The Mpumalanga town of Mkhondo has become infamous after the killing of two brothers made national headlines. White farmers were labelled as racist, and it was alleged that simmering racial tensions had reached a boiling point in the farming community. Food For Mzansi journalist Noluthando Ngcakani travelled to Mkhondo after the media frenzy died down.
Muzi Thabethe gets off his tractor on the Heyshope farm, 20km outside of Mkhondo in Mpumalanga. It is 07:30 and he is about to start his shift with vivid memories of the recent protests that brought the town to a standstill.
The locals still call the town by its original Afrikaans name, Piet Retief, named after one of the Boer leaders; once a spokesperson for frontier farmers who voiced their discontent with British rule in the Cape Colony.
At 45, Thabethe has more than 20 years’ experience as a farmworker on Heyshope, a mega-scale farming enterprise owned by Mpumalanga Agri chairperson Tommy Ferreira, a guy he greatly admires.
The farm, surrounded by forestry plantations, is serene. This is in sharp contrast to the events that unfolded outside the Piet Retief magistrate’s court when angry protestors and the police came to blows.
Their fury was directed at Othard Klingberg (53), Daniel Malan (38), Cornelius Greyling (25), Michael Sternberg (31) and Senzele Yende (48), who stand accused of murder, attempted kidnapping and defeating the ends of justice.
Now, more than two months after the killing of two brothers laid bare the fragile relationship between Mpumalanga farmers and farmworkers, the province is reeling from another shocker. Three of the five men accused of murdering Zenele and Mgcini Coka are being held for a separate murder in Mkhondo.
A town with a bitter past
While Thabethe too mourned the killing of the slain brothers, Zenzele (39) and Mgcini Coka (36), he is old enough to know that the history of Mkhondo has always been contentious.
“It is not a good thing. We have 27 years of freedom and things like this still happen. It is not only white people doing the killing, but black people are also killing each other too,” he says.
“There are bad people [EVERYWHERE], but what can we do? Even OTHER black people are bad, but life goes on. We do not need to fight [WITH EACH OTHER].”Muzi Thabethe, a farmworker from Mkhondo in Mpumalanga
Thabethe’s chilling remarks are echoed by traditional council headman and chairperson of the Insika Yesizwe, Wilson Ngema. He says, “We remember those dark days. Our people, both black and white, are still bleeding.”
Besides being a farming hub, Mkhondo is home to three major sawmills, including Mondi, Tafibra and PG Bison. Since the bail application of the farmers accused of murdering the Coka brothers caused a national outcry, things in the town have not quite been the same.
Yes, to a large extent it is business as usual. After the schools and offices were closed during the protests, the streets are again filled with workers awaiting their transport to the many plantations in the area. Everyone is still buzzing, though, about the incident early in April that turned the once quiet town into global headlines.
On the Heyshope farm, however, everyone is happy go lucky. On the morning of Food For Mzansi’s visit, Thabethe is joined by two other farmworkers who asked to remain anonymous.
Like many of the locals, they too are unsure of what exactly transpired on the day that changed history. Unlike Thabethe, they are less optimistic about relationships in the farming community.
“The white people at Pampoenkraal. They are not a good people, if you think of the history of them. They are not good people. Sometimes bad things happen,” says one of them.
Another adds, “That day [of the alleged murders], one of the brothers went looking for a job on that farm. The next thing, he was approached by many white farmers who attacked and ended up shooting them and then killing them. I do not know if it is true or not. That is what I heard.”
Fact versus fiction
Amid the countless rumours, many of Mkhondo’s residents now wish to rid themselves of its past, marred by tragic incidents of a similar nature.
Sfiso Nkosi (30), a car guard at the Mfula shopping centre, vividly remembers the day chaos erupted in his birth town. “They [the protestors] were damaging a lot of things… cars, stores. We were affected because we were not making any money. We had to stay home for a whole week,” he says.
With the money he makes as a car guard, Nkosi sustains his household in the township of Ethandakukhanya.
“I did not want to take part in the protest because it would not have helped me in any way.”
His sentiments are echoed by Samo Mhlangu (30). She is unemployed and condemns the recent protests, adding that Mkhondo was usually a place where black and white co-existed peacefully.
Mhlangu says, “I was at home. It felt bad to see my town go through that. We do not want to take sides. We are not fighting with the whites, but because of the things that were happening, we were forced to pick sides.”
Thabethe adds, “There are bad people, but what can we do? Even other black people are bad, but life goes on. We do not need to fight.”
“We cannot wake up the next morning and there are no white people. It is also not possible for the white man to wake up the next day and there are no black people. They have a bad reputation, but it is not all of them. We need each other.”
Healing wounds of the past
Ngema admits that the southern tip of Mpumalanga had always been a ticking time bomb for farmers and their workers.
“We are working very hard to make sure that we close that gap and try to heal the wounds of the past. What I have seen is that white people are now more than willing to sit down and discuss indifferences.”
Mass confusion in Mkhondo is fuelled by rumours, says Kurt Paul, the farmer-owner of KRC Farming in the town.
“Ninety-nine percent of farmers in the Piet Retief area have good relations with farmworkers. There is perception and then there is truth. The perception is that farmers planned this.
“Where will you see farmers plan anarchy? We are responsible for food production, we want to secure food security.”
Ngema meanwhile cites political interference as the root of the outbreak of the widespread protests following the death of the Coka brothers. He believes political parties bussed in protestors from towns and farms surrounding eMkhondo.
“As you have seen what happened for the past two weeks, politicians would buy beer and KFC and give it to these youngsters so they would go out on the street and toyi-toyi. They see them as fertile spaces for political gain. All they think is votes. Votes all the way.
“I am still praying for healing in this country because we do not have leadership. You are fighting because of what? It is because we do not know what to do. We need to stop the cycle of oppression.”
Mkhondo riding out the storm
Meanwhile, Ferreira believes the recent racial tension is just another storm that Mkhondo will soon overcome.
“I know what I can offer. It really did not get under my skin. I know the good heart of farmers.”
“There is a lot of goodwill between commercial farmers and farmworkers, black and white. Focus on the big picture, your core business is to produce food for South Africa,” he says.