Behind the barricades

Weekly Mail staffer Sefako Nyaka was trapped in Cosatu House during this week's police siege. The Weekly Mail is able to publish details of what he saw because it is satisfied that the acts of the police conduct he has described are true and, because of their excessiveness, do not constitute "security action" as defined in the Emergency regulations. Insofar as his report contained "security action", it has been censored, as indicated in the copy.

I saw a badly injured and handcuffed man pushed down the stairs of Cosatu House in central Johannesburg during this week's police siege. After hitting the bottom of the stairs head first with a dull thud, he lay still. A young policeman moved up to him and hit him once on the ribs with a rubber pick-handle. The man didn't stir. He was dragged on the ground to a police truck before being thrown in head first. The unidentified man was one of several people I saw sustaining serious injuries during this week's police siege of the headquarters of South Africa's largest trade union federation, the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu).

From the back of a police truck parked in front of the entrance into the building, where I was kept after being arrested in the building, I could clearly see workers being brutalised. A senior policeman shouted "Werk hulle" (Work them) as battered workers emerged from the building in handcuffs. The drama at Cosatu House started shortly after a group of workers had (censored) in Davies Street near Doornfontein Station, Johannesburg. The workers, armed with an assortment of weapons, were on their way to Germiston to defend their colleagues from what they believed were "vigilante" attacks.

At the corner of Davies and Rockey streets the workers had teargas sprayed at them from hand-held canisters. This has been confirmed by the Bureau for Information. "We tried to indicate that we were not fighting, but (censored). "At that moment we retreated, but (censored)," one worker said. The workers retreated to Cosatu House, leaving a trail of blood on the pavement.

I saw two workers lying on the pavement in Davies Street. It was clear that they were dead. One had apparently been shot in the head. On the other side of the street four or five policemen, stripped to the waist, were being treated. The police arrived and one got particularly agitated, threatening to shoot unless we moved away.

I ran back to Cosatu House. I tried to speak to some of the workers who had assembled in the hall downstairs. I was told to go away. I went to the South African Railways and Harbours Union (Sarhwu) offices on the eighth floor. A message came through the intercom: "The police have surrounded the building comrades. Please remain calm." Nobody was allowed to enter or leave. The time was 2pm. About 30 minutes later the telephones and the telex machines in the building were cut. (Censored)

A delegation of union office workers tried to leave the building to talk to the officer in charge. They were ordered back into the building. From the top windows I could see a whole contingent of SADF troops gathered in Kerk Street. By this time a large group was gathered in the foyer on the ground floor. The delegation again indicated that they wanted to talk, but were told there would be no talks. (Censored)

At 5pm an officer announced over a loudhailer that certain people were believed to be hiding in the building and were believed to be in possession of weapons. He ordered the occupants to vacate the building in 10 minutes. But when people tried to leave the building they were stopped from doing so. Five of us, four journalists and a University of the Witwatersrand Honours student, decided to leave the building, ignoring police orders that we should get back into the building.

I was grabbed by the scruff of my shirt while several questions were being fired at me by over half a dozen policemen in uniform. I told them I was a journalist and was there in the course of duty. By this time the shirt was so tightly pulled around my neck that I feared it was going to be torn. I objected and was told: "Jy raak wit." (You're getting white.) Suddenly one policeman noticed my bandaged right middle finger. He got quite excited. He said in Afrikaans, "Hier is een wat in die vinger geskiet is." (Here is one who was shot in the finger.) Like a pack of hungry wolves his colleagues came towards me.

I tried to explain that I had had an abscess cut out from the finger the previous day. I was told I was talking "kak" and that I was going to be charged for murder. My notebook was wrenched from my hand and I was ordered to lift my hands in the air. I complied. I was searched, but not once did the policemen ask for my press card. I was then dragged towards a truck parked in the middle of the street in front of the building.

Before I could be shoved into the truck a plainclothes policeman came and grabbed me by the belt of my trousers and muttered something in Portuguese. He must have realised that I couldn't understand a word of what he was saying because he shouted: "Put your hands on the truck you communist black kaffir." After searching me, he handed back my notebook. On second thoughts he grabbed it again from me and paged through it. There were only about three lines of writing in the book. I was accused of having taken the book from somewhere in the building to pose as a journalist. He tore out the pages before handing back the book and ordering me to be put in the back of the truck.

I had hardly settled in the truck when the door was again opened and I was ordered out. "You say what happened to your finger," another plainclothes policeman asked. He didn't seem to believe what I told him. I offered to remove the bandage from the wound for him to determine if the cut resembled anything like a bullet-inflicted wound. He accused me of being too clever and said he would deal with me at John Voster Square. I could clearly see how people, some bleeding profusely from head wounds, were being (censored).

There was a sudden commotion at the door. Suddenly two men, one in a red striped shirt and the other naked from the waist up, emerged from the door. As they were being led down the stairs, I realised that their hands were handcuffed at the back. The man in the red shirt had blood streaming down his face which was contorted in pain. All the time, truncheon blows were raining on the two men. They were led to a group of burly plainclothes police who were standing behind the truck I was in. On looking through the opening in the back of the truck I could see both men lying on their backs. The semi-naked man's eyes were heavily swollen and closed. The man in the red shirt was groaning and one of the policemen told him to shut up and kicked him in the ribs. The man rolled over. A plainclothes policeman instructed the driver of the truck to move it away "because there were some people with cameras in the truck."

Our view was then blocked by the two Casspirs and all we could hear were screams and sounds of breaking glass and wood. We sat in the truck for two hours before being driven to John Voster Square. A senior member of the CID Branch there took down our particulars before realising us with no explanation — seven hours after the Cosatu House siege.


