Ngquza Hill Massacre commemoration

Posted on June 22, 2011
Photograph credit: The Presidency, Republic of South Africa

Photograph credit: The Presidency, Republic of South Africa

(Note: The author off this post has chosen to use one spelling of the name of the hill on which the massacre occurred. It is also known as Ingquza Hill).

From the 4th to the 6 th of June 2011, the people of the Eastern Cape, in particular the residents of Ngquza Hill in Lusikisiki, commemorated the 51st anniversary of the Ngquza Hill massacre. On the 6th of June 1960, the men and women of Ngquza Hill made a vow that amongst other things they were against the Transkei gaining independence, did not want the dompass, and were against the Trust that was advocated by the South African racist regime of the time. In a sense this group of men and women, in Pondoland, were fighting against the oppressive laws that reduced their lives to that of slaves.

It is said that when they climbed Ngquza hill, these people had one uniting factor in mind; to fight the white government and its oppressive laws by all means necessary. The meeting on top of the hill was to strategize, mobilize and organize a revolution that was led by peasants in defending their own land. In defense they were armed with knobkerries, spears and a few had guns. They declared war after they realized that the white government had shut all the doors, avenues and platforms of engagement.

Just after the government realized that the people of Ngquza Hill had woken up to their responsibility to fight for their land and their dignity, it mobilized its military forces and artillery. However, the people of Ngquza were very much determined as they had their traditional weapons to fight against their advanced enemy. They were never frightened by the military might, advanced artillery and helicopters hovering over their hands. Their unity, determination, courage and hope were the cornerstones of a road map to the achievement of their freedom.

Having noticed that a war was declared by the people of Pondoland, the racist, oppressive and merciless government opened fire, killing 11 people, injuring 58 and arresting others, later to be sentenced to death by hanging. I am reminded of the words of Steve Bantu Biko when he boldly stated that 'it is better to die for an idea that will live rather than live for an idea that will die.” (1) I concur with Prof Robert Sobukwe when he said ' [they] would have betrayed the human race if [they] had not done [their] share. If [they] sent to jail there will others to take [their] place.

These noble ideas, such as the idea that these peasants died and refused to betray the human race, were narrated by the elders. It was a sad moment indeed to listen to the elders who were part of the revolt explaining and narrating a story, unfolding a pain by uncovering the wounds and scars that they sustained in their battle for their dignity. I realized that speaker after speaker kept on emphasizing the level of courage and determination that the people of Ngquza Hill had in confronting the heavy military force with their ordinary sticks, spears and shields.

This was a defining moment for the Pondo people and surely their revolt unsettled the consciousness of the leaders of the South African Liberation Movement, in particular the ANC who later formed Umkhonto Wesizwe as their armed wing on the 16th of December 1961 to defend the defenseless people of South Africa. In a sense the rebellion compelled the ANC to change its political strategies and tactics. It is suffice to advocate that the poor peasant's of Ngquza Hill, through their courage to fight for their land, changed and shaped the direction of the struggle in South Africa. They put their story on the centre stage of national struggle debates. Their struggle for land was never localized but they made the world realise how the Pretoria regime treated African people in the rural areas. On the other hand they demonstrated how ready African people were to defend themselves against that institutionalized aggression.

Fifty one years after the massacre, the people of Ngquza gathered together with their leaders and organic intellectuals to commemorate the Ngquza Hill massacre. As much as it was a moving occasion, the elders of Ngquza Hill had the courage to go down the memory lane remembering in detail all the processes that led to the senseless killing of innocent people by the Pretoria regime.

As they were reflecting on the massacre, there were school learners who were bused to the occasion to come and listen to the narration of meaning, value and significance of the story that captured the attention of South Africa. More than five thousand people were seated in the white marquee tent. Unemployed youth, women, village elders, dancers and musicians mingling together competing to listen to the story.
You could see that these people were proud of their past despite the wounds and scars opened by the narration. But the pain of the moment turned into joy. Where else can you see elders from the age of 65 years to 80 years singing defiance songs loudly invoking the spirit of their ancestors, calling by names and clan names all those who were murdered by the Pretoria regime on the site, invoking their spirits in ways that incarnated their presence?

I remember a middle age woman taking centre stage and singing the song 'Mampondo niyithatheleni idompass” which means 'Pondos, why did you take the dompass?” Everyone in the tent right from the young to the old stood up to the song singing 'asiyifuni idompas”, we don't want the dompass. It became clear that this song was sung during those difficult times and it was a song that mobilized and organized the Pondo people to take up arms and confront the Pretoria regime.

There was another moment when the youth of Pondo took up the stage dancing their age old traditional dances, singing songs grounded in their culture whilst the praise singers bubbled uncontrollably, taking the people by surprise. Old and young women from the audience ululated as if they could see the warriors going to war. Young men were chanting war praises and songs. This was the affirmation of Pondo tradition, rituals and culture and justification of a revolt that was grounded on a collective culture.

The CEO of the National Heritage Council, Advocate Sonwabile Macotywa, was amongst the dignitaries. This is one person in the South African heritage landscape who cannot speak without invoking the spirit of the struggle martyrs, heroes and heroines. He busted into a struggle song and was soon followed by young and old people alike. And that made the entire tent warmer in the middle of the chilly and windy weather of winter. Macontywa reminded people of Ngquza, about the visit of Cde Chris Hani in Ngquza in the early 1990`s and about the importance of defending the gains of freedom in particular their heritage and history and their role and responsibilities in protecting their own heritage. He said the people of Ngquza must continue to defend the struggle songs of their forefathers and by doing so they will be defending the heritage that was passed to them by their forefathers and that they still have to pass on to the next coming generation. In a sense when Advocate Mancotywa was invoking the name of Chris Hani at that moment surely the great words of Cde Thembisile Hani were echoing in his head, 'that I have lived with death all my life. I want to live in a free South Africa, even if to lay down my life for it”. (2) And just like the people of Ngquza they sacrificed and laid down their lives for all to be free from the shackles of Apartheid.

The MEC for Local government and Traditional Affairs, Mlibo Qhoboshiyane, who was visibly disturbed by the sad stories of suffering and pain that the people of Ngquza Hill endured, strongly advised the people of Ngquza about the importance of rewriting their history and the history of Ngquza Hill. He said this is urgent since those who were involved in the massacre are passing. He said no white man must write their history and they must begin to conduct an oral history project that will serve as a platform for all the elders, men and women to speak about their memories, stories and experiences about the massacre.

What I appreciated about Mlibo Qhoboshiyane was that he never used the platform for political mileage, but he used it as an opportunity to come down hard on the incompetent councilors who continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Ngquza people. Qhoboshiyane reminded the politicians, especially the councilors, that without the Ngquza rebellion we would not be enjoying the fruits of the freedom we are enjoying today. He further urged the District Mayor to make sure that the Hill is fenced using the fence of choice of Ngquza people.

Mrs Xoliswa Tom, the MEC for department of sports, recreation, arts and culture in the Eastern Cape took the stage. As she stood up she clenched her fist shouting 'igama lamakhosikazi malibongwe' praise the name of women. I would understand why the MEC had to shout 'praise the name of women' because the Ngquza Hill rebellion tradition tells us that women were requested to remain in the households and look after the children as Pondo men were heading for war. These women were a source of inspiration to the men who confronted the Pretoria regime. Hence it was necessary for Mrs Tom to invoke the spirit of those women who passed away, but who played a major role in encouraging their men to take up arms against the oppressive regime.

All these people were there to be part of the commemoration of one of the events that changed and shaped the political landscape of South Africa. Their presence added value to the commemoration and from a distance one could assume that these are people who are serious about the history, culture and heritage.

However, the most disturbing factor is the state of the Ngquza Hill infrastructure which is deteriorating day by day. By Ngquza Hill infrastructure I mean the graves of the victims, the quality of the monument and the absence of fencing to protect the graves and the monument from vandalism, lack of signage, interpretation boards to tell a story. And although the Ngquza Hill site is such a place embedded with meaning, value and significance, its current physical status leaves a lot to be desired. There is no other aspect that hampers your enjoyment of the heritage, history and culture other than the deteriorating graves and dilapidated site. I still believe that the people of Ngquza Hill deserve more to keep their heritage alive.

As I was driving through to Ngquza Hill, passing the poverty stricken rural communities, I sincerely thought that I would see a Ngquza Hill sign and a tarred road with warning signs since there are lots of stray animals and children roaming along the road, but there was absolutely nothing.

