NEWS & ANALYSIS

SA: From burning people to burning books

John Kane-Berman says the Daily Maverick’s recent editorial on Ace & Co. got things back to front

Books first and then people or vice versa?

A striking feature of the reaction to the vandalism unleashed by the Rhodes must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town a few years ago was that various academics and others bent over backwards to condone it. Last week, by contrast, there was widespread condemnation of threats by the African National Congress (ANC) youth league in the Free State to burn copies of Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule's Web of Capture.

Highlighting the threats, and reporting on the destruction of copies of the book at a shop in Sandton, the Daily Maverick ran the headline "It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people." The ANC made a statement of condemnation. So did Cyril Ramaphosa. Even Ace Magashule said it was "unfortunate that comrades burn this book".

But the Daily Maverick's headline got things back to front. In South Africa the comrades were burning people before they got around to books. And while the ANC has swiftly condemned the promised burning of the exposé of Comrade Magashule, it was equivocal about the burning of people via the necklace method. Some ANC worthies still hanker after its use: Tony Yengeni recently tweeted that tyres were waiting for the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, in troubled Alexandra township.

The first identified victim of a necklace execution was Tamsanqa Kinikini, a member of a black town council in the Eastern Cape. He was hacked and burnt to death on 21st March 1985. Newspapers said these and other killings were "becoming the standard form of punishment meted out to residents believed to be 'working for the system'". During a trial of two men subsequently hanged for these murders, evidence was led about how a mob restaged the killings and danced around a mutilated corpse for the benefit of a television crew.

Not only alleged collaborators and informers, but also members of rival political organisations, including the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Azanian People's Organisation, were among necklace victims. Others who died by the necklace method included schoolboys who went to class in defiance of calls for boycotts in the name of "liberation before education".

The necklace – where a tyre is hung around the neck of the victim, who is then doused with petrol and set alight – was a potent instrument of terror. If township residents paid rent in defiance of boycotts, all that was needed was for a tyre to be a thrown on to the roof of the house for them to join the boycott. Brandishing a matchbox in front of a taxi driver was enough to get him to decline to take people to work during a stayaway called by the comrades. Journalists living in black townships confessed to being terrified to write about the mayhem inflicted by the "young lions" lest they too become victims.

Although far fewer, necklacings continued after the ANC came to power in 1994. They still occur in various parts of the country – Thaba Nchu, Khayelitsha, Lindelani, Etwatwa, Randburg, Khutsong, Leratong, Durban, Philippi. A victim whose case was widely reported was Ernesto Nhamuave from Mozambique, who was necklaced in an informal settlement on the East Rand in May 2008. More recently, three teenagers were necklaced in September 2015, evidently because they were members of a gang that had been terrorising residents. Having started as an instrument of the "people's war", the necklace has become a tool for xenophobic attacks and/or for meting out punishment where the state cannot stop crime.

In 1986, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who died a year ago, declared that "with our matchboxes and our necklaces we will liberate this country". This makes her the most prominent ANC member to proclaim the use of the necklace. The organisation itself never formally did so. But – as my colleague Anthea Jeffery will show in a book shortly to be published shortly by Jonathan Ball – it repeatedly called for the elimination of collaborators and political opponents with petrol bombs and whatever other weapons were to hand as part of its campaign to wage "people's war" and make black townships ungovernable.

In that same year, 1986, the secretary general of the ANC, Alfred Nzo, nodded emphatically when the London Sunday Times asked him if his organisation supported necklacing. At the end of that year Chris Hani, hero to many of the "young lions", also refused to "condemn our people when they mete out their own traditional forms of justice to those who collaborate".  

Confronted at an investment conference in London in May the following year by a direct question on necklacing posed by Graham Hatton, a former editor of the Financial Mail, the president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, said his organisation "disapproves of this but understands how it came about". He blamed the police for "burning people to smear the ANC". Thabo Mbeki also refused to condemn necklacing.

Later in the year, however, under American and other pressure, Mr Tambo called for necklacings to stop. The numbers dropped, but later increased. By May 1992 more than 500 lives had been lost to necklacing, arguably the ANC's unique contribution to the weaponry and logistics of liberation struggle.  

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.