Blacks Act on Informer Rumors : Rage Over Apartheid--but Was Victim a Traitor?

Times Staff Writer

Maki Skosana never had a chance.

So great was the anger of Duduza’s 40,000 black residents against South Africa’s minority white government and its apartheid system that when a rumor developed that Skosana was a police informant, she was condemned--in a community where she had grown up and lived almost all her life.

After the funerals here for four victims of the continuing unrest, Skosana was chased from a cemetery across a field and seized by a mob of 500, beaten with clubs, knocked to the ground and kicked until she was half-conscious. They tore off most of her clothes, pinned her down with a large rock on her chest, doused her with gasoline and set her afire.

As she writhed in pain, her screams of agony subsiding into moans, the mob danced around her and chanted, “Death to all traitors! Death to all traitors!”


But Skosana, who was 24 when she died the other day, was not a traitor to the black struggle against racial prejudice, according to members of her grieving family, and she had remained in Duduza despite all the threats against her and despite the urging of her family and friends to leave.

“If they kill me, they kill me, but I won’t run and I won’t leave my home or my community,” she told her older sister, Evelyn, on the day of the funerals, July 20, as they quarreled about whether she should attend. “I am innocent,” she said. “I have done no wrong, I am not a police informer, I am not a traitor to my people.”

Skosana, the mother of a 5-year-old boy, was not the first black to be killed--”executed,” her sister said--by other blacks. At least 130 of the nearly 500 blacks who have died in sustained civil strife over the last year in South Africa have been killed by other blacks.

Some of the dead have been local black officials, policemen or members of their families--all perceived as collaborators with the authorities. Others, like Skosana, have been suspected of being informers for the security police and have been killed largely on the basis of rumors. Perhaps as many as 40 black activists have been killed by rivals in political feuds.

And these killings have become almost ritualized executions--severe beatings in which many take part, with gasoline then poured over the victim, who is set alight with a match. Tires are sometimes put around the victim’s shoulders and legs to ensure that the fire does not go out and that he does not wriggle free.

“What began as a struggle against apartheid is now equally a struggle among ourselves,” the Rev. Henry Maphanga, the pastor of Duduza’s Dutch Reformed Church, said, “and it is tearing our community apart.


“Where black people should be uniting to force this government to end apartheid, we are turning upon each other. Apartheid has filled us full of hatred, and that hatred is consuming us.”

Skosana’s death was filmed and shown on South Africa’s state-run television--even before her body was taken to the government mortuary--to help justify President Pieter W. Botha’s declaration of a state of emergency in 36 districts, giving the police and army sweeping powers and placing such townships as Duduza under virtual martial law.

The film was also used to identify eight young suspects, who have since been arrested, and the police are searching for two more. Skosana will be buried today in Soweto, the giant black township near Johannesburg.

According to Maphanga, the message contained in Botha’s declaration of a state of emergency is that “these blacks are such savages, we must send the police and army in to stop them from killing each other off.”

“And we do have to ask ourselves that difficult question-- ‘Are we ready for liberation if this is the way we behave?’ . . . . Maki’s tragedy is not an isolated incident--there have been others.”

Maphanga was with Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, after an earlier funeral when the black prelate saved a man, also suspected of working for the police, from immolation on his overturned, burning car. The man, a black in his 30s, had been badly beaten and doused with gasoline, and was about to be thrown onto the flaming car when Tutu and other clergymen rescued him and calmed the mob.

These incidents led Tutu to warn blacks that such violence would undermine their struggle against apartheid.

“If you do this again,” he warned blacks after Skosana’s death, “I will find it difficult to speak up for our liberation. If you repeat the methods we saw in Duduza, then I will collect my family and leave a country I love passionately. . . . Freedom will be ours, but freedom must come in the right way.”

Skosana, who worked in a glove factory in nearby Nigel, 30 miles southeast of Johannesburg, was a member of the Duduza Youth Congress, an affiliate of the United Democratic Front, the multiracial coalition of anti-apartheid groups, and had participated in Duduza’s many anti-government protests of the last year.

“Maki was a struggler, and she was in the fight against this terrible apartheid system as much as anyone,” an uncle, Stephen Skosana, said as members of the family sat around a plain wooden table in their living room here, trying to come to terms with her death. “People may have had suspicions about her, but there was no basis for any of the rumors.”

Those rumors linked Maki Skosana with the deaths June 26 of nine youths from Duduza and the neighboring black townships of Kwathema and Tsakane--after fragmentation grenades exploded in their hands as they prepared to attack the homes of black policemen and an electrical substation. More than 20 other youths died in the police crackdown that followed, including five in Duduza over a weekend in early July.

Some said Skosana had told the police where some of the youths had hidden after they were surprised while planning to launch their attack. Others accused her of informing the police while the attack was being planned. And a few alleged that she had even worked with a police agent provocateur to recruit the youths and then give them faulty grenades rigged to kill anyone who tried to throw them.

Skosana’s family said there was no basis for any of these rumors.

