BUSANI NGCAWENI: Why COVID-19 is like the political violence of the early 90s


COVID-19 is now like the political violence of the early 90s; it wipes out the whole family.

Those from Maritzburg and Mpumalanga Township will understand.

The message about the Filtane family reminds me of Sbongiseni (Sbobo) with whom we shared a dormitory in 1992.

One morning Mr Sangweni, the principal of Ohlange, summoned Sbobo to his office to tell him that his entire family had been killed by amabutho because his relative was a suspected “iphekula zikhuni (communist terrorist)”. Sometimes just wearing a red top made you a suspected terrorist, even if on it was written “Be my Valentine”.

The killing squad had put nails into the doors and windows and burnt the house. Hundreds of shots were fired into the doors and windows as Sbobo’s family was screaming for help inside the burning house.

More than seven family members died that night.

Sbobo survived because some United Democratic Front/African National Congress comrades had organised funds for him to go to a boarding school at Ohlange. Someone later told me that Thami Mseleku - who alongside Cassius Lubisi became aides of Harry Gwala - might have arranged this bursary for Sbobo.

Sbobo showed courage in that we never saw him cry. He kept on going, aided by a mixture of dagga and Mandrax which was sold to students by an Indian chap from Phoenix and a comrade-tsotsi from uMlazi, whose brother (Bhuga) was also in the same block of dormitories.

This fellow from uMlazi drove a snazzy BMW 335 and played Roberta Flack’s 1982 hit with a chorus “when it comes to making love I’m the best”. He also played Courtney Blows by Soul II Soul and Rhythm of Life by Oleta Adams.

In retrospect, this was just too much for 15-year-olds. But Bhuga’s brother bought us KFC so we were cool with this stuff. He and his brother would sing Luther Vandross and Martha Wash’s I (Who have Nothing (mina engingena lutho) in IsiZulu and we would be captivated. Try it now and see what happens. Then came Power of Love by Luther Vandross - a real show and tell of the power of his sound; this drug-peddling thug.

I think Sbobo never really made it because political violence meant it difficult for anyone to focus on writing matric, especially after such a tragedy.

We lost contact him with him in 1993, partly because I resented his friend and homeboy Azi, who had taken my girlfriend Marcia, who was arguably the most beautiful woman in Durban at the time.

They had intimidated her that they would harass her back in Maritzburg if she continued to date this freshman (me) from Durban. I was told recently that Marcia was doing well with a few kids until the factories of Maritzburg restructured - although the details cannot be verified.

As for Bhuga, he kept some contact with Sbobo until he met his demise following a love triangle in 1995 - he shot both his pregnant girlfriend and himself because he did not want her and how she lost her life in the hands of a man who proclaimed to love her. Everyone who went to Natal Technikon knows the story as the girlfriend and her twin sister were known students there - beautiful twins from East London; the most envied by amagintsa in Durban at the time.

But I am diverting. This is neither about Marcia nor Bhuga, who always told us before we went to bed that he hated his father who went to exile leaving his pregnant sickly mother to struggle alone, as her parents had forsaken her for falling pregnant whilst not working.

We do know much of what became of Sbobo. What is known is that in other violent political encounters, more of his relatives perished as the political killing machine grew efficient.

Like that single strike at his home in Embali (PMB in 1992), COVID-19 is striking at families, leaving only those relatives separated by distance of the migrant labour system.

In the Filtane family, I do suspect there is a Sbobo who will relate the tale of the tragedy that has visited them. Just as many will do in other families as well who are organising funeral after funeral.

That is the story of our time. The demon of the early 90s is back. We live another day and survival means not dying. The paradigm of death returns. Whereas we outlived the war lords in the 90s and Aids in the first decade of the 21st century, many families are not outliving this virus.

Whereas dying mothers in the early 2000s were helped by onompilo (care workers) to create memory boxes for the Aids orphans, COVID-19 takes us too quickly. The only memory it leaves behind is that we can’t even perform burial rites as we know them.

Whereas we know of the thief in the night, COVID-19 is a thief in the day. It is taking away people and loved ones in full sight. One member of the family brings it to the household from a party and within days, multiple funerals are under way.

Sometimes I wonder, the fellows who go partying and bring COVID-19 into their homes, resulting in the death of loved ones, do they feel the same guilt as those who bring HIV into their relationships?

Let’s hasten to disclaim that, with due respect, being a super-spreader of COVID-19 is buffoonery, just as the thoughtlessness of those who host parties in closed spaces and serve alcohol like umqombothi at a maskandi festival. If you make it out alive, one day, you will be haunted by the knowledge that your behaviour led to the death of your family, especially the parents you brag about on social media - just because you bought them a fridge and Choice Assorted biscuits.

In years to come, your children will be hectic, performing rituals to bring peace to the family because the tragedy brought grief and suffering to the souls of the living.

It could take a single trip to see my beautiful Marcia, the almost predictable consequences of which might bring so much grief to my loved ones, and to her family too.

Let’s rather meet Marcia on the social networks. By altering our behaviour, COVID-19 can be stopped from wiping out our families. It needs us to love without showing up physically in case we bring the virus to our parents.

Condolences to the Filtanes and all the families who have had to arrange mass funerals during this difficult period. Peace be with Sbobo’s surviving relatives too, as it has been reported that he passed some years ago, joining his parents and siblings who were massacred in the 90s.

PS: If you see Marcia, tell her I’m playing Johnny Dimba. Those who know, will know.

Busani Ngcaweni is co-editor of 'We are No Longer at Ease: The Struggle for #FeesMustFall'. Follow him on Twitter: @busani_ngcaweni