Captain Venter of the Queenstown security branch drew his finger across his throat, warning Matthew Goniwe and Lungisile Ntsebeza.
1985 saw tensions, uprisings and protests reach a fever pitch in the ‘homelands’ of the Transkei and Ciskei. The State Security Council gave the instruction that stability should be restored at any cost after a visit to the Eastern Cape by P.W. Botha, Magnus Malan (defence minister) and Adriaan Vlok (law and order minister). This set the tone for the death squads and counter-revolutionary targeting centres: ‘Terror was the chosen tactic’*.
Members of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Association (PEBCO) simply disappeared. Activists were abducted, some mutilated. Bodies were burned on makeshift pyres and the ashes were thrown into the Fish River. Some were left on open stretches of ground on the outskirts of cities in the Eastern Cape as a warning to activists.
‘The death squads were becoming even more brazen’* Mass funerals were held. When a widow spoke out, saying: ‘We are prepared to die for Africa’*, she was later shot and stabbed to death in front of her two children.
Batandwa Ndondo was a student activist leader expelled from the University of Transkei where he played a leading role in the SRC, organising a commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre. The reason given for his expulsion was that he ‘incited students to be involved in political activities’*. On 24 September 1985 in Cala, a white kombi with tinted windows pulled up at a residence shared by Lungisile Ntsebeza and Batandwa Ndondo who worked at the Health Care Trust at this time. There was ‘a short, sharp knock at the door’*.
The man at the door would later be revealed as detective constable Dandala, accompanied by three other members of the death squad. They were looking for Batandwa, they wanted information and they asked him to accompany them. Horrors usually happen at night in the dark. So, on what was a sunny September morning, Batandwa Ndondo joined the group in the kombi while his friend, Thobile Bam, followed at a safe distance in case he got detained. ‘Thobile lost the kombi’*.
When the kombi was spotted again outside the hospital, Batandwa’s friend Victor Ngaleka asked the driver where Batandwa was. He saw blood spots on the driver’s shirt and the dashboard of the van. They then revealed themselves to be police.
Ndondo was gunned down in broad daylight. He had launched himself out of the window of the kombi and tried to escape before the vehicle slid to a halt. Three men and a woman, all carrying guns, went after him. He was shot eight times, once while he was standing and seven times while he was lying on his back. He was dragged back into the vehicle, before the death squad sped off.
There was more than one eyewitness. In what the state called a damage limitation exercise, all reference to one of the killers was destroyed, his name officially ceased to exist. He was issued a new, authentic identity number. While charges were laid, the case collapsed when the name disappeared and was found never to have existed in the first place. It was a farce. This was, of course, not the first murder to be covered up by an establishment led ‘by the solid discipline of the Broederbond’*.
An atmosphere of fear spread throughout Cala. Those associated with Batandwa Ndondo disappeared into detention and the mourners at his funeral were harassed. Van loads of heavily armed police poured into town. In collaboration with the apartheid government, Kaizer Matanzima endorsed the ‘state-sponsored murder without trial’* and ordered the detention of those associated with the campaign to arrest Batandwa’s murderers.
Batandwa Ndondo’s death awakened the political consciousness of the community. His legacy lives on in Cala and in South Africa. His commitment to student activism, political consciousness and solidarity in resistance against injustice will not be forgotten. His memory is an immortal signifier of the severity of our history and the resilience of our people.
We continue to honour those who died in our struggle for freedom.
South Africa Apartheid & Truth
By Terry Bell in collaboration with Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza