Police brutality – when even the dead are not safe

Leroy Ndlovu recounts a harrowing tale of police brutality, of a callous government’s spree of home demolition and a family in mourning.

Operation Murambatsvina - police brutality
Operation Murambatsvina – police brutality

Hilda and I were not best friends. We were the simplest form of the word ‘cousins’ one can ever find. In my part of the world that is saying a lot, because I grew up knowing that my mother’s sister’s children were my siblings, and my father’s brother’s children were also my siblings, and that if I ever used the word ‘cousin’ I could be smacked to the border and back to make sure I didn’t do it again. But Hilda and I were cousins. Our parents called each other cousin, and no one bothered to show us exactly how we were related. So we were simply cousins. We didn’t share any toys growing up, and I would have been hard pressed to tell you when her birthday was, but we were the same age in 2005, so you can imagine how shocked I was when I heard that she had crossed the river Styx seemingly of her own accord, at the age of 16.

Home renovation

It was a shock because I believed that only old people die. Isn’t that what we are taught? The young shall live and the old shall die? I was shocked by the news. And so we found ourselves once more gathered in my grandmother’s house in Old Magwegwe. It was a little thing, built, I believe, in a time when high density suburbs were meant to hold only the workforce who migrated from emakhaya to eke out a living koNtuntuziyathunqa. But like many others it had eventually become a family home. Over the years nearly every member of my mother’s family had spent time there. Some had lived there for months, and others on holiday. So naturally, my two oldest brothers, who had lived there as long as I could remember had decided as soon as they started working to put up two additional rooms in the space that was once a thriving garden. Everyone welcomed the development. it meant a lot more space, and it soon served its purpose at family parties, on Christmas day, and of course funerals. The rooms had served their purpose well earlier that year when my grandmother went before Hilda. Everyone had gathered, and everyone had slept in shelter.

Fear, as the demolitions begin

I can’t remember when exactly Hilda moved into Old Magwegwe, but she had been there long enough at the time of her passing to make my grandmother’s house the only place where the families could gather to discuss all the good things she had done and bury all her evils with her for good. Everyone filed to the old house. Soon enough furniture was piled wherever it could be piled to make space for everyone that would be coming. For the first day, at least, we could all focus on our recently lost relative. Everywhere around us was chaos. It had been going on for weeks. It had started off as a rumour of a rumour and had evolved into stories on the news, and finally, like that uncle everyone remembered not to invite to a wedding, Operation Murambatsvina had descended upon Bulawayo. We heard stories of houses being torn down all over the city. My father’s tuck shop, which operated out of a secluded part of our home way across town, had to operate under cover. Even in the low density suburbs no one was safe. I remember the forlorn look on our neighbour’s face when he told the story of how they had torn down another tuck shop which had the misfortune of being on the main road. Every day we hoped the madness would stop and everyday new stories would come up.

Namhla bebesePumula! Kuthwa badilizile sibili abadlali!” (Today they were in Pumula, I hear they really demolished-they are not playing)

Mina ngizwa kuthwa lasePelandaba sebedilizile.” (I heard they have already even demolished in Pelandaba)

Lina! endaweni zemarisha lakho sebedilizile!” (You people, they have even demolished in the Marisha area)

Police brutality – the dead don’t matter

The sun was high in the sky on the second day of Hilda’s wake when they finally made it to our street. Nobody had to warn anyone else that the inevitable had finally come to our doorsteps. The commotion was unbelievable. As our neighbours frantically rushed around to protect their belongings from descending bricks we gathered in a circle and assigned my oldest brother and my uncle to negotiate with the policemen. Our uncles assured us that all would be well. That the policemen could be talked to and they would pass on. THIS was a funeral for crying out loud! These men could be reasoned with! Surely they had families as well. Surely they were human.

The destruction begins

One by one the backyard rooms came down. Our neighbours gathered around the policemen. All the shouting and loud protests were in vain. This had all happened before and the men in uniform were not to be deterred. A large crowd gathered but no one dared to intervene. They all watched helplessly as their homes and their neighbours’ homes were destroyed in the name of observing city by-laws. Finally, the dreaded moment came. A small group of officers entered our yard and demanded to see the plans for the two rooms at the back. Like many before us we had none. The rooms had been built out of necessity. When no plans could be displayed the one who seemed to be in charge announced, in matter of fact voice, that the rooms would have to be destroyed.

“Sir, please” my uncle implored, “This is a funeral.”

“What’s so special about death?”

The big man held his cap in his hands as if he were wringing water from it. His eyes were filled with tears and his voice had taken on a soft edge I had never heard in him before. It took every ounce of energy I had not to cry just then. In all the years I had been alive I had never seen my uncle look that emotional about anything. The policeman was unmoved. He motioned for the team to get to work and as we all rushed to grab what we could from inside before the walls came down I heard three Shona words that I would never forget.

Chii chinoshamisa nerufu?”

Only dust and rubble

Sledgehammers struck brick as we all tripped over ourselves to move things out of the rooms. A bedroom set, wardrobes, an old radio, a DVD player, clothes, a home theatre system whose subwoofer would never work again after that day. Everything had to get out. In a matter of minutes all that was left of the rooms where so many of us had spent many a peaceful night was rubble. Once more we could see through the fence to our neighbours on the next street. The police crew left without a word; leaving us all dumbfounded.

Karma strikes back

Later that day we heard the policeman in charge had been injured further down the street.  Somehow his overzealous team had forgotten how slow their commanding officer was. In a team effort to pull down a wall they had all moved out of the way to avoid the weight. Officer in charge held on until it was too late. It would be a bald faced lie to say I wasn’t happy about it. Even as the sun went down and all the men huddled around the fire where there once had been a bedroom, his words replayed themselves over and over in my head like a broken record. Even as the last shovelful of sand was flung onto Hilda’s grave, the words rang in my ears.

Chii chinoshamisa nerufu?”


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