Press "Enter" to skip to content

KZN – ‘where those who run crazy are the only sane ones’

Violence erupted in KwaZulu Natal province and parts of Gauteng last week resulting in widespread destruction of property and more than 200 people dead. For many older residents of KwaZulu Natal the raging fires and crackling of gunfire this may have rekindled dark memories from a bloody, violent past.

In his new book Violence and Solace – The Natal Civil-War in Late Apartheid South Africa author Mxolisi R Mchunu reflects on the low scale civil war that raged in the province between the early 1980s right up to the period just after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

“According to Mchunu, there are those who claim that there is now complete peace in the community but many of the interviewees tell another story. Several interviewees, who were survivors of the violence, indicate that some of their relatives had gone mad. I sometimes feel in such a context that those who run crazy are the only sane ones. The ones we should really worry about are those who participated in the violence and appeared to be unaffected,” Father Michael Lapsley, founder and director of the Institute for Healing of Memories writes in the foreword.

“There are many striking aspects in the text and I want to mention just a few. As Mchunu notes, the major players in the killing fields were black men fighting black men. However, the most affected were women and children but we seldom hear their voices and almost never in the first person. This is one of the remarkable aspects of this book, especially as Mchunu recalls his childhood memories. Through his willingness to self-disclose and give himself permission to be vulnerable, he gives us, as the readers, priceless insights into the immediate impact of trauma,” Lapsley continues.

In this extract from the book Mchunu, who lived through the violence in KwaShange in the Pietermaritzburg area of the KwaZulu Natal midlands tackles the the lingering effects of the war:


DURING THE CONFLICT in Vulindlela, which lasted more than ten years, many young males were drawn into armed conflict as active combatants. The political violence left many people, young men in particular, ‘damaged in their spirits’.

After the gradual subsiding of the violence, in the climate of exhaustion within the KwaShange community and the general will to leave behind what was increasingly seen as destructive madness, there was a great need for reconciliation between opponents and reintegration of the community.


During the political violence, male children as young as fourteen were trained to fight and defend their families. They participated in killings and in rituals associated with war. These men, then adolescents, who earned respect for their heroism in the 1980s, are now regarded as villains and are ostracised by their communities. Linda Williams suggests that a society under stress, in violent conflict, will have higher rates of depression, anxiety, panic and violence. If, as is often the case in war-torn societies, the conflict has continued, or has broken out sporadically for years, violent behaviour may eventually become accepted and may be common to large portions of the population, and thus may be considered a cultural phenomenon. Maria Schuld notes that post-conflict societies sometimes experience levels of violence comparable to those in time of civil war. Adam Curle notes that in societies torn by civil conflict alienation tends to escalate into post-traumatic stress syndrome. Violence generally continues to exist within the social fabric of societies coming out of conflict for decades or even centuries after the war.

Biomedical psychotherapeutic notions of mental distress and trauma constitute ‘Western’ social and cultural constructs, which may often be ineffective in contexts where cultural beliefs and world views are different. The biomedical approach to war trauma should thus be regarded as only one of several ways of dealing with post-war healing, since there are other ways of understanding health and healing in post-conflict situations, which are culturally prescribed and favoured by the victims and communities themselves.

Trauma is a worldwide phenomenon, but little research has been done on how it presents itself in different cultures. Remedies for trauma are often culturally specific and imported remedies may be ineffective in South African communities damaged by violence.

There is a need to understand trauma from a non-clinical perspective, which is informed by an African cultural belief system. In Vulindlela, trauma is conceptualised as ukuhlukumezeka. This implies a disruption between the supernatural and natural domains of life. This disruption appears in anthropological literature as stigma or contagion, which is believed to make people vulnerable to traumatic events, such as political violence, poverty, unemployment and HIV/AIDS. Such traumas are understood to rupture social relations.

For many KwaShange Zulu people, trauma, rather than being an individual condition, is seen as a general consequence of a disruption in the balance between the supernatural and natural/social worlds. The discourse of trauma is central to social functioning and it is possible to understand mental health as a socio-cultural construct. In terms of this view, to ensure efficacy, an approach to healing should include therapeutic strategies that draw on the appropriate world views.

Historically, trauma interventions within the Zulu context took into account local understanding, as well as the indigenous capacity for dealing with ‘social scars’. Although research has been conducted in the area of trauma among victims of violent crime in South Africa, little attention has been paid to the way in which individuals construct and theorise their traumatic experiences and the impact that these explanations have on the healing process. This chapter will investigate the traditional understanding in KwaShange of the traumatic violence of the past and how this impacts on the individual’s socio-cultural view of reality.

The methods of ritual cleansing after battles that are employed in traditional Zulu society are not unique but are mirrored elsewhere in traditional societies in Africa, Asia and Australia. The debate in South Africa, however, is whether these methods of dealing with trauma can be relied upon or whether contemporary Western-style trauma counselling should be preferred to traditional Zulu ways of dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A large proportion of the country’s population is rural and still wedded to traditional culture. Even when they reside and work in urban areas, the same appears to be true. Traditional counselling methods have major advantages in comparison to other types in that the individuals being treated have confidence in the processes, which are informal and less intimidating, allowing patients to be more at ease and less uncomfortable and alienated.

Battle fatigue

Dominant Western psychotherapeutic models are often seen as universal and applicable everywhere. However, this assumption has been challenged as Western psychology is also a culturally constructed system. Modern psychology locates the causes of psycho-social distress within the individual and devises responses that are primarily based on individual therapy. Recovery is achieved through helping the individual ‘come to terms’ with the traumatic experience and healing takes place in private sessions aimed at ‘talking out’ and externalising one’s feelings. War-related PTSD was recognised in the 1980s in the United States and was based on research carried out with veterans of the Vietnam War.