“People here are very, very angry about that hand-grenade incident,” Pastor Maphanga said, “and Maki became the target of all their anger.”

What happened the night of June 26 is still not entirely clear, but on the basis of accounts from reliable black sources here, from court records in the cases of those who survived and the findings of an independent forensic pathologist, it appears that the grenades were the type intended to be used in booby traps with trip wires, rather than thrown. Seemingly, therefore, they went off as soon as the detonator pins were pulled.

The grenades are said to have come from a man who described himself as a cadre member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the underground African National Congress.

He had recruited the youths, all members of the Congress of South African Students, for what he said would be a campaign of grenade attacks on black local officials, policemen and other “collaborators” as part of a broader effort to make the country’s black townships ungovernable.

Whether he was truly from the African National Congress and unfamiliar with this type of grenade, as senior police sources contend, or was a police agent who wanted to assassinate local student leaders and undermine real attempts to recruit guerrillas, as some blacks believe, is hotly disputed.

Beyond question, however, was the willingness of black youths here and in neighboring townships to enlist in the military group and to take part in what they believed would be coordinated terrorist attacks on black local officials and policemen and on government facilities in Duduza, Kwathema and Tsakane.

“You have to understand the anger of our people, their rage, to make any sense of what has become a war, a real war,” said Anglican Bishop Simeon Nkoane, who lives in Kwathema. “Their patience is exhausted, nothing gets better, the repression gets worse, and every day, people die. . . .

“People, particularly the young people, are giving up on nonviolence. They don’t see it bringing progress, and they see the government itself using more and more violence through the police and the army and justifying it now under this ‘state of emergency.’ Places like Duduza, Kwathema, Tsakane . . . are all bombs with fast-burning fuses.”

The reasons are evident everywhere in Duduza, one of the poorest of the black ghettos that surround Johannesburg to supply cheap black labor for its factories and mines. More than 20 years after it was founded, the town has no sewer system, and its residents must use toilet buckets.

The streets are dirt and become rivers of mud when it rains. Only part of the town has been electrified, and installation is too costly even for many of those able to get power. More than 600 families are waiting for houses--for four-room, concrete houses like the one the Skosana family has.

“People’s patience has run out,” an official of the Duduza Civic Assn., an affiliate of the United Democratic Front, said, asking not to be quoted by name because he is hiding from a police roundup of local leaders. “They have come to do desperate things simply because they are desperate. . . . The tragedy of Maki Skosana’s death--I don’t know whether she was an informer or not--is part of a much larger tragedy that is South Africa today.”

Black youth increasingly want a revolution, not reforms, Maphanga said, adding that their present inability to overthrow apartheid leads them to focus their anger on symbols of the white regime.

“At first, they attacked administration offices, schools and other facilities,” he said, recalling how the unrest began in Duduza and nearby townships last September and October, waned for a time and then grew with a renewed fury since March. “In November, the target became the town council until all of its members resigned. Since January and even before, we have had school boycotts by the students and rent boycotts.

“Later, policemen and their homes became the target until every single one was burned out. It has also spilled out of Duduza toward Nigel (the adjacent white town), and one woman was killed when boys stopped her car and beat her. . . . Now, it is the ‘informers’ and the ‘collaborators,’ but this is not even mob justice, because anyone can denounce anyone else and sign his death warrant.”

Lucas, a 27-year-old glass factory worker from Kwathema, who watched Skosana’s killing from a distance, explained the community’s strong feelings this way: “The police have put a lot of informers among us. We want to show others that we reject them and will reject anyone who becomes part of the (apartheid) system. This is pretty rough stuff--burning people--but we want them to feel the pain we feel when they sell out our leaders. We are not happy about killing our own people, but it is the only way to stop them and others from selling us out.”

Lucas, who asked that his surname not be used for fear of police reprisals, said he knew Skosana casually and was sorry she had been killed.

“She might have been an informer--the police have ways to make people cooperate--but I don’t think so,” he went on. “She was dedicated to the struggle, I thought, but how can you prove you are not an informer? How can you prove your innocence when everyone is shouting ‘informer, informer’ and demanding your blood?”

Diana Skosana, Maki’s mother, realized this awful truth when her daughter told her of the rumors that she was a police informer.

The mother, a widow who works as a cook at an old-age home in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, said: “I begged her to leave because it would be difficult to prove that she was not an informer. But she said she wanted to stay and face her accusers. She also feared our home would be burned down if she left. In our last talk, Maki said she would rather be killed and burned alive--she knew what the fate of informers is--rather than let our family home be destroyed.”

There is, of course, bitterness and confusion, as well as sadness in the Skosana family. But the family remains committed to the struggle against apartheid, just as they believe Maki was until her death.

“I think we are all for the struggle, even if we lost one of our daughters, one of our sisters, because we live in very bad conditions in South Africa,” the uncle, Stephen Skosana, said, and the mother nodded quietly. “We feel for the people who did this--just as we feel for ourselves now, too.”