The Boipatong massacre: 20 years onComment on this story
A scratch, or perhaps a burn mark about a centimetre long, is what gave Mxoliseni Mkhize away.
The tension had been palpable as the witness, barely out of school uniform, walked towards the dock to start his search. It must have felt as if he were dancing towards the precipice.
As he stood before the first man in the dock, the accused rose. The witness scrutinised him, then shook his head, repeating the process until, about halfway down the row of men, he stopped and identified the man in front of him.
The witness was looking for a man who had stabbed him on the terrible night of June 17, 1992. He said the attacker was neither particularly dark nor light-skinned and of medium height and build.
But the small mark on his forehead was unforgettable.
Court D, at a small circuit courthouse in Delmas, was quiet. But it was a shameful peace. Outside, there were police roadblocks and police guards.
This was the same place where the Delmas Treason Trial had been heard in the 1980s and since that trial, a wooden and glass barrier had been erected to separate the accused, lawyers, court officials and the judge from the public gallery.
But on this day, the public gallery – reserved for relatives of at least 45 people massacred in Boipatong a year before – was empty except for two prison warders and The Star’s Patrick Laurence.
That didn’t mean the people of Bapedi, Bafokeng, Tugela, Hlubi, Thaba Bosiu and other streets in the forlorn township near Vereeniging had forgotten. But Delmas was an hour away – far for them to travel, and it was only the beginning.
Boipatong, which means “the place of hiding”, couldn’t have had a more appropriate name. What was to follow the massacre revealed how much was hidden.
The families of Violet, Michael, Sibusiso and Ronica Msibi, Julia Mgcina, Flora Nkala, Flora Moshope, Matilda Hlubi, Andries Manyika, the eight-months pregnant Maria Mlangeni and so many others, would occupy the same deeply sad, terrified place since the night people saw large groups of men, all IFP members, sneak into Boipatong on foot. They came from the direction of the detested KwaMadala hostel on Iscor’s grounds.
There were at least 200 attackers, most of them wearing balaclavas and red headscarves, brandishing savage weapons.
Reports describe how pandemonium broke loose as the bloodlust began. Windows were smashed and there was the sound of gunfire and screams. Most harrowing of all were the stories of how people heard their loved ones being murdered, some of them hacked to death inside their houses and shacks. One woman sobbed as she told journalists 20 years ago of her terror when her brother was killed near her: “I was hiding in a cupboard, covered in clothes and blankets so they could not find me, but I heard the cutting and I will never forget his screams.”
The fear continued the next morning, when police described Boipatong as a battlefield and urged residents to leave. Hundreds of IFP supporters had gathered again in daylight, armed with spears, shields, pangas and axes. Some held guns above their heads.
The people of Boipatong called them the Zulus, and indeed, the IFP was held responsible for the blood and violence.
In one report, journalists wrote of how a woman started weeping when she saw the mob massing again the next morning, crying: “God help us! God help us!”
Hundreds of police armed with rifles sealed the area and faced off against “the impi”. They had long been enemies of the white troops, but the people of Boipatong were forced to take shelter behind them.
There was always a powerful belief that the men who had attacked and hacked people to death had not done it alone. Ronnie Mamoepa, then the ANC spokesman in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (PWV) area, insisted that the police had known the massacre was going to happen, and said residents saw armed men climbing out of Casspirs when they first attacked the informal Slovo settlement before moving into Boipatong.
The massacre happened against a backdrop of dread in the townships, especially close to Joburg where the notorious hostels were often flashpoints. In the month before the massacre, the Human Rights Commission (HRC) reported that 228 people had died and there had been 192 injuries in the PWV – by far the most in the country.
There was also significant political symbolism being drawn out of the war.
The ANC had earlier planned to hold more than 70 rallies to try to attract a million people to draw attention to what they said was National Party intransigence in the Convention for a Democratic SA (Codesa). The numbers were not as high as it had hoped, but the talks were already in deadlock, with the ANC compelled to put its energy back into mass action. Then the massacre happened.
After Boipatong, negotiations were suspended, but while Codesa would eventually conclude, the rawness of the people’s narrative would remain.
Even if Boipatong provided the lever for accelerated talks from the side of the NP, which was portrayed internationally as the ultimate aggressor, the souls of the dead tormented a nation.
It would take three months more for then president FW de Klerk to make the concessions that would start negotiations again. Angry letters had passed between De Klerk and Nelson Mandela, with Mandela demanding an international commission of inquiry. He said it was “unacceptable that your police force, which is an alleged party to the violence, should be charged with the investigations”.
A dark but important moment came in 2000, when apartheid assassin Ferdi Barnard revealed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that hit men had indeed given guns to hostel dwellers to carry out a series of massacres across the Reef. As it was, a TRC interim report had also found that the police and KwaMadala residents had planned and carried out the killings in Boipatong. Barnard told the commission that weapons destined for residents of the KwaMadala hostel were handed over just days before the massacre.
There had already been accusations of collusion involving the notorious Vlakplaas death squads, which fell under Eugene de Kock. Themba Khoza, the IFP Youth Brigade leader at the time, had been caught with other men at the Sebokeng hostel two years before with guns and hand grenades, and there were claims that illegal weapons that had been confiscated were handed on to Vlakplaas, intended for the IFP.
At the time Barnard appeared before the TRC, 17 hostel residents, including 16 already convicted for their role in the massacre, had also applied for amnesty, but denials that the security forces had played any role in the attack were overwhelming.
Yet some residents insisted.
Still, no evidence of collusion had been given to the Goldstone Commission, set up by De Klerk to investigate the massacre, either. The Goldstone Commission was followed by an appeal in the Supreme Court and the TRC hearings, and Judge Richard Goldstone was to invite Dr Peter Waddington of Reading University to make an independent inquiry, which also found no evidence of police involvement.
The 1993 court that convicted IFP supporters of murder found them guilty after more than 100 Boipatong residents and five State witnesses testified and not one said they saw the police assisting the suspects.
Yet it has always been felt that it was the TRC that battled the most around Boipatong as its own amnesty committee later contradicted the commission’s earlier report on police culpability. That report was criticised for primarily considering “untested accounts” advanced by the HRC, which many believed was linked to the ANC. But the amnesty committee found IFP supporters from the KwaMadala hostel had launched vengeance attacks on Boipatong’s ANC supporters with no instigation.
The ANC has never accepted that, believing a covert war was being waged against it, and a lot of international coverage suggested the same. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 765 a month after the massacre, urging a full probe.
Perhaps most resonant of all were the words of Cyril Ramaphosa, at that time negotiating at Codesa. He said: “There must be no more Boipatongs. This must be the last time.”
On September 7, three months later, 29 people were killed in the Bhisho massacre.