BELA BELA, South Africa — The shantytown called Vingerkraal seems trapped in South Africa’s apartheid past. Tin shacks resemble those hurriedly built by blacks evicted from white territory. Women and children are left on their own for most of the year by men working in faraway cities. Poverty lies tucked between game resorts.
But Vingerkraal’s is a different story in the sinister saga of racially divided South Africa. It is the story of blacks who fought blacks in the service of apartheid.
In the two decades since apartheid crumbled, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has brought about a measure of reconciliation between blacks and their former white rulers. The divisions among blacks, however, engineered or exacerbated by a system of divide-and-rule often have been slower to heal. Vingerkraal is a glaring example.
Its history begins in neighboring Namibia, once South African territory, where guerrillas were waging a war for independence. Other black Namibians were hired by white-run security forces in a unit called Koevoet, meaning crowbar, and its fighters were paid bonuses for what became known as “cash for corpses.”
Koevoet’s goal, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was to “gather intelligence, track guerrillas and then kill them.” It was, the commission said, “a race war,” and apartheid South Africa lost.
In 1990, with Namibia independent, hundreds of black Koevoet veterans suddenly found themselves trapped in the midst of their adversaries. Many fled to South Africa, where their former officers helped them find jobs in security and get South African citizenship.
Four years later white rule ended, and the black Koevoet veterans were on the losing side again. Some of them retreated to Vingerkraal, near the town of Bela Bela in the north of the country. Some 6,000 people now live here, in the dry bush, chronically short of water and electricity, and still haunted by a 2010 tragedy that killed 11 of their children.
Sisingi Kamongo, 45, was among the founders of Vingerkraal. Asked about his past, he begins by saying he was just 18 and desperate for work when he joined Koevoet in 1984. Later, he talks about stories he heard of guerrillas kidnapping village children and forcing them to fight.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” he says. “We were protecting the people.”
Slowly, war stories emerge. Kamongo recalls interrogating villagers, being told they had not seen fighters for years, and then coming under attack.
“What do you expect us to do?” Kamango said. “Of course there’s going to be trouble. We were heavy-handed. But … it was for a reason.”
Kamango, who has used a wheelchair since 2002 because of an old war injury, says he knows of a prisoner who was summarily executed, but insists white officers made the decision over their black subordinates’ objections.
Namibia was not the only place where whites set blacks against blacks. The so-called bantustans also played a part, set up by the white government as black-ruled homelands to remove their populations from white areas.
Here, there has been reconciliation exemplified by Bantu Holomisa. In 1987 he seized power in the bantustan of Transkei, the homeland of Nelson Mandela, while the leader of the anti-apartheid struggle was in prison.
When apartheid ended and the bantustans were abolished, Mandela’s African National Congress accepted Holomisa as a member. Later Holomisa had a falling out with the party, but he remains a member of Parliament.
John Kani, a leading actor and playwright, explores the personal effects of the divisions among blacks in “Nothing But the Truth,” about two brothers, one of whom dies in exile, a hero of the liberation struggle, while the other stays in South Africa and away from politics.
The 2002 play explores the tensions that arise over who did more for the cause of black freedom.
It is a complicated history that Kani says needs to be understood better.
“I’m worried about this collective amnesia. We’re afraid, even in our own house, to talk about dark times,” he said in an interview. “Forgiving is OK. Forgetting, never.”
Vingerkraal felt the pain of its marginalization in July, 2010, when a brush fire broke out. The shortage of water was compounded by the lack of good roads that slowed the arrival of rescue services, and 11 children died. The seven survivors, some horribly scarred, struggle to raise money to pay for transport to hospitals for treatment. It took more than a year for the maimed to get specialized care.
But the elders of the community see hope in their children. Their young people attend school with other South Africans, while many have followed their fathers into private security work, two are at the University of Pretoria, studying to be teachers.
Kamongo, the Koevoet veteran, wrote and published with the help of a South African army enthusiast a memoir of his fighting years. He said fellow veterans told him they found release reading his story, and now want him to help them tell theirs. He said it is a way of coming to terms with why they are seen as killers.
“It’s our own, personal TRC,” he said, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.