Victoria Nonyamezelo Mxenge was an inspiration to her community. She was a human rights lawyer and an activist who held leadership positions in the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW), Release Mandela Campaign, Umlazi Residents’ Association and the United Democratic Front (UDF). She was brutally murdered in front of her children in the driveway of her Umlazi home on 1 August 1985. Multiple gunshots and an axe were used by her murderers to kill her. Underlining Victoria Mxenge’s prominence, more than 10 000 mourners attended her funeral where messages from Mandela, Tambo and Ronald Reagan were read out.
Victoria Mxenge was a martyr who paid the ultimate price for the liberation of her people. Yet, in the vast corpus of literature on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, there has been no documented history of her life or her contributions to the liberation struggle in South Africa.
My interest in the study about Victoria Mxenge was sparked by, among other reasons, a desire to add a voice in the studies that have been conducted to acknowledge women such as Ruth First, Charlotte Maxeke, Lillian Ngoyi, Fatima Meer, Amina Cachalia, Winnie Mandela and others. My study sought to ignite a debate among historians to uncover many untold stories of ordinary women whose roles have hitherto not been documented.
Victoria Mxenge (nee Ntebe) was born on 1 January 1942 in a small impoverished village called Tamara in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape. She participated in herding livestock, fetching water from the river and the cultivation of crops. Victoria’s life as a child was very simple and humble. She matriculated in Healdtown and qualified as a nurse at Victoria Hospital before proceeding to King Edward VIII Hospital where she also qualified as a midwife. It was in Durban where she met her husband Griffiths Mlungisi Mxenge who was an African National Congress (ANC) activist, a brilliant human rights lawyer and a persuasive orator.
Griffiths was subsequently imprisoned in Robben Island, banned and continuously harassed by the special branch. While working as a nurse, Victoria pursued a law degree and in 1981 she joined her husband’s law firm. During that year, the state ordered her husband’s assassination which was carried out by Dirk Coetzee and his operatives from the notorious Vlakplaas. The police tried to convince Victoria that Griffiths had been killed by the ANC. However, Victoria believed that the government had carried out the assassination of her husband. She issued a statement defiantly declaring that “….when people have declared war on you, you cannot afford to be crying. You have to fight back. As long as I live, I will never rest until I see to it that justice is done, until Griffiths Mxenge’s killers are brought to book.”
Following the assassination of Griffiths, Victoria continued to represent political detainees. She was very active within NOW which was a UDF affiliate. NOW brought together young women from Umlazi, KwaMashu, Chatsworth and other parts of Durban. NOW defined itself as an organization that sought to participate in the national liberation struggle in South Africa, to mobilize women irrespective of race or class and to eradicate illiteracy. NOW also addressed family planning and other health care issues, housing, welfare of women detainees, established creches and other child minding programmes. Victoria was committed to the ideals of women’s emancipation.
Victoria worked with young people representing them when they were detained or faced political charges. She also ran political classes for the youth from her home. She always encouraged the youth to focus on their education and even assisted some of them financially to access tertiary education using the bursary fund, Griffiths Mxenge Education Memorial Trust, which she had established in her late husband’s honour. This made Victoria to be very popular with the youth. Victoria also worked closely with her fellow comrades from the Natal Indian Congress to collapse apartheid and replace it with non-racialism. In July 1985, Victoria was invited to deliver a speech at the funeral of the four slain UDF leaders from Cradock, known as the Cradock Four. In her resounding speech, Victoria ominously declared “Go well, peacemakers. Tell your great-grandfathers we are coming because we are prepared to die for Africa.” It is widely believed that the speech which Victoria delivered at the funeral of the Cradock Four could have been the immediate cause which resulted in her becoming her target for assassination.
Victoria was assassinated on the eve of the court appearance of the Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial involving 16 UDF trialists such as Albertina Sisulu, Mewa Ramgobin, Chanderdeo Sewpersadh, Mooroogiah Jay Naidoo, Essop Jassat, Frank Chikane, Ismail Mahomed and others. Victoria was the instructing attorney. When the family requested that there be an inquest, the magistrate turned this request down. When the ANC made its submission to the TRC, the party identified Marvin Sefako (alias Bongani Raymond Malinga), as being the man who had confessed to killing Victoria. Jimmy Mbane, an askari, also testified before the TRC that Thabiso Sphamla, also an askari, had “confessed to him, while drunk, that he and three other askaris – Eric Maluleke, Peggy Hadebe and ‘Samuel’ – had killed Victoria Mxenge. In its final report, the TRC came to the conclusion that Victoria Mxenge’s assassination was commissioned by the Apartheid security forces, carried out by them or on the orders of unidentified members of the security forces.
Speaking at the commemoration of the 2018 Human Rights Day in the Eastern Cape, the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Dr Zweli Mkhize, summarized the extent of the violence which followed the assassination of Victoria as follows: “ …it spread through the province and the country throughout the eighties to nineties.” Following her assassination, a week long school boycott was observed and many workers could not travel to work. Mourners were attacked during her memorial service and more people died during her funeral which took place in Rayi village, Eastern Cape. These two incidents became known as Umlazi and Duncan Village massacres respectively. Thousands of lives were lost and tens of thousands of people were displaced from their home following the violence which erupted. The violent attacks also had ethnic and racial undertones whereby Amampondo , AmaXhosa and Indians were attacked for ‘misleading the Zulus and recruiting them into the UDF’. Consequently, Amampondo were killed in the area around KwaMakhutha and Indians were attacked in Bhambayi and their businesses were burnt down. The historic Gandhi settlement, including the school and the library, was also burnt down and irreplaceable historical artefacts lost. The displaced Indians received alternative housing in Phoenix.
Victoria is arguably the only political figure whose assassination had so much impact that went on for so many years after her death. Victoria has been awarded the Order of Luthuli for paying the supreme price for the people of South Africa to live in peace, harmony and to have democratic rights. However, it is worrying that no one has been prosecuted for her death. An inquest into her death should be held. This will also assist her family to have closure.
To commemorate and acknowledge the role of our heroines in the freedom struggle to liberate South Africa from oppression, the 1860 Heritage Museum will host an exhibition that highlights the role of women in the freedom struggle during the 20th century.