Turf war between Basotho looking for gold in abandoned South African mineshafts spills into Qeme leaving a trail of destruction
QEME-‘Malekata Lebuso remembers that tragic day as if it was yesterday.
The elderly woman stares at the bowl of porridge before her as if oblivious of the people around her. She slowly lifts the basin and takes a swig of the thin porridge and starts speaking about Rethabile—her 34-year-old son shot dead by unknown assailants last month in North West Province in South Africa.
A day before the 9 November shooting, the Lebuso home in Ha Thabe village in Qeme, had been torched by an arsonist who remains unknown to this day, but ‘Malekata—just like the rest of her village—has a very good idea of who could have been behind these attacks that have been raging since 2004.
That year alone, seven people were shot dead in the villages of Ha Thabe and Ha Motheho in Qeme—the result of a vicious fight for control of abandoned gold mineshafts in the North West and the Free State, as the Lesotho Times was told this week.
More people have continued to die and suffer serious injuries through brutal assaults in the two villages over the past 11 years with residents blaming the violence on the zama-zama—as the illegal miners are commonly known in South Africa.
However, the killings have left villagers petrified that not even a chief was prepared to be identified as he and his subjects narrated the terror to the Lesotho Times.
Only ‘Malekata, who grieves for her son to this day, could come out and publicly condemn the violence she said was making some of the villagers sleep “in the mountains” for fear of being killed.
“My son was taken too soon,” ‘Malekata said as she shifted slightly on the mattress she was sitting on.
“His death left us devastated. His house, our home, was burnt down just a day before he was shot. He was our sole breadwinner and we have been suffering since he passed on, leaving behind a wife and very young child.”
According to the terrified villagers, the zama-zama turf war spilled into Qeme early 2004 when a brutal fight broke out between two of the illegal miners who had been drinking at a local bar. The miners were from Ha Thabe and Ha Motheho villages which are adjacent to each other. Mr Lebuso, from Ha Thabe, was said to have been later involved in the fight, which his mother confirmed on Monday.
One of the villagers this week estimated the death toll of the territorial dispute at “more than 12’ since 2004, adding fights between residents of the two villages have become common since that barroom scrap.
“It all started when two men from Ha Motheho and Ha Thabe villages who were zama-zamas in South Africa suddenly started a fistfight in a local bar.
“The Ha Motheho man (name withheld) was drinking at the village bar and when his Ha Thaba counterpart arrived, they started drinking together as they knew each other from South Africa,” the villager said.
“We don’t really know what happened between the two miners but they started arguing and fighting, and the Ha Motheho man was badly injured in the brawl.”
The injured Ha Motheho man is said to have sought reinforcements from his village and looked for his assailant.
“He was beaten again by the Ha Thabe man (name also withheld) together with the now- deceased Rethabile. However, after the fight, the two men’s families went to Ha Motheho offering to pay the man’s medical bills but that olive branch was rejected.
“The man’s brother told them they had enough money to pay their son’s medical bills. We later learnt that the two were members of zama-zama rival gangs in South Africa and since that day, we have been living in fear because in 2004 alone, Ha Thabe village had seven brutal killings linked to the zama-zama gang war.
“To make matters worse, the police are not doing much to stop this war as they are paid by these zama-zamas to look the other way. The police take sides with the people who bribe them with more money. ”
The villager said some residents were now sleeping “in the mountain just above this village” as they no longer feel safe in their homes.
And according to ‘Malekata, had the peace-offering been accepted when that fight broke out in 2004, the two villages of Ha Motheho and Ha Thabe would be living in peace.
“I remember that it was in 2004 and we were coming from receiving donations from another village. I saw this man that I knew, and he was covered in blood.
“I later learnt what had happened at the bar and because the injured man was looking for his attacker and his family, we decided to alert the man being hunted about it. We wanted him to hide so that there would be no more trouble but we could not find him.
“We were later informed that the injured man had found his attacker in the company of my son, Rethabile, and that there was another fight. The following day, we went to his house offering to foot his medical bills as a sign of friendship, and that we did not want any problems, but the offer was rejected.
“From that day, we have not known peace and what is worse is that the police are not doing much to end the bad blood between our two villages as the fight has since involved so many people it has almost become a war between Ha Motheho and Ha Thabe. We hear all sorts of allegations that the police are being bribed not to arrest the perpetrators of this violence,” she said.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have money to bribe the police so we are the least of their worries. We were just lucky that when our house was burnt down, we were not here otherwise we could have all died in the fire.”
The Lesotho Times also learnt that the Lebuso family home was torched a night after a Ha Motheho’s home was set alight by unknown assailants. The family was not around when the Lesotho Times crew visited the village on Monday morning.
“There were four people in the house at the time, and luckily, all of them escaped unharmed, although they lost all their belongings in the fire,” a Ha Motheho villager who also spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation by the zama–zamas said.
A Ha Thabe chief on Monday told the Lesotho Times that the situation was so volatile he was even afraid to be seen talking to “strangers”. The chief also requested not to be named for fear of the illegal miners.
“You would think because of my status, I can speak freely about this but I cannot because I am also fearing for my life,” said the visibly worried chief.
“Zama–zama and Mafeteng famo gang wars are intertwined and these people are now taking their South African differences back home, with Ha Thabe and Ha Motheho, now turned into a battlefield.
“Over 12 people have been killed and I have lost count of those who have been injured in the fighting. Houses have been burnt down and most of our people are sleeping in the mountain fearing for their lives,” the chief said.
“Even myself, I spend the whole night awake. We have a female pensioner who has fled her own house for fear of being set alight in her sleep because of these fights.”
The chief also blamed the police for not doing enough to end the fighting.
“You should understand that these zama–zamas make huge monies in South Africa and they spend it freely and that includes bribing the police,” the chief said.
“Some suspects are never taken for questioning while others don’t even spend a night in police cells if they happen to be arrested, because they would have bribed the police.”
The chief said the fact that no one had been found guilty of any of the atrocities since they broke our 11 years ago was “clear testimony” that the police were being bribed not to pursue the cases.
On his part, Qeme 42 Member of Parliament, Nkaku Kabi, said the situation in the two villages was so volatile it needed intervention.
“It’s so bad that some men working in South Africa are no longer coming home for fear of the violence,” Mr Kabi said.
“Unless we engage the villagers in reconciliation programmes, I don’t think we will be able to find a lasting solution to this bloodshed.
“We now have situations where some heads of families working in South Africa hire vehicles to bring them here late at night and never leave their homes until they return to South Africa.
“Throughout their stay, they use buckets to relieve themselves as they don’t want to be seen by their rivals. And like I said, there is need for mediation between the two sets of villagers to put this animosity to an end.”
Asked about the villagers’ allegations about the police being bribed not to arrest the zama–zamas accused of crime and the bloody clashes, police spokesperson Clifford Molefe said: “We have opened both arson and attempted murder cases regarding the attack which took place last month (in Ha Thabe).
“What usually happens is the suspects flee to South Africa soon after committing these crime, which frustrates police investigations.
“Efforts to bring a lasting solution to this problem are being made and today (Tuesday) we will be holding a public gathering for residents of the two villages.
“As for claims of bribery against the police, we have not received any such reports.”