  • The SAP last night withdrew their first detailed statement on the incident within minutes of issuing it. In the statement, they had alleged that three of the more than 400 people detained in Cosatu House were "suspected terrorists". The withdrawn statement said that one of the reasons for the operation were "reasonable grounds" to believe that "trained terrorists" were in the building. Other reasons were that it was understood violent action against policemen and their families was being planned in the building to revenge the death of a fellow striker killed earlier by police in Germiston. When police entered the building after announcing their intention by loudhailer to do so, and urging people to leave, SAP members were attacked with "iron bars, pangas, knives and axes", it said in the withdrawn statement.


    Other charges being investigated in connection with the detainees were public violence, attempted murder, robbery and illegal immigration. The directorate said the strikers who seriously wounded policemen at Doornfontein had black marks on their foreheads, and that a number of those in Cosatu House had similar marks. "During interrogation it had come to light the markings were applied by a witchdoctor to protect the men, during their attacks on police, from Security Force bullets," the directorate said.


It'll be a blood-spattered election
Twelve days before the May 6 election, an upsurge in armed attacks, industrial action and a huge rent stayaway in Soweto threaten to engulf the National Party's "reform" platform. Growing tensions over the six-week railway strike erupted into bloody conflict this week between police and strikers after SA Transport Services announced it planned to sack the 23 000 strikers. By late yesterday, 12 000 had been formally dismissed. At least six members of the SA Railways and Harbour Workers' Union were killed in clashes at Germiston and Doornfontein and three policemen were seriously injured.

Shortly after the clashes, police launched a seven-hour siege of Cosatu House in Johannesburg, home of the country's most powerful labour federation, the Congress of SA Trade Unions. At the end of the seven hours, two workers had been shot and at least 400 railway workers had been arrested. Hundreds more were detained briefly. Yesterday, Cosatu warned the government that unrest in the country was bound to escalate if there were further security force attacks on the labour federation or railway workers.

At a press conference following the siege, general secretary Jay Naidoo said the Witwatersrand region was demanding the immediate reinstatement of all dismissed Sats workers and the start of bona fide negotiations — as well as an end to rent evictions. Yesterday, lawyers for Cosatu said they were preparing an application to restrain police from conducting "unlawful acts.' against Cosatu and affiliates. The application will also demand that police return all documents confiscated when police occupied Cosatu House.

Meanwhile, Sarhwu's urgent application for an undertaking by Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok that his men would not interfere in future with meetings organised by striking workers was postponed to Monday. The application was tabled before the Rand Supreme Court. Yesterday morning, striking members of the 360 000-strong National Union of Mineworkers charged private mine security men had forced them back to work at gunpoint after a two-day stoppage at two Johannesburg Consolidated Investment mines, Western Areas and Randfontein Gold Estates mines. JCI — which resumes talks with the Num next week — denied the charge.

The three-week-old post office strike continued this week, with all Soweto post offices and 32 work stations in Johannesburg shut for the duration. Hopes for an end to the deadlock surfaced yesterday with reports that one of two arrested strikers had been released; the release of both, is a precondition to negotiations, according to the Post and Telecommunications Workers Association. Soweto was calm but tense yesterday as thousands of township residents heeded a call to stay away from work the second day in protest against evictions for non-payment of payment of rent.

On Wednesday, police used teargas to disperse an estimated 1 000 people who converged on the Soweto Town Council offices to lodge a protest against rent evictions, heeding a local street committee/youth group call for a three-day stayaway. Blazing tyres and car wrecks barricaded streets throughout the township; reports came in of widespread skirmishing. An 18-year-old youth was shot dead Wednesday afternoon after police opened fire in Naledi.

According to the Bureau for Information, the shooting occurred with a group of youths stoned a delivery vehicle. By late yesterday, meetings to discuss the rent boycott had been cancelled in the township, but meetings to discuss the election were scheduled for today. Commercial vehicles had stopped entering the township for deliveries. Although trains ran normally on Wednesday, they ran mainly empty, and a Putco representative said buses had been withdrawn for lack of passengers. Schools were closed yesterday and Wednesday; and major employers in the Johannesburg area reported "significant" numbers of employees staying away.

Meanwhile early yesterday grenades were lobbed into houses in the Cape in three separate attacks. It was the latest in a week of violent actions which included a car bomb explosion at Langlaagte which caused some damage but no injuries, and a grenade attack on a municipal police training college in Soweto on Tuesday morning which killed one recruit and injured 64 — Mono Badela, Sefako Nyaka and Jo-Ann Bekker

Union says members were attacked first
Police and union accounts of Wednesday's shooting incident in Germiston tell two different stories. The SAP directorate of public relations said they had received a report of unrest at World Centre, near the Germiston railway station at about 11am. During the ensuing Security Forces action at the centre, four police members were injured (one with a serious fractured skull) and numerous, vehicles were damaged by stone-throwers.

"Three of the rioters were fatally wounded and one injured man was arrested. "Unionists said there had been no unrest and that the indoor meeting was peaceful and legal. Accordingly, their version can be published in terms of Emergency regulations. Union organiser Blake Mosley said "a huge deployment of Security Forces was made outside the Germiston offices of Sarhwu, where a meeting of more than 1 000 workers was in progress.

"Police moved in and asked workers to disperse. As they were moving away, the police started to sjambok the workers as they fled in all directions.
"Then the police rushed into the hall, hitting workers. The workers were apparently discussing the ultimatum given by Sats for them to go back to work. "The police opened fire on the dispersing workers. "In attempting to escape from the violent attacks of the police, the workers broke through the glass windows surrounding the hall. Many fell on the ground."

It was this incident that led to the escalation of conflict between Sarhwu members and police, when workers in Johannesburg heard or the shooting — Weekly Mail Reporter

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