When I got there I saw a beautiful white tent had invaded the site, tarnishing its image and the sites` aesthetics. I asked myself what would happen to the site when the white marquee tent had been demounted. The answer was that I would see a dry hill with a monument and a few graves around, but that the dignity and integrity of the victims of the massacre would be restored. The other answer was that l would see a hill just like any other hill in the beautiful land of Pondoland.

A second thought I had was that when I got there I would see a historic museum that houses displays about the revolt, including: the historical background of the revolt, names and biographies of the victims, a dignified wall of fame with the names of the martyrs, audio-visual material to listen to how the families and communities remembered those people who were hanged in Pretoria and images showing exhumation of the human remains in Pretoria. My high expectations were not met by a government whose development agenda is urban biased.

Why would I have thought that when I arrived at Ngquza Hill I would see a place like the Freedom Park in Pretoria, Nelson Mandela Museum in Mthatha or Albert Luthuli Museum in Stanger? I just thought to myself I was too ambitious to see urban heritage establishments in the deep rural village of my country. Let alone the fact that the youth were persuaded and inspired by the Ngquza Hill massacre narratives but there is no space created for them, no youth resource centre, no recreational facilities, no exhibitions on Hiv-Aids. How do you expect young people to buy into the historic event and the significance of the site if basic structures that have something to do with the improvement of their lives are not incorporated into the total heritage site establishment ?

The question to ask is why can't our national government mark the Ngquza Hill as part of the legacy project? Maybe the story of Ngquza Hill massacre has become a political and budget burden to the government of the day. It could be the case that the stories, experiences and memories of the Ngquza people have no place in the post apartheid national narratives.

The Ngquza Hill site has an element of being an outstanding heritage site that deserves a better treatment than what it is getting now. Everyone forgets the Ngquza Hill Massacre except when the local and national elections are around the corner. This implies that our national politicians and local councilors tend to invoke this unique history and heritage for political gains. If this is the trend, we must agree that this is a complete obliteration of the Nquza Hill peoples' memories, stories and experiences that could be part of national narratives on how the struggle was shaped and influenced by local rural fundamental factors.

Our government must compensate the people of Ngquza Hill by taking their heritage seriously and including their story in the post apartheid national narratives. There will be no reconciliation in South Africa if we continue to nullify the plight of the rural communities and their heritage. The notion of reconciliation must be like a charity that begins at home. As long as there are no resources and infrastructure to protect, preserve and promote the heritage of our people in the rural villages of this country, no scars and wounds can be healed and this country will be at war with itself for longer years to come.

I am reminded of the words of one of the great sons of the soil, former president Thabo Mbeki, when he said 'It is one of the great deficiencies of our democratic revolution that four years after power returned to the hands of people, not a single monument exists in our country to pay tribute to the heroes and heroines to whom we owe our freedom' (3).

The unpalatable deficiencies which continue to present themselves as regrettable pitfalls is that there are still no better monuments that befit the great sacrifice that was made by the people of Ngquza Hill. The redressing and the national project to transform the South African heritage landscape is a project that is politically charged and fraught with tension, but that does not mean that the heritage of our people in the rural areas cannot be brought to the mainstream.

We need to commit ourselves to the rebuilding of Ngquza Hill community and the preservation of the Ngquza Hill Massacre by building a monument that will be a constant reminder of the bloodshed on top of a hill. Hence Ronald Segal, in his book The Black Diaspora, said 'I continued to believe then however, as I believe now, that a people with a past infused by oppression and suffering is charged with a special responsibility to remember and remind: to redeem that past with a creative meaning; to recognize and insist that we must treat one another as equally human, beyond differences of race or nationality, religion or culture, if we are not to become mere beasts of talk'(4)

May your souls rest in peace!

(1) Bantu Steve Biko
(2) Cde Chris Thembsile Hani, the former General Secretary of South African Communist Party
(3) Deputy President Thabo Mbeki at the unveiling of a tombstone to Oliver Tambo-April 1998
(4) Ronald Segal: The Black Diaspora, from his book dedicated to the memory of Oliver Tambo

Vuyani Booi, University of Fort Hare, Alice, is an Archival Platform correspondent. He writes in his personal capacity.