Nongoloza’s Ghost

The legacy of violence in the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

By Sisonke Msimang

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, by Albert Goodwin, 1901. Photograph © Tate (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0).

This essay is produced in partnership with Africa Is a Country.

I am seven years old, my exiled South African family living in independent Zambia, when my teacher asks everyone in class to share a song or a nursery rhyme or a proverb. One kid sings a song in the Bemba language. Another child stands up and performs a dance that is popular at the time. He rolls his little hips lewdly, and we all giggle.

When it is my turn, I stand in front of everyone and command their silence with the seriousness of my facial expression. I am stock-still, cradling an imaginary rifle. I crouch and sway from side to side, hissing through my teeth to intimidate my audience. I drop to the floor and begin to crawl, my “gun” slung across my chest. Suddenly I jump up, aiming the weapon at my alarmed schoolmates. The class is transfixed as I draw myself to my full height. I slowly put the gun down and clench my right fist; then I raise it above my head and make the universal Black Power sign. Locking eyes with my audience of enemies, I bark a set of instructions.

“Repeat after me,” I say. “Kill the settlers!”

I wait for them to join, but there is some hesitation.

“Kill the settlers!” I repeat.

This time they join in. They are either buoyed by my enthusiasm or afraid of defying my orders.

“Kill the settlers!” they shout.

“The land is ours!” I shriek.

They repeat my phrase: “The land is ours!”

Finally I yell, “Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela, long live!”

The class joins me, squealing in delight with their fists in the air. There is thunderous applause as I make my way back to my desk.

My teacher phones my mother later that day and tells her about my performance. She explains that while it is wonderful that I am so enthusiastic about South Africa’s liberation, she is concerned about the intensity of my fervor.

My mother finds the story hilarious. I love rabbits and French bread and have never been in a fight at school, and yet here I am threatening to kill settlers and repossess the land lost by my forefathers. The performance is out of character, but my mother knows exactly who I am mimicking. She knows that I am emulating the voices of others, ventriloquizing an anger I am too young to feel for myself.


Like all children in our exile community whose parents were members of the African National Congress, I attended Young Pioneers meetings every weekend. The meetings were like Sunday school sessions. Politics was our religion, and we worshipped at the altar of Marx. We rehearsed political slogans the way other children learned hymns, and we prayed to the socialist gods that the apartheid regime would come crashing down. The sessions were fun. They were run by Auntie Ruth, a Russian woman married to a South African man. She taught us Marxist theory and let us pretend that we were world-class gymnasts. Occasionally, Auntie Ruth would let someone else manage the Sunday sessions. By the time I was seven, a lot of our teachers were “young lions,” or the “children of ’76,” as they were often called.

The world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

—Benjamin Disraeli, 1870

I was only two when the protests happened but felt their effects. On June 16, 1976, twenty thousand students marched through Soweto to protest the racist education policies of the apartheid regime. As they gathered to make speeches, police opened fire on the crowd, killing 176 students and injuring hundreds more then and in the days that followed.

Protests quickly spread across the country, and within days the world was talking about South Africa. They had seen the photograph of a teenage boy running away from the police with a lifeless child in his arms. In the image, a young girl ran alongside, one hand up as if to say, “Stop!” The dead child was twelve-year-old Hector Pieterson, the first victim of the police violence that day. The running girl was his big sister Antoinette.

A monument now stands at the site where Hector was shot. The last time I visited, Antoinette was there, sitting on the steps and talking to tourists about the day her brother was killed. It struck me then that the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy in South Africa had not freed her from the grip of history. Her pain was on a loop; the violence of the apartheid regime would forever be embedded in the story of South Africa’s transformation.

The events of June 16 marked a turning point in South Africa’s liberation struggle. Around the world, antiapartheid activists argued that a state that would shoot children could not belong to the international community. Inside the country, the shootings radicalized a generation of black South African youth. The majority mobilized their own communities, forming the backbone of the United Democratic Front, a coalition that would emerge in the 1980s as an umbrella group comprising street committees and neighborhood associations often at the forefront of fierce community protests.

A significant number of the children of ’76 fled the country and joined the ANC in exile, swelling the ranks of our little community in Lusaka. As more and more student activists arrived to join the revolution, Zambia became a hub, a place where young recruits were processed and sent away either for further education elsewhere in Africa or the West or for military training in the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, or Cuba.

The activists of the new generation were markedly different from those who had come before them. My father was part of a slightly older generation. Like so many of his peers, he had been inspired to join the ANC in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960, when sixty-nine peaceful protesters were killed. By early the following year, Nelson Mandela and his comrades had decided that state violence was an inevitability. In his 1964 speech “I Am Prepared to Die,” delivered during the trial that sent him to prison for twenty-seven years, Mandela stated they had come to believe it was “unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.”

