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Was Boipatong an act of vengeance?

Police in the VaaI are said to have been "infuriated" by the killing of a white policeman shortly before last week's Boipatong massacre. Last Tuesday, Warrant Officer Daan Coetzee, commander of the Poortjie Police Station, was killed when his vehicle was forced off the road near Sebokeng and raked with automatic gunfire. His assailants are believed to have escaped into Sebokeng, within kilometres of Boipatong, but police have since arrested a suspect.

Sources close to the South African Police in the region described the deep anger among Vaal policeman about the killing of Coetzee the day before the massacre by saying: "They wanted war." But SAP spokesman Colonel Johan Mostert dismissed any possibility of a link between police anger and the slaughter as "absolute silliness". The morning after last Wednesday's massacre, which left 39 people, dead, Boipatong residents said the attack was sparked by the killing of an Inkatha Freedom Party supporter and Boipatong resident David Mbhele. They are also convinced that police colluded with the attackers.

The failure of the SAP to respond to early warnings of the impending attack and the military precision with which residents were butchered has strengthened this conviction. At least two hours before the attack began Peace Action, a violence monitoring group on the Witwatersrand received a call from a woman who warned she had been tipped off by "white counterparts of Inkatha that ambulances must be on standby. They are going to be used". This was the second time that evening Peace Action had been alerted of a possible attack on VaaI residents.

Earlier, a call from Zone 11 in Sebokeng had warned "there's going to be trouble". In an interview with Radio Vatican, Father Paddy Nolan reported witnessing one of his parishioners receiving a warning of an attack while he was in a house in Sebokeng. The caller said he was having difficulty contacting the police and urged the parishioner to contact Peace Action in Johannesburg. "Something detrimental, something serious is going to happen in the neighbourhood " the caller warned. 

At a media conference last Friday, SAP liaison officer Major Ray Harrald said a senior police officer in Johannesburg had received a warning from Peace Action on Wednesday evening about an impending attack in the Vaal. The officer passed the message on the Vaal police who investigated reports of groups of people moving around Sebokeng. The SAP discovered they were police foot patrols and concluded they had been "directed" to Sebokeng, Harrald said.

Peace Action has confirmed that its monitor did not specify an exact area of the possible attack. Boipatong residents say they had been on guard since rumours of an impending attack began circulating on Tuesday, June 16. On Wednesday, the day of the attack, a large contingent of police in plain clothes and camouflage uniforms began patrolling the township and removing barricades. A resident described this as being "unusual in Boipatong".

According to another resident police left the area by about 7pm and defence units, still wary of attack repaired the barricades. At about 9pm, the police returned to the township and forced the local defence units off the streets. The SAP has denied dispersing the defence units, saying SAP patrols in the township had used birdshot to ward off petrol-bomb attacks. The Weekly Mail has inspected statements by witnesses in Boipatong alleging that at about 10pm groups of police in Casspirs began dropping armed men at various points around the township. Then the slaughter began.

According to violence monitors who have been taking statements in the aftermath of the attack, the killers operated in three squads in Slovo Park which bore the brunt of the killings. The first squad allegedly moved ahead, shouting, breaking windows and sowing confusion. They were followed by a second squad armed mainly with pangas and assegais which broke into houses and hacked and stabbed residents.  While this was happening, the third squad, "consisting mainly of armed white men", surrounded the houses and gunned down anybody who tried to escape, through windows or doors.

Twelve hours after the Witwatersrand police were first contacted and nine hours after the attack began the SAP contacted Peace Action and reported they were having "difficulty" entering the township.  However, initial reports indicated police vehicles had begun removing bodies from Boipatong as early as 4am. Peace Action monitors believe discrepancies between statements are a result of the confusion and hysteria which gripped the township in the wake of the attack. However, they insisted: "There has been common pattern in all the statements and people have not changed their stories."  The unprecedented international and local outcry against the massacre has spurred the police into action.

Last Friday Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel ordered a full investigation into the killings and said he would demand a full report from the commissioner of police within six days. Kriel declared the Vanderbijlpark magisterial district an unrest area and the SAP sealed off kwaMadala Hostel, alleged to be the attackers' base. Major GeneraI Hannes GIoy, of the special Investigations Unit established in terms of the National Peace Accord, is leading a team of 200 investigators. By yesterday, they had detained six hostel dwellers under the unrest regulations. Police spokesman were not able to say why the men were being held.

The Goldstone Commission is to hold an inquiry into the violence in Boipatong on July 2and 3. In a concession to ANC demands for an international commission of inquiry into the massacre, President de Klerk has asked Judge Richard Goldstone to appoint "a suitably qualified person of international repute to join his commission as an assessor". De Klerk has also agreed to an SAP request that experts of "international standing" be invited to evaluate police investigations into the killings.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail newspaper

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