The situation may be different in other socio-cultural contexts. Jo Boyden and Sara Gibbs have shown that in Cambodia, individual therapy conducted by modern psychotherapists can be ineffective because it does not account for the part that ancestral spirits and other spiritual forces play in the causation and healing processes. By focusing exclusively on the individual, family and community efforts to provide support and care are undermined. Studies on healing war trauma in Mozambique have shown that recalling the traumatic experience through verbal externalisation as a means of healing is not always effective. In many instances, people would rather not talk about the past and prefer to start afresh after certain ritual procedures, which do not necessarily involve verbal expression, have been performed.

In KwaShange and in other areas affected by political violence in the Natal Midlands, the vast majority of young men who were born during the political violence are between 23 and 26 years of age at the time of writing. There is also a sizeable group of those who were ‘heroes’ in the Vulindlela conflict. For these young men, trauma is not ‘post’, but rather ‘current’, and part of their everyday life. Most of the population of KwaShange is still living with the ongoing aftermath of violent and traumatic circumstances. There is a need to adapt biomedical models to the day-to-day situation experienced by these people.

Understanding war trauma

In Zulu culture, there are particular ways of understanding war trauma. People believe that war-related psychological trauma is directly linked to the anger of the spirits of those killed during the war. These spirits are called imimoya emibi (spirits of those who did not have a proper burial, which would place them in their proper positions in the world of the ancestors). Such people are believed to be unsettled and bitter, likely to cause harm to their killers or to passers-by.16 In Vulindlela, this is a common understanding. Many people interviewed mentioned that the spirits of people killed during the violence – especially those that died in February 1991 – had to be appeased, to ensure peace.

Ritual pollution, known as insila, is an important aspect of post-war healing in Zulu cultural understanding. Pollution may arise from being in contact with death and bloodshed. Individuals who

have been in a war, who killed or saw people being killed, are called banequnga (polluted by the wrongdoings of the war). They are seen as the vehicles through which the spirits of the dead might enter and afflict the community. These spirits may afflict not only the individual who committed the offences but also an entire family or group. After the war, when combatants and refugees return home, they are believed to be potential contaminators of the social body. The spirits of the dead can disrupt life in their families and villages. The cleansing process is seen as a fundamental condition for collective

protection against pollution and for the social reintegration of war affected people into society.17 In KwaShange, this did not happen immediately after the war. People who participated in the February 1991 KwaShange ‘ambush’ were regarded as especially polluted. Some community members attributed disasters that followed to a lack of cleansing, but others believe that Inkatha buried their dead with strong muthi in their graves so that the person who killed them would

be cursed.

The traditional concept of warriorhood

I use the archaic word ‘warrior’ because in traditional Zulu thinking there are a number of complex ideas surrounding the word – particularly concerning the reasons why males conform to traditional military roles. Some men in KwaShange claim that they did not take part in political violence because they wanted to destroy or kill; they claim they sought to observe traditional warrior values ‘to protect their community from the unruly behaviour exhibited by Inkatha’.

Warriors were driven by a conviction that if they had to kill, they needed transcendent reasons to do so. Throughout history, the only reason for fighting that has survived moral scrutiny is the fear of a direct attack with a real, immediate threat to one’s people. Almost all cultures, past and present, have had warriors and have also had stories and rituals to help them recover from combat and guide them through life. The presence of warriors is so universal that many psychologists understand ‘warrior’ to be one of our foundational psycho-spiritual archetypes.20

In traditional cultures or communities such as KwaShange, men and boys who participated in violent activities were defined as warriors. This was not the same as being a professional soldier. Warriors were not members of a huge, anonymous military institution used for the violent execution of political ends. Rather, a warrior was one of the foundational roles that kept a community whole and strong. Warriors were fundamentally protectors, not destroyers. Warriors, however, were not so highly valued or nurtured in KwaShange after the violence, and they were often not accorded social status. A veteran, especially one who in the process of defending the community lost his opportunity to go to school, participated in strengthening rituals, or smoked dagga (cannabis), appears to many, and sometimes to himself, as a failure in terms of normal civilian identity.

Impacts of violence and case studies of the cleansing of former warriors

Father Benedict Mbhele is a leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Vulindlela and a trained psychologist. He interacted with some former warriors in KwaShange. He told me that culpability, worthlessness, ostracisation from the community and life itself was the legacy that the 1980s to 1990s political violence left to young warriors in KwaShange.

Nobuhle Zungu, a social worker who specialises in trauma counselling at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, comes from KwaShange. Her family was deeply affected by violence. Zungu came into contact with some of the former warriors immediately after the violence came to an end. She says: ‘Dealing with young men who were traumatised (using ‘Western’ psychotherapeutic techniques) because of the 1980s violence was an impossible mission – it just did not work. Because I come from a family that deals with similar kinds of issues in a cultural way, I advised families of my patients to consider using cultural therapeutic means – these rituals are what my family did to all of us at home. As a trauma counsellor, I still go back to cultural means of dealing with my own past issues.’

Rather than feeling that their participation in defending their community had restored their families’ honour, these former warriors spent years ravaged by nightmares, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse and sitting with guns at ‘the ready’,24 first, because they are wanted by relatives and friends of people they killed or second, because of crimes they committed in the area.

About the book

Violence and Solace – The Natal civil-war in Late Apartheid South Africa is published by UKZN Press

ISBN 978 1 86914 462 3.

About the author

Mxolisi R. Mchunu is an Honorary Lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town. Benedict Carton is Associate Professor of History at George Mason University and author of Blood from Your Children: The Colonial Origins of Generational Conflict in South Africa.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *