More than 50 lives were lost to gunfire when protesters marched to Shell House protesting the upcoming 1994 elections, writes Janet Smith.
King Goodwill Zwelithini addressed the president of the ANC, Nelson Mandela, directly. It was April 8, 19 days before the first democratic elections, and 10 days since gunfire and mayhem broke loose on the angry streets of Joburg.
The Zulu monarch said his “father’s people” had been “peacefully demonstrating for the restoration of the kingdom of KwaZulu” outside the ANC’s HQ at Shell House in Joubert Park, and referred to a report in The Times of London which said the movement’s gunmen had “mowed them down”.
He quoted the paper accusing the ANC of practising totalitarianism, and warned that its “intolerance to criticism… means South Africa will be a virtual one-party state”.
But if Zwelithini was emotional – relating the terrible offence he believed he and his people had had to take – the whole country was in shock.
The world and the markets held their breath. Only some in the mass of mostly IFP marchers, and those privy to intelligence, could have predicted what eventually unfolded on that Monday, March 28, 1994.
And no matter how the king interpreted it two weeks later – detailing how he had tried to meet Mandela before that day, but had failed – it was a picture that still chills to the bone.
Phalanxes of thousands determined to boycott the April 27 elections had set out into streets, many armed with knobkieries and spears, many bearing cowhide shields. Some say that wasn’t their only protection; that elements in a crowd festooned in red ribbons had also imbibed intelezi, a traditional medicine used to protect warriors against gunshots.
The most dangerous among them had brought their own bullets, with some reports describing shotguns primed to boom through the glass doors of the ANC HQ’s lobby.
But this wasn’t just a show of anger against an enemy. There were many forces determined to stop the elections. It felt like a war, using the bloody history of vicious old battles with ANC supporters in the IFP strongholds – not only in KwaZulu-Natal, but in the townships of the East Rand and elsewhere – to make it make sense.
Struggles for territory and power had become endemic to the harrowing last days of apartheid. It wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed.
By the time units of the chanting, stamping multitude had reached the corner of Plein and Von Wielligh streets, the ANC’s guards were readying their own weapons. And then the battle really began as the formidable sounds of firing started.
Some eyewitnesses have said it was continuous for several minutes, and soon included the unmistakable crackling spray of AK-47s.
There wasn’t shooting only at Shell House. There was even more gunfire at Library Gardens many blocks away, just around the corner from the old stock exchange and what would later become the ANC’s current HQ, Luthuli House.
Everywhere, the innocent were ducking for cover, but many would lose their lives.
Mandela would later take responsibility, saying it was him who had given the party’s security the order to shoot if necessary.
By the time he made that statement, he was already the president of the country, and so his picture of “surging columns” of marchers was especially emotive. He also confided that the intelligence which had warned that this was an orchestrated attack had included the threat of the ANC leadership being murdered.
On the actions of the party’s security, Mandela was unrepentant. And even though the Nugent Commission of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate the events, found the guards had acted wrongly, 11 were indeed later given amnesty by the TRC.
Although violence was burning all over the country at the time, with South Africans already dying in their numbers at the hand of those forces determined to stem freedom, another massacre had been unthinkable.
Just 18 months before Shell House, 28 had been killed in Bhisho in the bantustan of Ciskei. That slaughter in the ANC stronghold of the Eastern Cape had happened as 80 000 protesters gathered to protest against puppet leader Oupa Gqozo’s rule. It was a devastating outcome. It showed the people of this country the savage last thrashes of a racist regime which allowed its proxy soldiers to fire automatic weapons on an unarmed crowd.
But there was more blood to come in Joburg, even after Shell House. Three days before the elections, nine people were killed and 92 injured when the biggest bomb in South African history went off on the corner of Bree and Von Wielligh streets, close to the ANC’s regional HQ.
Today, we think of the word “miracle” as a cliché. But how else could the peaceful elections which followed all of this horror be described?
IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was pilloried after the Shell House massacre, was one of those who located the heart of how that happened when he paid tribute to Mandela after he died last year.
He spoke about how the ANC leader had revisited the massacre in the National Assembly more than a year after Zwelithini had made his own emotional address, saying “his honesty drove him to make admissions that few others at the helm of their country would dare”.
“He reminded us all: ‘For reconciliation to have real meaning, the truth should be brought to light’. (And) as painful as it was for me to hear, President Mandela’s honesty about Shell House enhanced my admiration for him. He was a man of truth.”
But perhaps the true meaning of March 28, 1994 is also all too carefully buried.
* Janet Smith is executive editor of The Star.