President FW de Klerk looked truly shocked as he sat in the backseat of his slow-moving silver BMW. Minutes before, about 3 000 Boipatong residents had surged towards his car, bringing his motorcade to a brief stop.
“Go away De Klerk! You are a dog! Go to your brothers at KwaMadala!” they shouted, banging on the doors and roof.
It was Saturday June 20 1992, three days after nearly 50 of their neighbours, brothers, sisters, friends, mothers, fathers and children were butchered to death by dwellers of the nearby Inkatha-run KwaMadala hostel with the active support of security forces who had blackened their faces so the residents would not recognise them. But their Afrikaans orders and armoured vehicles gave them away during the chaotic attack.
The residents’ fury was still as raw as the wounds of those who survived the brutal assault by the marauding Inkatha members.
De Klerk was clutching the seat in front of him as heavily armed, panicking plainclothes policemen formed a human barricade around his car. The motorcade stuttered off, zigzagging through barricades, leaving the Vaal township’s dusty roads after a shortened 15-minute-long visit. There was no place to hide.
Public relations coup
Worse for De Klerk, he had to flee this anger with the world’s media recording it, instead of pulling off a public relations coup by visiting the grieving relatives of the dead, looking statesmanlike.
I was covering De Klerk’s visit for the Sunday Times and it was my second visit to Boipatong that week. The first was the day after the massacre that shocked many of us not only because of its brutality, but also because of the complicity of the Nationalist government’s security forces in stoking violence against the ANC.
It was during the Codesa talks and the ANC was, rightly, long suspicious of the De Klerk government’s involvement in “third force” activities against its members.
I remember the tales of the survivors, how they told us haltingly, wearily, softly, even matter-of-factly of their attackers’ depravity. But when they stopped talking, you could see how, behind their sad eyes, the horror of witnessing their loved ones being hacked, stabbed and shot was being replayed over and over.
I found myself walking down a footpath to catch my breath. But on the dust and yellow winter grass, I saw fresh blood – it must have belonged to someone who tried to flee the attackers.
Zulu, catch him
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996, survivor Klaas Mathope, whose wife was killed and son injured in the attack, told the commission he had heard a white man saying in Afrikaans: “Zulu, catch him.”
Mathope fled into some bushes and could hear the attackers killing people in the shacks, according to a Sapa report. He later found his wife, who had been stabbed and whose body was riddled with pellets, lying on the ground with her intestines hanging out of her stomach.
Later on the day of his aborted visit, De Klerk held a press conference at the nearby riot police unit’s headquarters. He blamed a “well-planned operation” designed to wreck his “goodwill visit”.
De Klerk clearly could not read the mood. His recent defence of the homeland system showed he had still not mastered that skill.
In his heart, De Klerk was clearly never a reformer, but rather a practitioner of realpolitik, even if it meant unbanning the ANC and – as Boipatong showed – later fighting it by any means possible.