Boipatong: Ghosts of a massacre

It was the evening of June 17 1992 when hundreds of Zulu men armed with assault rifles, pistols, spears, sticks and machetes waited outside KwaMadala hostel across the main road from Boipatong (“place of hiding” in Sesotho) in the Vaal Triangle.

The men were waiting for the police to clear the township’s gravel streets of the defensive barricades erected by nervous township self-defence units.

The following morning, the world woke up to screaming headlines that told of a South Africa on the brink of civil war. Nearly 50 people had been shot, stabbed and hacked to death and scores lay injured on the pavements and inside ransacked four-room matchbox houses.

In the aftermath of the massacre, political parties taking part in pre-democracy negotiations with the National Party government called for a suspension, citing government complicity in the attacks.

Just after the massacre, my father, Lebole Dibetle, who had been in the police force since 1973, was sent to Boipatong as part of a police peacekeeping mission. He spent about three months there. A serious and dedicated policeman, he later told the family he wished he had not been part of the mission – or even a policeman at all.

A changed man
My father joined the force as a 23-year-old, driven by the need to get a job, help his parents and start a family. Upon his return from the Boipatong mission, my father was a changed man.

I had known him to drink alcohol socially and he had always carried himself in a very gentlemanly way after a drink. After Biopatong he became violent and drank whenever he felt like it – it was no longer a weekend thing. He threw endless parties after he was paid for his special-mission duties. At some point, he even attempted to open a “spot” – a shebeen – at our house in Kagiso.

Fights between him and my mother became a regular weekend feature. He was no longer providing for the family and was always broke. He secretly sold our family car and started borrowing from loan sharks. The outcome of this was the repossession of our furniture and household appliances by a string of loan sharks. In that sequence of events, our once solid family became the neighbourhood laughing stock.

My father became an abusive and worthless alcoholic.

With her domestic-worker salary, my mother carried us through all this hardship. Sometimes my father would disappear for months with nobody knowing where he was and when he would return. When he did come back, he beat my mother.

Is fokol, is niks
When he was sober, he was disturbingly quiet. He avoided dialogue and seemed distracted. With my three siblings and me, he would engage only when he was poep-dronk. He was regularly absent from work, vulgar, irritable and showed no remorse. A slight disagreement with him was enough to beget a cruel and loud “is fokol, is niks”, and a big fight would ensue.

One day in 1999, he just shut down. He stopped talking almost entirely and would not leave the house.

His absenteeism became a worry for both the family and his employer and he was subsequently suspended from work. On the recommendation of the police service, he was booked for psychological evaluation at a Johannesburg private hospital. After two months of intense checks, he was declared medically unfit by the state and was forced into early retirement.

For me, this is when my father died.

He was reported to have suffered a lot of trauma. Most of the trauma was said to have been as a result of many years of working on the frontline. Some of the assignments that had haunted him included patrolling the Namibian and Mozambican borders in the 1980s and riot policing in Alexandra township in the 1970s, where he had shot at people and did not know whether they had survived or died. But the events of the Boipatong massacre haunted him the most. It became a topic he resented.

“We were basically cleaning up the mess for the Boers and the Zulus so that they can run away with murdering our people,” he once said.

One of my father’s medical reports from October 1999 reads: “Clinically, Inspector Dibetle still appears to be quite withdrawn, with evidence of mental slowing. On testing, there is a suggestion of organicity and MRI brain scan shows mild generalised cerebral atrophy and there may well be some subtle organic brain dysfunction present.”

His life of alcohol abuse and self-torment continued after retirement until he was diagnosed with diabetes. In a few years, he would develop gangrene in his left foot and gradually lose his eyesight. On November 28 2008, he met his physical death – slowly, painfully and isolated – at Leratong Hospital in Kagiso. He was 58 years old.

Twenty years after the massacre, a heavy blanket of smog hangs over Boipatong as the massive gas pipes at ArcelorMittal, South Africa’s largest stainless steel manufacturer, pump filthy black fumes unceasingly into the open grey sky.

A lot of Boipatong residents suffer from respiratory illnesses as a result of the pollution and there has been no major visible infrastructural development since the massacre.
The KwaMadala hostel, once a notorious Zulu migrant-worker stronghold, is now home to all ethnic groups, most of whom are squatters from surrounding informal settlements. Many Zulus left the hostel after the massacre, fearing a violent attack by Boipatong residents.

Nothing ever happens in Boipatong
On a recent Sunday morning, Boipatong’s littered, beaten-down gravelled streets were bustling with joyful, barefoot children, enjoying the last few days of the Easter school break. On the other side of the small township, young couples, dressed to the nines, made a grand entrance at Ebuhleni Divine Food, a local shebeen and restaurant, cars hooting and house music ripping the air waves. They had just returned from the graveside of a popular local activist.

Inside the shebeen, a handful of old-timers were tapping their immaculately polished Florsheims, Johnston & Murphys and Crocket & Joneses on the tiled floor to a Mardi Gras-like big band jazzing it up from a small corner speaker.

Overlooking the shebeen is the construction site of the new Boipatong Massacre monument, which will be unveiled in October 2012, according to a resident and one of the shebeen’s patrons, Bongani Ntshumayelo. He vaguely remembers what happened that day in June, because he was very young and did not see any people die. For him, the monument is just one of the things that need to be done to commemorate the events of June 17 1992 because “nothing ever happens in Boipatong”.

Despite Ntshumayelo’s optimism that the erection of the monument will finally open doors to many new developments in the township, he is worried about the youth. Though Boipatong is surrounded by big industry, about 50% of its youth is unemployed. The area has low levels of crime, but high levels of teenage pregnancy and substance abuse.

