New Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the embassy were overwhelmed by the crowds, roads were blocked and people were standing shoulder to shoulder outside and then inside the embassy. The vast crowd pushing forward in the mid-afternoon heat nearly bent the huge irons gates at the entrance to the embassy, until officials eventually had to let people in one by one, without searching them.
Eventually, Mnangagwa and the embassy were ready for the extraordinary moment. He threw away his speech, cracked jokes and smiled, laughed and also spoke of forgiveness.
Thousands died, and thousands more fled to South Africa.
“This man killed our families,” said a young woman from Bulawayo. “My mother had to bury my uncle at that time,” she said. “This man (Mnangagwa) killed him.”
Another protester, who remained outside the embassy even after Mnangagwa began speaking inside, said: “We heard what he said in Harare, that he is going to pay white farmers compensation for the farms they lost.
"But why will they get paid before us? Our families were killed,” said one middle-aged man who was visibly distressed. He has lived in Joburg for more than 30 years.
“Our people were slaughtered, and that is why we are in South Africa. We need reconciliation and truth first,” said James Sibanda, 52 . “They killed my father. We had no human rights,” he said. His family used to live in a village about 20km from Gwanda in southern Zimbabwe, he added.
But many others said they had come to the embassy to praise Mnangagwa, because he had “overthrown Mugabe We never expected it. We don’t even know him (Mnangagwa), we left because there were no jobs, we had to come here,” said a young mother with a baby, who arrived in South Africa after the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came within a whisker of defeating Zanu-PF in the 2000 elections.
“I want to see him. Yes, I want to go home but there is nothing at home now.
"There are no jobs. I have no job in South Africa, but somehow we are better off here than at home,” she said.
Mnangagwa told the huge crowd about his escape from Zimbabwe after Mugabe sacked him as vice president early last month. “I walked 30km in Mozambique, after I learnt that there were plans to eliminate me."
Mnangagwa walked in Mozambique at night. He said he remembered he had a card in his pocket and called the man whose details were on the card to pick him up.
The man was among those who welcomed Mnangagwa at the embassy. Mnangagwa then flew to South Africa, where he said he spent nearly three weeks as a “diasporan”.
“Within six months we are going into elections, including the presidential poll, which I hope I am going to win.
“But Zimbabwe is not the country of Zanu-PF. It is not the country of the MDC. It is the country of Zimbabweans May we together agree that bygones be bygones and look into the future with hope."
Independent Foreign Service