A Sky Full of Foreboding [The Assassination of Johannes Nkosi]


Bernard Sachs

One of the most tragic episodes during my stay in the Communist Party revolves about the name of [Johannes] Nkosi, a Native member of the Party. I well remember when he first appeared at the Party headquarters and applied for membership. Nkosi was a cook, and when he was introduced to the members of the branch the chairman quoted Lenin as having said that cooks will become administrators. Nkosi had very regular features, resembling in a way the Negro faces done by Rubens. Most of the Native tribes in South Africa have come down originally from the north of Africa, and this partly accounted for the strong Arabic influence in Nkosi’s features, which gave him a romantic appearance. He also had a good brain, and before long he was a favourite of all the Party members and handling responsible jobs of work. After meetings, a number of us would remain behind to listen to Nkosi recounting Native lore and legend, of which he had store.

According to one these legends, more witches live in Namahasha than anywhere else in the world. At night they ride over the Lebombo Mountains vying with each other in their wickedness. The young witches are able only to send dreadful dreams destroying sleep, but the older seize a man’s soul and leave the husk to gape a day or two before it crumbles to death. Sometimes the witches stalk in animal form, but the great flying witches can make themselves invisible and outstrip the magic of the most powerful magician who tries to overcome them.

And Nkosi also told us of the lion-haunted Lebombo Mountains where the wind blows ceaselessly, and where nothing grows except crystal flowers whose blossoms are lighter than air, and whose roots eat through granite. It is a place inhabited by leopard-men and their women who walk invisibly over the mountains. Whoever strays in these mountains is struck down dead, and the crimson flowers Now and again blossom where the dead man’s blood had flowed. Now and again the leopard-women appear through the storm-clouds. They glide like arrows of bronze. When you see them you have to follow, for you are irresistibly drawn by the lilt of their bodies and the glow of their flesh. And when you lie with these leopard-women, you never come down from the mountains again. It is said that for every awakening one red flower will grow.

So much for the romance out of Nkosi’s life! But those tales were of the times of long ago. Right here and now there was the stern reality of racial oppression which had to be fought day in and day out. The Natives have to carry passes after nine o’clock in the evening, for the policemen follow them like the leopard men of the Lebombo and throw them into gaol if they are not in possession of a pass. It was round this time that the Party launched out on the very dangerous course of getting the Natives to burn their passes.

Dingaan’s Day was chosen as the climax of the pass burning campaign. This Day has a special significance in South Africa. On this day, in the year 1838, the Dutch trekkers had finally broken the power of Dingaan, King of the Zulus, when they defeated him on the banks of a river which has since been called Blood River. It was given this name because its waters were that day tinged with the blood of the Zulus, brandishing their shields and spears as they were mown down by the bullets of the Boers firing from their wagon-fortresses. The Boers celebrate this day as one of national rejoicing, and over the whole country prayer-meetings are held to thank the Lord for the defeat of the Canaanites, which made possible the establishment of White civilisation in South Africa. For the Native peoples it has with the growth of political consciousness in recent years become a day of mourning and protest at the loss of their freedom. The tragedy of Dingaan’s Day can best be comprehended in a Zulu saying that has come down to this age: “If we go forward we die; if we go backward we die. Let us go forward and die.” They went forward, and the river’s current carried much blood down to the sea that day.

Nkosi was the chief speaker at the monster Dingaan’s Day demonstration. Thousands of Natives came; and a large number of Whites, enraged beyond endurance, stood on the outskirts of the meeting. To dramatise the proceedings, a bonfire was lit and it was fed with passes as the speakers delivered their harangues. There had been much excitement all that day, for rumours were circulating that the Natives might get out of hand. A white police captain at the head of about a dozen white policemen armed with revolvers, together with over a hundred Native police armed with assegais, divided the speakers from the mass of demonstrators. Nkosi mounted the lorry, which had been brought up to serve as a platform, the bonfire forming the background.

This is how he started: “The White man has built his civilization on the banks of the Blood River where one hundred years ago the blood of my people mingled with its waters. We have borne this so-called White civilisation for one hundred years. Our women are starving, and our children are dying of tuberculosis and other diseases. Our men are coughing up their lungs with phthisis as they dig gold for the rich. I say that enough blood has flowed down the waters of the Blood River.”

There was a wild huzzah from the crowd. Suddenly the police captain shouted a command in Zulu, and the assegais sped from the hands of the Native policemen making a shambles of Nkosi’s body. His eyes stood out white like a flash of lightning against his black face as he sagged and soon lay crumpled up in a bloody heap. That night we filed past Nkosi as he lay stretched out at the mortuary---our first martyr. I would like to think that a red flower has blossomed at that spot where the leopard-men slew Nkosi.

The following day we paid our last respects to Nkosi as his graveside. Bunting spoke at Nkosi’s grave.

“Our struggle has been sanctified by the blood of our Comrade Nkosi,” [Sidney Percival] Bunting began his address. The first Christian martyr must have been going through his head, as he concluded with the words from St. Paul: “We are troubled on every side yet not distressed; we are perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; cast down but not destroyed. Enough blood has flowed down the waters of the Blood River.”

From: Multitudes of Dreams: A Semi-Autobiographical Study, Kayor Publishing House, Johannesburg, 1949, pp. 153-156.