Stela honoring the magistrate and patron Kleanax, Kyme, Aeolis, late first century BC.

Stela honoring the magistrate and patron Kleanax, Kyme, Aeolis, late first century bc. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program.

Like many of his peers who went into exile in the 1960s to establish the military wing of the ANC, my father was a reluctant soldier. While he understood the value of an army, and recognized the usefulness of violence, he also understood that it was anathema to democracy. The children of ’76, who joined the ANC after the Soweto uprising, had no such qualms. The youth were understandably drawn to the effectiveness of violence and its ability to shock. The older cadres, who knew the dangers inherent in trying to build a democracy on the basis of violent conflict, were skeptical. They had their eyes on the future—and violence seemed like a short-term strategy at best.

Those who had their eyes on the past might have recognized that the children of ’76 had much in common with the Ninevites, anticolonial black gangsters in early twentieth-century Johannesburg. Like the armed members of the ANC, the Ninevites and their leader, Nongoloza, were capable of acts of spectacular and nihilistic violence. They were also deeply committed to personal agency. Violence was a potent tool for both groups. And the children of ’76 and the gangsters of the early 1900s both sought to live outside the constraints of white men’s laws and social norms.

The differences were obvious. The Nine­vites were gangsters; the youth of ’76 were political activists. While both endorsed violence and understood themselves to be part of wider anticolonial struggles, the gangsters fought only for themselves. The ANC youth fought for those who would come after them. They fought so that my generation might be free.

Both sets of actors fell victim to the violence they espoused. As they tried to resist the violence of the state with their own acts of violence, the Ninevites of the early 1900s and the youth of the 1970s became so enmeshed in bloodshed that they were unable to escape its psychological effects. Many of the children of ’76 were drawn into the violent logic of the 1980s, including authorizing, carrying out, or defending the gruesome practice of necklacing: an act of vigilante “justice” in which a burning tire was hung around the neck of a suspected apartheid spy. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression among former political activists of this generation are unsurprisingly high. In the postapartheid era, South Africans have come to understand that the glamour of violence is deceptive. It might force the hand of our opponents, but it rarely settles the future.


Nongoloza was born in 1867 on a small farm in the British colonial territory of Natal. His birth name was Mzuzephi Mathebula. His father was a Zulu man, a farm laborer who, like thousands of others at the time, worked for a British settler. Mzuzephi grew up working the land and tending to the animals alongside his siblings. When he was old enough to hire out his labor elsewhere, he went to work on a neighboring farm.

One day a horse went missing. When he told his employer, the farmer threatened to dock his wages and insisted that the loss was his fault. Overworked and harried, Mzuzephi snapped that he did not see how he could be blamed for the loss of the horse. He had many chores to fulfill and could not stay in one place watching the horses graze. He left the farm in a rage. His brother worried about his departure and urged him to return to work—black farmworkers were often flogged by their employers. His boss could also have reported him to the police, and he could have faced charges for theft and insolence.

Mzuzephi was too angry to care. Within months he had set out for the new city that was rising in the interior of the country. It was 1887, and less than twelve months before Mzuzephi left Natal, gold had been discovered in the place they called Johannesburg. The young man shed his rural identity to become an accomplished thief. He couldn’t escape horses: he first worked as a groom for a group of white men who turned out to be a gang of robbers. The men taught their apprentice how to target tired miners heading home with full pockets. Impressed with his skills, they offered him a place in the gang. Mzuzephi wasn’t even tempted. The incident with his boss had made its mark: he no longer trusted white people. Instead he decided to join forces with fellow Zulu migrants who were robbing people in and around the city.

Within a few years the young man from Natal had become the gang’s leader, the king of a thriving criminal underworld. He reinvented himself as Nongoloza, a Zulu word loosely translated as “the one with the eyes that glare.” He also formed a new band with hundreds of members and a distinct mythology.

The Ninevites named themselves after the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh, which the Bible describes as a place of sin. The Ninevites were an all-male, largely homosexual gang living in the hills of Johannesburg, where women were banned. Instead, the Ninevites were encouraged to marry among themselves. The gang members also adhered to a strict set of laws that prevented them from working underground in the mines at a time when African men’s labor was cheap and few black men could freely choose their work. The Ninevites followed the edicts of a mysterious old man named Po. Many of the gangs in operation in South Africa today are descended from the Ninevites, and the legend of their origin still circulates in prisons there.

An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.

