Police admit liability for Langa massacre

In what amounts to an admission of liability, the Minister of Law and Order has paid out R2,3-million to 51 people injured or widowed in the "Uitenhage massacre" of March 21 1985.

The payment is accompanied by a rare concession notice which states the minister "unconditionally pays the sum of R1,3-million". "It means the police have admitted they acted wrongfully and negligently and that this was the cause of the incident " a Johannesburg attorney said. "It means the police are open to charges of culpable homicide." 

More than 21 people were shot dead – many in the back – when police opened fire on a crowd of funeral-goers on the anniversary of the Sharpeville shootings in Uitenhage's township of Langa. It was the first mass police killing in a year which was marked by other "massacres" in Queenstown, Mamelodi, Winterveld and Alexandra as spiralling unrest turned into bloody conflict.

The Uitenhage shootings evoked a national and international outcry, and the South African government appointed a judicial commission of enquiry under Judge Donald Kannemeyer to investigate the circumstances surrounding March 21 1985. Legal papers in the civil application which was due to come before the Port Elizabeth Supreme Court on Monday, recreated the fateful march down Meduna Road, Langa, and the contrasting versions of these events presented to the Kannemeyer Commission.

But while the settlement contradicts the police version presented to the commission, it does not contradict Judge Kannemeyer's findings as such. Kannemeyer absolved the police unit, led by Lieutenant John Fouche, which opened fire on the crowd, from culpability for the deaths. But he found the banning of funerals on doubtful grounds and improper riot control equipment were the main factors which led to the Langa deaths.

Although by opting for an out of court settlement, the Minister of Law and Order has effectively admitted police culpability, it is not clear which group of policemen it admits was to blame. The plaintiffs were represented by Johannesburg advocates WH Trengove – who also represented Langa residents in the Kannemeyer inquiry – and Bob Nugent who were instructed by Johannesburg attorneys Cheadle, Thompson and Haysom.

They claimed Fouche's men were not adequately equipped for riot patrol – instead they were equipped with R1 rifles, shotguns, 9mm sidearms, sharp ammunition and SSG cartridges. The complainants contended the police had failed to disperse the crowd when it gathered at Meduna Square, but had instead provoked Langa residents. In addition, a police major had sown confusion by applying for and obtaining orders prohibiting four funerals planned for March 21.

In replying papers, the minister denied the police acted negligently and claimed they had opened fire – using a degree of force necessary in the circumstances – in "legitimate self defence as well as in defence of the lives of the public of Uitenhage and in the protection of their property". The papers also denied the police major, who applied for an order prohibiting funerals, had acted negligently. In a suprise move last week, however, attorneys representing the minister approached the plaintiff's lawyers and made offers of settlement for all the civil cases, which virtually amounted to the full sum claimed.

The largest single amount of R450 000 was paid to Lawrence Gqubule, 25, who has been paralysed from the waist down as a result of a bullet fired by police on March 21, which severed his spinal cord. Gqubule's parents were among those forcibly removed from Langa to a squatter settlement called Tjoksville in Uitenhage's KwaNobuhle township in 1986.

Living in conditions which were unhygenic, deprived of expensive personal and medical care and physiotherapy, Gqubule was admitted to Uitenhage hospital early this year with septic bedsores, stiffening joints and severe depression. "His compensation will enable him to buy a house and obtain the necessary facilities and treatment — it could mean the difference between life and death," his attorney commented.

One of the central figures to the Kannemeyer Commission, the boy-on-the-bicycle, Moses Kwanele Bucwa, received a pay-out of R17 000. Affidavits collected by the Progressive Federal Party soon after the shooting contained graphic accounts of the bike-rider's death and his brains spilling over the road. But early in the preparation for the Kannemeyer Commission, 15-year- old Bucwa came forward – with a bullet lodged in his head, but minus his bicycle which had been confiscated by the police.

During the inquiry Bucwa scotched all doubts about his identity by describing the tiny intricacies of his bicycle. Kannemeyer found the police version that the boy on the bicycle had arrived on the scene only once the crowd had dispersed to be "false".

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper


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