South Africa: Piet Retief - a Town Living in the Shadow of Apartheid's Death Squads


Piet Retief has been a sort of ungazetted killing field for blacks dating back to the anti-apartheid era. It is as if the town made a declaration to be the stage to avenge the 6 February 1838 massacre by Dingane ka Senzangakhona of the colonial Voortrekker Piet Retief -- whose name the town bears -- and his followers.

It was during the Soweto unrests of the 1980s that I ended up in the small Mpumalanga town of Piet Retief. I was a child, not even in my teens, when I landed in Thandukukhanya township. It was a desolate place that had been cast out of the main economic activity of what was then Eastern Transvaal. A location of subservient people, I observed.

Urban areas were up in flames with anti-apartheid protests as part of the Struggle call to "make South Africa ungovernable". Inasmuch as I did not understand the politics of the era, I knew of family members who were sentenced to Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. Some of my cousins would escape Soweto to join us in Piet Retief as a means of running away from the notorious Special Branch that was hunting activists.

Piet Retief seemed like an...

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