“I was about 10 years old when the massacre happened.  All I can remember is the comrades telling the residents to leave the township immediately. We were rushed to relatives in Sharpeville and only returned after the massacre,” said Ntshumayelo.

But it is painful to see Boipatong still looking as it did back in 1992.

Ronyuza Mabandla, a local ward councillor and community leader, said: “The people of Boipatong feel like South Africa has forgotten about them.”

He said residents believe June 17 was a historic day that deserved to be commemorated nationally as it left behind “orphans, widows and widowers”.

The Boipatong monument, said Mabandla, was funded by a contribution from the Gautrain and the Gauteng provincial government. He said the project was initiated in 2006 and that it would include a community youth centre. “Although it is not enough … inroads have been made in the past few years to address some of the community’s needs and concerns. These include the construction of roads, rebuilding of houses which were abandoned as a result of the massacre, replacing shacks with brick houses and developing the local wetland into a park,” he said.

Damage done
On August 7 1996, the victims of the Boipatong massacre relived the events of that dreadful night and implicated the police during a session of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the Sebokeng College of Education.

One of the survivors, the late Johannes Mbatha, said at the time policemen were present during the attack. Asked whether he was absolutely certain the police were present, he said: “I cannot tell a lie, I even saw their cars. I thought I was dreaming. I could not believe the police were there in uniform.”

He said he followed the attackers, who got into their Casspirs. The same policemen, he claimed, arrived the following day to take statements of the previous night’s events.
“I was quite scared to tell them that they were the people who were outside last night,” Mbatha said.

In one of our few and very short conversations about the massacre, my father once said: “We patrolled the township as though the problem was in the township. All peacekeepers knew that Boipatong residents were not the problem. I believe our mission was planned to look as though the police were protecting and helping the residents … but the damage was done. Our people lay dead in government mortuaries.” – Monako Dibetle

Unanswered questions, open wounds
Twenty years on, history tells us that there has never been closure for many of the people affected by the massacre immortalised in plaintive song by the late Brenda Fassie.
Although it was just one among scores of mass slayings that took place in the Transvaal region in the particularly violent four years preceding the 1994 elections, a 10-year-old Mail & Guardian article notes South African Institute of Race Relations analyst Anthea Jeffery as having written that the massacre “was accorded an importance far outweighing that of numerous other mass killings at the time … This was because it was immediately depicted by the ANC as a ‘carefully planned and executed strategic operation’ that had involved the police and army working with IFP [Inkatha Freedom Party] attackers, and doing so at the behest of the National Party government.”

The massacre, which killed nearly 50 people, including many women and children, was also used as a bargaining chip in the Codesa talks where the National Party, weakened by the deafening international outcry over the incident and others, signed a record of understanding with an emboldened ANC.

And yet, in the end, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)  granted amnesty to 13 convicted IFP supporters who failed to identify the rest of the roughly 300 people involved.

Several graphic renderings of the night in question notwithstanding, Piers Pigou, a former TRC investigator, noted that the amnesty committee also failed to ascertain just how “300 men could systematically rampage through Boipatong without fear of detection or apprehension by the security forces”. 

During the commission, scores of Boipatong residents testified that whites (policemen or security forces) formed part of the three squads involved in the staggered attack.
By contrast, this was corroborated by just one problematic applicant – Andries Nosenga – whose patchy evidence was dismissed unconditionally by the committee. Despite the Vaal’s pre-eminence in the politically related violence of this period, only three former Vaal policemen applied for amnesty and that was for falsifying IFP warlord Themba Khoza’s role in the Sebokeng hostel massacre of September 1990.

The earlier Goldstone Commission, like the TRC’s amnesty committee after it, provided more questions than answers. British academic Peter Waddington, invited by Judge Richard Goldstone to scrutinise the police investigation of the Boipatong massacre, delivered a scathing report but managed to “backhandedly clear police of complicity in the attack”, as The Weekly Mail reported a month later. He ascribed any omissions that arose to “incompetence” as opposed to “deliberation”. – Kwanele Sosibo

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Julius Malema and the art of electioneering

In the last four years, the Economic Freedom Fighters have shown exceptional political acumen in capitalising on civil unrest.

Malema targets ANC, Zuma and white capital in Youth Day speech

As Malema spoke, a pair of makeshift coffins were passed through the Boipatong crowd. One read "Rest in Pain Zuma"

Dispatches: With you I know I cannot go wrong

Mr Mogopodi sold newspapers outside Kagiso. Until one day, he disappeared.

Boipatong’s ripples still spread today

Twenty years on, the events of the massacre are contested and people remain divided and angry, writes the M&G's ombudsman Franz Kruger.

De Klerk’s ‘goodwill’ was just realpolitik

In his heart, De Klerk was never a reformer, but rather a practitioner of realpolitik, even if it meant unbanning the ANC, writes Charles Leonard.

Blame it on the hostels, flashpoints for too long

Seven hostels can be linked to much of the Reef violence over the past year. Clashes involving inmates have led to over 270 deaths in the past year.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Air pollution link in 15% of global Covid-19 deaths

Researchers have found that, because ambient fine particulate air pollution aggravates comorbidities, it could play a factor in coronavirus fatalities

Mboweni plans to freeze public sector wage increases for the...

The mid-term budget policy statement delivered by the finance minister proposes cutting all non-interest spending by R300-billion.

SAA to receive R10.5-billion government bailout after all

Several struggling state-owned entities received extra funds after the medium term budget policy speech

BMW X3 thrives in the M stable

The compact SUV is so at home with its new badge that’s it’s surprising it didn’t happen sooner

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday