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The massacre of militancy

The massacre of 29 African National Congress supporters on 7 September in South Africa's Ciskei 'homeland' was not the result of some trigger-happy Ciskei Defence Force soldiers running wild. The cold-blooded slaughter of unarmed protestors was the result of a trap laid for the ANC by the South African government.

Here, Russell Osborne reports from Bisho where he witnessed the carnage first-hand and took the photographs. Over the page, Charles Longford examines what was behind the massacre

Bisho, capital city of the Ciskei bantustan, is an armed camp just across the 'border' from South Africa. The place is only a few years old and comprises a collection of bizarre postmodernist buildings - government offices, a casino, a few supermarkets, an international airport and houses for the state bureaucrats who are the chief inhabitants of the place. A closer inspection reveals machine gun nests on the roofs and sandbags around doors and windows.

The protest march against Ciskei's dictator Oupa Gqozo began from King William's Town. We waited for it about half way to Bisho. The march route was dotted with roadblocks of elite South African paratroopers, backed by armoured cars and field guns to police unarmed marchers. Helicopters and spotter planes criss-crossed the sky. Riot cops lounged around with shotguns and plastic bullet guns.

When the march arrived it was huge, filling the road and spilling over into the bush on either side, and disappearing in the heat haze over the horizon. There were 80-100 000 people. The word was that Gqozo had been the best mobiliser for the event. His cops and soldiers had been beating and harassing all and sundry for months while he assured the world that the marchers would never reach Bisho - which made them all the more determined to do so.

The leading edge

The youth as always were at the leading edge, running through the veld, chanting and toi-toiying all the way. The ANC leadership up front included national figures like general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, Chris Hani (South African Communist Party leader), Ronnie Kasrils, as well as all the regional leaders. Also present in large numbers were peace observers armed with little flags - no mass action takes place now without representatives from the National Peace Secretariat, the United Nations and the churches.

When the march arrived, we were swept along with the huge crowd, through the thorn bush at the side of the packed road and towards the Ciskei border. The veld to the left of the road was full of hundreds of youth. Somebody set the veld alight (popular theory is that smoke counteracts tear gas). Planes and helicopters circled noisily overhead.

A group led by Kasrils seemed to have found a breach in a fence four or five hundred yards ahead. To cheers all round, hundreds made a rush for the gap, bursting through and entering the stadium beyond, on Ciskei territory. They ran up a large concrete grandstand as if to occupy the seats, and the whole crowd continued to move forward at speed.

Sustained barrage

Then came the first sign that something was wrong. On the horizon behind the stadium a line of people in dark uniforms appeared. People near me said they were comrades, but they looked more like soldiers. Then a few deep booms, and the shocking sound of rapid automatic weapon fire. We all dropped on to the road. It was not a volley of warning shots but a heavy, sustained barrage that never seemed to end. People were stunned; could they really be pumping heavy-calibre bullets into a crowd of this size? >

The barrage stopped momentarily and a few of us made a break for cover behind some boulders. A second barrage seemed to go on forever too. When it ended I couldn't see anybody with an injury, and in a fit of indignation that the bastards had been trying to scare us, I rushed towards the border to see what was going on. The crowds were coming the other way; one guy started to panic seeing a white person running towards him.

A pile of dead

Reaching the area behind the razor wire at the border I asked if anyone was hurt. Somebody pointed to a pile of dead and wounded in a depression at the roadside. With a sudden shock of comprehension I saw that the whole area behind the wire was filled with people still lying on the ground. Leading ANC figures like Ramaphosa, Hani and Steve Tshwete lay on the road sheltering behind a solitary car with a bullet hole in its windscreen. People I know asked me to drive the car back to the Red Cross post up the road.

Four wounded people were selected to be transported, and we started a crazy drive back through the thousands of retreating marchers. I sat on the horn but it stopped working almost immediately, so I zig-zagged through the huge crowds, screaming 'vula (open up) comrades, vula!' and jamming on the brakes all the time. Looking back at the people in the rear seat, I saw one had his skull partly blown away and the seat was awash with blood. I just concentrated on the driving after that.

At the Red Cross post, senior army and police officers stood around sunning themselves, and my demand that they use their copters to pick up the wounded provoked a blazing row. There were no provincial ambulances or doctors on the scene - the level of help was about what you'd expect at a big rugby match. The military and police were not particularly concerned to save any lives.

When I drove back down the road with two lawyers perched uneasily on the blood-spattered seats, the South African riot squad had formed a cordon around the remaining bodies. But there was still no official medical assistance in sight, nearly an hour after the first shots were fired. ANC leaders called for people to remain overnight at the sight of the massacre, and several thousand huddled in the bush as the sun went down.

Comrades who were in the stadium told us of the panic as the firing started. People flung themselves down the concrete steps to avoid the machine gun fire. Many were cut to pieces in a hail of bullets. Even Peace Secretariat observers had to dive for safety. Eventually taking cover in their state-provided armoured vehicle, they found it packed with Ciskei soldiers in fear of having their heads blown off by their own people.

Other marchers were shot well inside South African territory, hundreds of metres away from the notional border line. A pile of discarded shoes and clothing was evidence of the panic as the firing started. As marchers tried to flee back up the road, South African forces had closed the razor-wire barrier across the road. Many were cut to pieces. The first South African troops on the scene laughed and taunted retreating marchers.

Civil war

In the days that followed a low-intensity civil war broke out across the rural areas of Ciskei. Police and troops were attacked and their houses burned, while Gqozo's forces brutalised anyone suspected of supporting the ANC. Young and old were whipped or shot at if they showed their face in the street. The ANC obtained a court order prohibiting further assaults, but it had predictably little effect. King William's Town was packed with young refugees from the villages. Having escaped the murderous attentions of the Ciskei Defence Force, they were put under curfew by its big brother, the South African Defence Force.

What De Klerk won at Bisho

Evidence submitted to the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry has pointed to the Bisho massacre being a deliberate act:
  • Two days before the massacre, the two Ciskei Defence Force (CDF) officers who would command the troops on the fateful day were seen surveying the area with maps and measuring sections of the road;
  • Cartridges found at the site of the massacre had been left there after target practice carried out by the CDF the day before;
  • On the day, a razor-wire barrier was thrown across the road to Bisho on the Ciskei side of the border, channelling marchers into the stadium;
  • The convenient gap in the stadium fence, which was the only access marchers had to Bisho, was guarded by Ciskei troops who were hidden in the grass - until they opened fire;
  • Of the 29 marchers killed, 16 were shot in the back;
  • Black papers New Nation and City Press report that orders for the massacre came from the top in the South African regime.
Little wonder that many in South Africa believe that Bisho was a cold-blooded, premeditated slaughter of unarmed protestors. Whoever decided to fire the first shot, it is certain that the bloody hand of Pretoria was heavily involved in the events of 7 September.

Despite the phoney 'independence' of the homelands, South Africa runs the state machinery in Ciskei. In February 1991, months after seizing power in Ciskei, Brigadier Oupa Gqozo signed an agreement with South African foreign affairs minister Pik Botha. Through the agreement, the entire power structure in the Ciskei - the army, police and Gqozo's African Democratic Movement - came under the control of South African security force personnel. From then on, the 'independent homeland' of Ciskei became another department of the apartheid state machinery.

The minister of finance is Vice Admiral William Bekker from the South African navy. The commissioner of police is Brigadier Johan Victor, who was named by renegade security policeman Dirk Coetzee as a former commander of Vlakplaas, centre of South Africa's death squad activities; Victor was on the scene at the massacre.

The Ciskei Defence Force chief and chief advisor to Gqozo is Brigadier Marius Oelschig - seconded from the South African Defence Force. The Ciskei's military intelligence is headed by Ockert Swanepoel and his deputy, Hendrik Chris Nel - the main interrogator of captured Swapo guerrillas - both of whom have direct links with South Africa's counter-insurgency Civil Cooperation Bureau.

And last but not least, the two men in charge of the troops at the massacre were Operations Chief of Staff Colonel Horst Schubesberger, assisted by Colonel Jaco Roussouw - both former South African Defence Force officers who happen to be under contract to the CDF.

Nothing could have taken place in the Ciskei on 7 September without Pretoria knowing about it. Many commentators have picked up on this connection. The important question which the media has ignored, however, is this: what did FW De Klerk's government get out of Bisho?

Before the dust had settled in Bisho, foreign minister Pik Botha had blamed the ANC and the South African Communist Party (SACP) for the deaths. Next day he sent a memorandum to United Nations secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, urging him to send a representative to South Africa to demand that the ANC and SACP abandon 'any further provocative actions'.

The South African government used Bisho to broadcast a double-barrelled message. First, that mass action does not pay. Second, that those advocating mass action were as much to blame for the massacre as those who pulled the triggers. Indeed, the implication of Botha's case was that the ANC/SACP were more to blame, since they had consciously set in motion a train of events to which the Ciskei troops had merely reacted. When the Goldstone Commission report placed equal culpability on the Ciskei Defence Force and the ANC for the deaths at Bisho, it put the seal on this interpretation of events.

The regime's aim has been to criminalise its more radical opponents, particularly leading figures in the SACP like Chris Hani and Ronnie Kasrils who led marchers through the stadium fence. By using Bisho to isolate these radicals and put pressure on the moderates in the ANC leadership, the government is seeking to force the opposition to make maximum concessions.

The defensiveness of the ANC and SACP in response to Bisho shows how effective the government strategy has been. In all of the discussion, the ANC has had to justify its right to fight for freedom while the South African regime has been represented almost as an honest broker. Shortly after the massacre, De Klerk got what he wanted when Nelson Mandela agreed to reopen talks on a settlement, which had been suspended after the Boipatong massacre in June. By bowing to government pressure in this way, the ANC conceded, at least by implication, that they were wrong to relaunch mass action in the first place.

Bisho and its aftermath has shifted the balance of forces away from militancy and mass action. One of the most graphic illustrations of this has been the spectacle of former Communist Party chief Joe Slovo, once Pretoria's public enemy number one, now telling his party hardliners to make concessions because they are 'not dealing with a defeated enemy' and the seizure of power is not a realistic option (Daily Despatch, 2 October 1992). In calling for compromises through negotiations, Slovo has gone so far as to accept a constitutionally entrenched system of power-sharing for a fixed number of years; a deal on re-structuring the civil service (including the police and army) which takes into account existing contracts; and, remarkably in the wake of the Bisho massacre, a general amnesty for all those who disclose in full those activities for which they seek indemnity.

What Bisho has revealed, much to Slovo's surprise, is what should have been apparent from the start of De Klerk's so-called peace process. The regime has not been seeking a settlement acting from a position of weakness. It has been pursuing a ruthless strategy of moderating the black liberation movement while crushing those unwilling to compromise. The Bisho massacre has highlighted the stark reality of South African politics today. The ANC/SACP may be shocked and defensive about what is happening. But the South African regime has a clear idea of what it wants, and how far it will have to go to get it.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992

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