‘Peace chief’ Maphumulo honoured
Order of the Luthuli in Gold is to be awarded to the late Inkosi Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo for his service to all South Africans
PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa will award the Order of the Luthuli in Gold to the late Inkosi Mhlabunzima Joseph Maphumulo of Table Mountain in KwaZulu-Natal.
The award recognises that the chief made “an exceptional contribution to conflict resolution and to resistance against injustice and oppression. He lost his life fighting for his people.” Maphumulo was the chief of the Maphumulo at Table Mountain, but the people for whom he fought extended beyond his rural chiefdom, earning him the moniker of “peace chief”.
Maphumulo was born in 1949, the first son of Nosibhedlela Mdlalose and Inkosi Funizwe Maphumulo. The young Maphumulo spent much of his youth in Edendale, where he schooled and loved to play football, while regents governed on his behalf. He later attended school at Bhekuzulu College for the Sons of Chiefs and Headmen and KwaDlangezwa in Ngoye. He was installed as chief of the Maphumulo at Table Mountain in 1973.
He quickly earned a reputation as a “rebel chief” and “maverick” for his anti-Inkatha and pro-royalist stances in the KwaZulu Legislative Assembly (KZLA). Maphumulo maintained a rocky relationship with Inkatha and its leaders throughout the seventies and early eighties. In 1983, he ran as an independent in the KZLA elections, after which members of the Inkatha Youth Brigade beat him unconscious for his refusal to join Inkatha.
But Maphumulo earned a new reputation, that of “peace chief”, in the late eighties as civil war wrought havoc in the Natal Midlands. Conservative estimates suggest that 13 000 people died between 1985 and 1996 in KwaZulu-Natal. Thousands more were made homeless.
Maphumulo welcomed those displaced by the violence to Table Mountain, which initially remained a haven of peace in a region at war. People fled from the war-torn townships, camping at his court or paying khonza for access to land. He welcomed people regardless of political affiliations and refugees included Inkatha supporters, United Democratic Front (UDF)-aligned families and the unaffiliated.
He believed it was the responsibility of chiefs to help end the civil war ravaging the region. As the representative for the Mpumalanga district in the KZLA, Maphumulo spearheaded efforts in Mpumalanga, where some of the deadliest violence of the late eighties occurred, and organised several other peace initiatives where he brought together supporters of Inkatha and the UDF. In 1989, he began working with Lawyers for Human Rights to campaign for a judicial inquiry into causes of the violence. When then president P.W. Botha and minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok responded that there was no breakdown in law and order to investigate, Maphumulo refused to be deterred.
Maphumulo’s quest for peace attracted the attention of African National Congress and UDF activists who recruited the chief into a new organisation of traditional leaders against apartheid — the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa). Maphumulo explained his choice to join Contralesa in the ANC Sechaba journal: ‘One has to move with the people. If one is leading a people who are progressive, I think it is right and proper to be also progressive as a leader. Because my people are in the Mass Democratic Movement, I have to be with them.” At the first meeting of Contralesa national representatives in June 1989, members elected Maphumulo as interim president.
Maphumulo used his new position with Contralesa to further peace efforts and shape South Africa’s transition to democracy. Under Maphumulo’s guidance, Contralesa resolved to remain neutral to recruit traditional leaders but also to meet with the ANC in exile. Maphumulo led a Contralesa delegation to Lusaka in August 1989. The meeting resulted in a joint memorandum that recognised the role of traditional leadership in resisting apartheid and promised a place for amakhosi in the new South Africa. After the first meeting in Lusaka with the ANC, an MK bodyguard was assigned to protect Maphumulo and his good friend, then ibamba of the Ximba, Zibuse Mlaba. Maphumulo and Mlaba identified local young men to be sent to the Transkei for military training.
Working through Contralesa and the South African Council of Churches, Maphumulo initiated a commission of inquiry into the violence that he had earlier failed to do through the state. The commission opened at Ubunye House in December 1989. Victim testimonies at the commission revealed Inkatha’s forced recruitment campaigns. Maphumulo took the commission’s findings to Switzerland to present a report to the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). The report, based on the testimonies of nearly 100 witnesses, convinced the ICJ to send a mission to Natal to investigate government collusion. On the same trip to Europe, Maphumulo met with Contralesa funders in Sweden and O.R. Tambo in London, where he proclaimed his belief that the violence would not end until apartheid ended.
As De Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC, Pan Africanist Congress, and other liberation organisations, Maphumulo’s haven of peace was on fire. The spread of the war to Table Mountain was shaped by local competition over a disputed piece of land and regional and national politics. Thousands of Maphumulo’s followers fled to safety in Pietermaritzburg; the city reluctantly established a camp for the Table Mountain refugees at Mason’s Mill.
Maphumulo’s quest for peace and work with Contralesa wrought the ire not only of Inkatha and its leaders but also the apartheid state. The chief narrowly escaped several earlier assassination attempts. In June 1990, unknown assailants opened fire on his car, killing brothers Alson and Nelson Kunene and injuring Deda Hlophe. The perpetrators did not know that the chief had taken the bus when the trio was late to pick him up. The next month, Durban police chased and detained Maphumulo and his MK bodyguard. The chief ’s Maqongqo homestead was destroyed in several attacks, forcing him to move to Pietermaritzburg. It was in the driveway of his 95 Havelock Road home that a hit squad finally succeeded in eliminating the peace chief.
On February 25, 1991, several men opened fire on Maphumulo’s car as he returned home from a parent-teacher meeting. He was alone, an irregularity that led many to suspect one of his bodyguards was a police informant. Neighbours rushed the chief to Northdale Hospital, but it was too late. The chief would not live to see the end of the violence or the dawning of democracy in South Africa. He was 42.
The ANC organised a mass political funeral for the chief, mourning him as a struggle hero. Thousands attended a service at the Edendale Lay Ecumenical Centre with representatives from the ANC, Contralesa, and Cosatu, and several days later, the funeral at Wadley Stadium. From the stadium, a procession of buses travelled to Maqongqo to bury the late chief. One funeral attendee recalled that Jacob Zuma, Chris Hani, and Tokyo Sexwale were there, and that during the salute of the late chief, Hani leapt upon the grave.
Days after the chief’s death, Sipho Madlala confessed to The Natal Witness that he was a member of the hit squad that murdered Maphumulo. Madlala’s claims forced a provincial inquiry into the murder. The police investigation into his death was a farce — those involved had earned reputations for their coverup work — and inconsistencies plagued the inquest that ultimately found that “persons unknown” killed the chief. Madlala disappeared.
We may never know who pulled the trigger on February 25, 1991, but evidence from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission connected Maphumulo’s assassination to state-sponsored hit squads under Caprivian Daluxolo Luthuli. Luthuli was the MK member turned commissar of Inkatha’s paramilitary wing who oversaw the 200 Inkatha supporters trained by the South African Defence Force in the Caprivi Strip. He testified to the TRC that Caprivian Phumlani Xolani Mshengu and a Captain Khanyile of the KwaZulu Police’s Bureau of State Intelligence were responsible for Maphumulo’s murder. The TRC granted Luthuli amnesty. No one was held accountable for the chief ’s death.
Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo gave his life in service and in death to obtain peace and democracy in South Africa. In 2005, the city of Pietermaritzburg recognised this by renaming the Baynes Drift Road to Table Mountain in honour of the chief.
The award of the Order of the Luthuli in Gold highlights that Maphumulo served not only his people at Table Mountain and in the Midlands, but all South Africans. Maphumulo joins an esteemed list of struggle heroes honoured with the Order of the Luthuli in Gold, including Alfred Nzo, Z.K. Matthews, Hilda Bernstein, Anton Lembede, Robert Resha, A.B. Xuma and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
His family in KwaZulu-Natal, who will accept the posthumous award at a ceremony in Pretoria, include uMgungundlovu District Municipality Mayor Thobekile Maphumulo, Inkosi Nhlakanipho Maphumulo, Buyiswa Mthiyane and Thandokuhle Maphumulo.
• Jill E. Kelly is assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, U.S.. She completed her Ph.D. in African history at Michigan State University in 2012. Her book To Swim with Crocodiles: Land, Violence and Belonging in
South Africa, 1800-1996, is a social and intellectual history of ukukhonza — a practice of affiliation that binds together subjects and chiefs to enable security — examined through the politics of the Table Mountain region.
Mhlabunzima Maphumulo was the chief of the Maphumulo at Table Mountain. He welcomed those displaced by the violence to Table Mountain, which initially remained a haven of peace in a region at war.
Inkosi Mhlabunzima Maphumulo gave his life in service and in death to obtain peace and democracy in South Africa.