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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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