An epitaph for Maki

According to evidence in the Eugene de Kock trial, a 1985 necklacing much touted by the Nat government for propaganda was the unforeseen result of a police dirty tricks operation, writes David

Among the thousands of killings which marked the townships rebellion of the 1980s, none was more tragic or, in its impact on world opinion, as influential as that of a young woman called Maki Skosana, murdered by a mob in the township of Duduza. But the chain of responsibility which lay behind her death is only now beginning to emerge in the Pretoria Supreme Court. Skosana was killed on July 20 1985. She was attending a funeral at Duduza when a crowd of mourners inexplicably turned on her. They chased her across the veld, beat her, stoned her, tore her clothes off, set her on fire, put a huge rock on her so that she couldn’t get up and, in front of an international audience, rammed a broken bottle into her vagina. Her death was filmed by television cameras and the ghastly footage was broadcast at length on SABC TV in what was clearly seen by the authorities of the time as a propaganda triumph — a demonstration of the barbaric savagery of township residents. The film was re-broadcast by television stations around the world, causing substantial damage to the liberation cause. The story behind Skosana’s death starts early in June that year, when a mystery man made his appearance in the townships of Duduza and nearby KwaThema and Tsakane. He introduced himself to student leaders of the Congress of South African Students (Cosas) as having come from Lusaka and being a member of Umkhonto weSizwe. He said he had a supply of weapons and had come to arm the Cosas executives in the townships. He seemed flush with money. He said he had R10 000 for them and would pay the commander of a proposed operational unit R2 000 and others R1 000 apiece. After a number of delays the students agreed to co-operate. But they decided they would not all take part (for fear if anything went wrong it would wipe out the entire leadership), instead deputing some of their more militant members. On Monday June 24, a group of them were collected by the ‘ANC man’ in a minibus and driven off to a derelict mine in the bush. He produced two grenades and explained how they should pull the pins, count to three and then throw them. They threw them and they exploded. Duly satisfied, they returned to the township, agreeing to meet again the next night at three collection points, including a church in Duduza and a shebeen in Tsakane. The targets were to include the homes of two security policemen in Tsakane and KwaThema and a limpet mine was to be used on a power sub-station at KwaThema. At their collection points the ‘ANC man’ distributed the grenades, reminded them again how to use them and left after instructing them to try to co-ordinate the attacks at midnight. In KwaThema, three of the students headed for the policeman’s home. They were early, so they went to a friend’s house nearby and waited. Then at about midnight they marched out and, as they approached the target house, heard the blast of the limpet mine in the distance. The first student took out his grenade and pulled the pin. It exploded immediately, killing him. Police appeared down the street and the other two students ran for their lives. It is not known what happened in Tsakane, where two died in similar explosions, or at the power station, except that the limpet mine obviously exploded prematurely. In Duduza the picture is confused. By one account a group of students was seen talking outside the church, inside a security gate. Then police were seen at the back of the premises and the students began to run. As they bunched to get through the gate there was an explosion. One dropped dead and several appeared to have been injured. The survivors ran for it, taking refuge at a house some distance away. More police arrived at the house and in a mele which followed there were further explosions in which another three students were fatally injured. In Duduza the bodies were left lying in the street and a large crowd began to gather. The scene was described by a local journalist, Rich Mkhondo, in the The Star: ‘We joined about 2 000 residents who had gathered around the bodies of the youths who had died at about midnight. ‘The most horrifying moment of my life was when I was shown the bodies of the youths. I had never before seen the body of a man without a head. Nor had I seen pieces of human flesh scattered around and people trying to put them together again. ‘As I was trying to gather information about the deaths of the youths I noticed more hippos (armoured personnel carriers) and police vehicles had arrived. I heard residents shouting, refusing to allow police to take the bodies to the government mortuary and saying they had their own mortuaries.

‘As I ran into a house with a number of residents I felt a burning pain on my right shoulder. I had been struck with birdshot. On looking outside I saw the bodies being loaded into police vans. Some parts fell to the ground. A person inside the house said: ‘Look, they are throwing the bodies inside the vans like sacks of potatoes.’ A woman standing next to me was crying.’ Word began to circulate in Duduza that the mysterious ‘ANC man’ had a girlfriend called Maki who had introduced him to the Cosas leadership. Her mother, Diane Skosana, was to claim later that it was a case of mistaken identity — that it was another Maki. Whatever the truth of it, the rumour spread. Skosana heard it of course — she even went to a local priest and told him about it. But she insisted she was innocent of any involvement in the hand grenade deaths and that she was not going to acknowledge guilt by running away. She was a simple woman, aged 24, an unmarried mother with a five-year-old son, working in a nearby glove factory. She lived with her mother, a 54-year-old domestic worker, a brother and a cousin in one of those little four-roomed matchbox houses with their concrete floors and ceilingless iron roofs in Duduza.

Stubbornly, she not only insisted on staying in that house, but went to the funeral of the Duduza grenade victims, and to the funeral of those killed later. Apparently there was an attempt, by one or two student leaders, to get her away from that Saturday’s funeral. But she refused again. And so the fury of Duduza was unleashed upon her. There was not much left of Skosana afterwards. Her sister went to the scene of her death and managed to scrape up some pathetic, blood-stained remains for burial; a piece of faded blue T-shirt, a head-scarf, handfuls of earth and some broken sticks. The memory of her death, sensational as it was, inevitably faded. But it was reawakened by testimony given in the Pretoria trial of Eugene de Kock, the former commander of the Vlakplaas police assassination unit, by one of his ex-employees, Joe Mamasela. In evidence last week, Mamasela listed some of the murders for which he was responsible as a paid state assassin and made passing reference to the hand-grenade deaths. ‘During June [1985] I was sent to the East Rand townships to infiltrate Cosas,’ he said. ‘After about three weeks the accused (De Kock) was put in charge. He gave us booby-trapped hand grenades which we gave to them. The accused (De Kock) said it would be a first for the terrorists to blow themselves up.’ A first time for terrorists. An epitaph for Maki Skosana.

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