—George Eliot, 1866

The story goes that in the early 1800s—long before the discovery of gold or diamonds in South Africa—Po had a powerful vision. He imagined a large city where hundreds of black men were swallowed by the earth, never to return. They lived in terrible conditions, exploited and dying. This vision came upon him in 1812, a full fifty years before diamonds were found and seventy years before gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand. Po had time traveled and seen the future—and it was grim.

The old man decided to remain in the future so that he could warn young black men that they should seek and find their fortunes aboveground. He wanted them to understand that if they went down into the tunnels, they would find only misery and almost-certain death. He used a cave as a home base, recruiting a special band of men who would defy the expectations of the colonial society they had been born into. They would resist exploitation; they would live free. They would steal what they needed rather than voluntarily hand over their labor. They would develop their own language and their own laws—a code of conduct they would enforce without external input.

Nongoloza was the first of Po’s recruits. In time he would prove to be the old man’s toughest soldier, the one most capable of extending Po’s teachings and expanding his legacy. In the hills of Johannesburg, the Ninevites grew in size and power; at their height they numbered around a thousand men, all reporting to Nongoloza. He described his avenging army as “men who eat horses.”

After he was arrested and incarcerated in 1900, Nongoloza recruited increasing numbers of inmates into the Ninevites. Released inmates carried Nongoloza’s messages and instructions to his generals on the outside. The Ninevite code of conduct remained in force inside prison, with severe punishments issued to those who broke their laws. Attempts were also made against prison guards known to have abused inmates.

Nongoloza’s power was so significant that colonial authorities spent a great deal of time at a 1912 conference on the state of the country’s prisons discussing him specifically—an inmate who was treated like royalty by other prisoners and who seemed invulnerable, even when he was shot at during attempted prison breaks. After the conference the colonial government’s director of prisons decided to try a novel approach: kill Nongoloza with kindness. He assigned Nongoloza a Zulu-speaking white guard who was instructed not to beat or punish the inmate—a significant shift after years of solitary confinement and food rationing. Deprivation was replaced “with dialogue and lashing with listening,” writes historian Charles van Onselen in his biography of Nongoloza. Having “lost his footing on the softer ground of sympathy,” Nongoloza finally agreed to end his decades-long war against prison officials.

The gangster’s capitulation was dramatic. He renounced his title as king of the Ninevites and went from inmate to prison guard. For the next twenty-seven years, until 1940, the prisoner turned prison guard remained in the prison system. Had the colonial state broken him? Far from it. State authorities were never able to rein him in. He remained an unpredictable and volatile presence who attacked other prison guards and continued to engage in criminal activities.

Nongoloza stayed true to Po’s principles. He never worked underground; he loved the men he wanted to love, without apology. Whites employed him, but he remained essentially free to do as he wished. Yet he paid a heavy price. He was forever beholden to violence, hamstrung by its force even as it gave him room to breathe, and trapped for decades in the most colonial of institutions. Still, in his expressions of rage and his desire to match the violence of the colonial state with equal savagery, Nongoloza was as much a time traveler as his mentor Po. He was truly ahead of his time—the intellectual and spiritual ancestor of the youths who would dominate the political landscape in the 1970s. It was fitting, then, that Nongoloza died in 1948, the year apartheid became law.


For fifty years after Nongoloza’s death, the apartheid regime waged an unrelenting war against black people. White violence was an essential tool. The dispossession of Africans from the lands they had occupied for centuries was a form of white violence, as was the migrant labor system that forced rural black men to seek jobs in big cities in order to support their families. So were the pass laws that regulated the conditions under which these men could live.

The violence of apartheid wasn’t merely symbolic and economic. It was physically enforced by policemen with barking dogs and by armed soldiers who patrolled townships. In every­day life, apartheid was violently upheld by white citizens who beat their employees and assaulted black strangers at a whim.

Inevitably, white violence created reciprocal black violence. After 1976 many black children never returned to school, because the education system had little to offer them. Undereducated, unemployed, and otherwise idle, they saw violence as a form of agency. They burned buildings and violently punished people they perceived to be apartheid collaborators. Their violent acts occupied a gray zone, a liminal space between political activity and criminality.

Sensing the political opportunities of that space, the ANC in exile exhorted the people, the youth in particular, to “render South Africa ungovernable.” In a clarion call for actions that would “hit back at the enemy, arms in hand,” they encouraged the insurrection that was already taking place on the streets.

At the same time the ANC, through the United Democratic Front, played a crucial role in building a culture of democracy by creating major nonviolent actions. The UDF frequently coordinated mass “stayaways,” in which people remained at home on specific days. There were also widespread “go-slows,” in which workers slowed down their productivity, grinding the economy to a halt. It organized sports boycotts and demanded inquiries into the deaths of activists in detention. It held funeral rallies that brought cities to a standstill. From Stockholm to London to Washington, DC, antiapartheid activists held up the UDF as a model of the power of the people and lauded it as an example of participatory democracy in action.

Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, and the ANC was unbanned. Over the next four years, as the party began to operate freely inside the country and exiled leaders returned, it was forced to address its contradictions. For decades it had fostered a culture of accountability among the community-based organizations that belonged to the UDF while it also actively encouraged black people to express their rage through violence. It did all this in the name of a democratic future.

Black activists were both victims of violence and its most strident proponents. They were wounded and killed by police—but they also set purported collaborators on fire, justifying their attacks in the context of the larger struggle and the overweening force of white violence.

Given the centrality of white violence to upholding apartheid, it is important not to pathologize black violence. White people were bound to violence in profound ways. Between 1967 and 1993, a generation of white men was conscripted, with many of them sent to the northern borders to kill guerrilla fighters from Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia. Like the black men they terrorized, many of them returned with post-traumatic stress disorder. In spite of its many victims, the conflict that began in 1966 and ended in 1989 has never been officially classified as a war.

After the historic 1994 elections that installed the ANC as the ruling party, there were hopes that the violence would end. Murders and rapes decreased in the years that immediately followed, but violent crime remained high. The gruesome statistics have once again begun to rise.

Flintlock Gun, c. 1740. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Dean K. Boorman, 2001.

In the past five years, South Africa’s economy has tanked, corruption has mushroomed, and unemployment and inequality have spiraled. These declines have led to widespread bitterness, and many see the ANC as having betrayed its supporters.

As it attempts to appeal to a new generation of angry youth who are tired of broken promises, the ANC has begun to use more militant and populist language. Once the champion of peace and reconciliation, the party now plays up its military history, speaking as though the country’s liberation was achieved by force.

As these stories about gun-toting heroes begin to take center stage, the sacrifices of thousands of black South Africans who used nonviolent strategies to resist apartheid are pushed to the sidelines. Yet it is these efforts—not the threat of guns—that instantiated democracy.

South Africans are rightly proud of our vibrant and noisy democracy. We have a stellar constitution, an active civil society, and a fiercely independent media. The fact that each of these institutions works so well is a reflection of the better instincts of the ordinary women and men who made our democracy possible. They tutored children, ran day care centers, and ferried activists to rallies and marches in borrowed and broken-down cars during the apartheid era. Pushing forward without using violence, they created a blueprint for what social relationships might look like after apartheid. Their unheralded efforts stand as a reminder that victory is not made on the battlefield alone.


I was raised to believe that in the context of a just war, the ends justify the means. In other words, the oppressed have the right to respond to the violence of the oppressor with their own forms of violence.

Over time I have begun to question this belief. I compare Nongoloza and the Ninevites with the ANC and the youth of 1976 because I want to understand the difference between the violence of freedom fighters and the violence of gangsters in anticolonial contexts. Can I root for nineteenth-century African gangsters who were oppressed by colonial laws and systems in the same way that I root for twentieth-century revolutionaries opposed to apartheid? Did the Ninevites’ use of violence contain the same radical possibilities for social change? If enough people had followed Nongoloza, might he have been the leader of a revolution rather than of an underground gang?

An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.

—George Eliot, 1866

The differences are vast, but in the end it comes down to this: Nongoloza fully inhabited his violence and was annihilated by it, whereas the young people who taught me “Kill the settlers!” while lovingly helping me tie my shoelaces on Sunday afternoons knew how to carry out violence but would not be defined by it.

For all its flaws, the ANC never abandoned a democratic praxis even when it was advocating for violent insurrection. The party was prepared to use violence but was never defined by its willingness to cause harm. The party could not have brokered the democratic deal that led to the end of apartheid if its constituents had perceived it as a thoroughly violent organization.

Still, the means the ANC used to achieve our freedom were harmful. Too many black people were killed in the years after 1976, and too many more were frozen in time: youths no more, even as they remained “children” of 1976. They fought back as best they could, but their trauma—like that of their radically flawed progenitor Nongoloza—was debilitating.

There is certainly a moral argument to be made about avoiding violence, but consider its tactical limitations: the seeming instantaneousness of violence—its ability to quickly deliver a result—foreshortens both strategy and a commitment to democratic transformation over the long term.

In South Africa, those who spilled blood have found it difficult to enjoy freedom. I am hopeful that the next generation comes to see that true liberation can only be grasped by those with clean hands.


This essay appears in Democracy, the Fall 2020 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. The issue is made possible by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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