Boipatong’s ripples still spread today

Usually, people who write to me as the ombud are in the end reasonably happy with the outcome.  This was not the case when Dave Steward,  executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation, recently complained about some references to the Boipatong massacre in the Mail & Guardian.

The paper published a double-page spread to mark the 20th anniversary of the incident in the June 15 edition. One of the sidebars described De Klerk's visit to the township just after the massacre, when he was greeted by thousands of angry demonstrators who blamed the security forces and him personally for the event.  

The article referred to almost 50 residents having been "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". A few paragraphs on, the writer said the massacre had been shocking not just because of its brutality, but also "because of the Nationalist government's security forces' complicity in stoking violence against the ANC".  The piece argued that De Klerk's reform had been simple realpolitik: the incident showed he was prepared to fight the ANC "by any means possible".

It is historic fact that the massacre had a major impact on the Codesa negotiations: the ANC suspended talks for some time and the claims of complicity allowed it to put the government firmly on the back foot. As Steward's complaint shows, the event matters a great deal, even 20 years on, because it affects how De Klerk's role is remembered.

In his letter, Steward pointed out that a trial of the perpetrators and the Goldstone Commission had failed to find solid evidence of security force complicity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found there had been, but he dismissed the finding as based on "untested accounts presented by a monitoring organisation linked to the ANC". Later, the TRC's amnesty committee rejected evidence to this effect.

Steward wrote that these facts could have been established with a quick search of the internet, but the purpose of the piece had been to put a "journalistic boot" into De Klerk, rather than inform readers. He argued it contravened several provisions of the press code.

In researching the background to the massacre, it seemed clear that the facts of what happened that day had not been established conclusively. The TRC found there was complicity and this belief remains strong among parts of the community and elsewhere. Other inquiries, setting the bar for proof perhaps higher, did not find conclusive evidence. It is also worth remembering that other instances of security force involvement in violence at the time, such as with units like Vlakplaas, have been more clearly established. There may be a temptation to extrapolate from such proven instances to the specific case of Boipatong, but that would be wrong.

What we have are competing versions of the story of this massacre.  Resolving the issue definitively would take more than some reading of documents and reports from the time, which is all I was able to do. It would probably require a full inquiry, but this seems unlikely now.  

I felt that the newspaper was at fault for not showing that the version of history it presented remains a contested one. I wrote to Steward: "I feel the article should have been more cautious in presenting the account of security force involvement in this particular incident as uncontested fact.  Some reference to findings that did not support this view would have ensured greater balance."

I thought publishing a letter would restore the balance and suggested a prominent link in the online version of the article to ensure readers are aware of the controversy.

 However, this did not satisfy him at all. He shot back an email saying my response was "quite the most disgraceful attempt I have seen for some time from a reputable journal in trying to cover up the clear error of one of your journalists!  Shame on you! Your guy is wrong. Why do you not have the good grace to admit it!"

It is not clear to me how much further he expects me to go. Does he expect a ruling that writers are not entitled to their own view of historic events? As I also pointed out to him, it was not reportage – the incident happened 20 years ago, after all. It was commentary and in this kind of writing the rules are slightly different.

As much as it was wrong to present the claims of security force involvement in the massacre as uncontested, it would be just as wrong to try to airbrush them out of the picture entirely. If that is what he seeks, he will not get it from me.

He also threatened to publish my note to him "to let the public decide", and said he planned to write to the press ombudsman. It seems he thinks I am embarrassed about my view. I am not. I welcome a public discussion about how this history should be handled. What do you think?

I wanted to devote this column to the Zapiro cartoon of President Jacob Zuma as a penis, but the Boipatong issue overshadowed it. For the record, I thought the cartoon regrettable. One can support free speech and grant that cartoonists have wide latitude to offend without agreeing with every example of it being exercised. This one showed anger more than the wit we are used to. It amounted to little more than shouting rude words at a public figure.

The Mail & Guardian's ombud provides an independent view of the paper's journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact Franz Krüger at [email protected] You can also phone the newspaper on 011 250 7300 and leave a message

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