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A small town’s morning of terror

Dozens of residents of Ennelo’s Wesselton township have told how police and soldiers fired teargas and birdshot indiscriminately after an attempt at a peaceful protest march. I interviewed these people shortly after the outburst of violence on Wednesday and they described events that bore no re· semblance to the version given by police in their terse unrest report. Police sealed off the township with barbed wire and escorted journalists out of the area. 

However, I spoke to residents shortly afterwards and they told how many of them were shot while doing day-to activities such as walking down the street or doing their washing. Police fired many rounds of teargas – even inside houses in an attempt to flush out panic-stricken people. A baby in one of the homes was overcome with tear smoke and only regained consciousness 12 hours later. The parents, fearing arrest, were too scared to take it to hospital. Nearly 100 people, most of whom were afraid to go to hospital for treatment, had birdshot wounds all over their bodies, their faces and genitals. 

I personally saw about 60 of these people. The police unrest report that day said only 12 people were injured ­ six policemen and six residents – and five of the residents were being held on charges of public violence. According to the report, 10 000 people armed with “iron pipes, pangas, knokerries, stones, etc” attempted to march on the magistrate’s court, despite an undertaking given by the Wesselton Action Committee (WAC) that the march would not take place. 

Dozens of Wesselton residents I spoke to said they had not been armed when trying to march to court, and a WAC representative described the report as “lies”. He said WAC could not stop the thousands of residents marching to court: “They wanted to hear the court case, since many of them have been issued with these court summonses. “Police told them to go back and when they refused, saying some had to go to court anyway. Police fired teargas and birdshot on the crowd, and sjambokked people.” Then came the real violence. 

Albert Maphosa told me how his wife and a child were shot: “A friend saw my wife, Beauty, doing her washing and a (five-year-old) child was standing in the doorway. A police van drove by and the next thing he knew my wife was covered in blood and screaming.” The mother was rushed to hospital with serious neck wounds. The child, also in hospital, was shot in the legs. Though the hospital superintendent, Dr M Veltman, was not available for comment, nurses said 25 people were treated for injuries and 16 were admitted to hospital. Beauty Maphosa was in critical condition but her condition has since stabilised. The unrest report says “no serious injuries were reported”. Nurses say nine people were dis­ charged – some of whom were arrested – and the rest are under police guard in hospital. Lawyers for residents say they took statements from 52 injured people, or their families, none of whom had gone to hospital fearing they would be arrested. 

On Wednesday morning I arrived in Ermelo – a Conservative Party-run town bordering on Wessel ton – to report on the court appearance of 88 Wesselton residents who are boycotting rent. More than 700 have been issued with court summonses in the past two weeks. The residents refuse to pay levies to a town council they consider inept and corrupt. Lawyers say a further 2 000 residents were expecting court summonses. Ermelo was quiet, and businesses were operating with a skeleton white staff, since the entire Wesselton community was either staying away from work or had to go to court. 

People outside the magistrate’s court told me that about 400 township residents, who had been sitting on the court lawns waiting for the case to begin, had been sjambokked, attacked by police dogs and arrested. These were people who had gone to court early in the morning and had not been stopped by police. Accompanied by a WAC member, I left the town and entered the location through a side road. The township looked like a war zone, with scores of police and South African Defence Force troops having sealed off en­ trances with razor wire. Hippos and Casspirs patrolled on the outskirts and riot police in minibuses drove around firing teargas cannisters. Barricades, erected by the residents, burnt at almost every intersection. Thick palls of smoke and teargas billowed in the sky. 

As I was driving along the town­ ship streets heard the sounds of gunfire. I then went back to the magistrate’s court where lawyers of the residents and the town council were negotiating. They agreed to the following: outstanding court summonses would cease and a meeting between lawyers for the opposing sides and the Transvaal Provincial Administration would be held on January 10 to discuss residents’ grievances with the town council. Lawyers agreed that if negotiations broke down, court proceedings would resume seven days later. The hearings of the 88 were postponed to January 11. 

lawyer for the residents, Haneef Valli, told me that a Captain Botha of the Ermelo police had requested that Valli’s team and the WAC go back to the burning location to “calm” the community and inform them of the latest developments regarding their court appearances. I went back with the lawyers to Wesselton where police and defence troops had left the area, but still manned the entrances. Thousands of angry, distressed residents crowded around, chanting “viva, viva”, their fists held high. A huge meeting en­ sued outside the local disco, where lawyers communicated the latest developments. Injured people who were not being nursed at home, or who had not been taken to hospital, came forward. Some were carried, others limped to­ wards us. 

I saw scores of people, even tiny children, covered with bird­shot wounds and dripping with blood. One man was riddled with wounds on his legs, inner thighs and genitals. Another, barely conscious from loss of blood, had gaping dog-bite wounds on his arms and hands. A shocked mother, Sophie Mtsweni, showed us the contents of a plastic bag she Clung to: inside were the bullet-ridden, blood-soaked clothes of her 21-year-old son Kenneth, who she said had been lying unconscious on the road, overcome with tear­ smoke when police fired birdshot at him: “My son’s one eye has come out and he is now lying in hospital coughing blood,” she said. 

A badly wounded Meshack Nkosi, who was taken to hospital soon after he spoke to me, was one of the 88. He describes how he was fired at while walking to the court: “We were walking there in a group. They turned us away by shooting. They did not utter a word of warning to u first.” Another man with birdshot wounds on his face, angrily said: “I just want to tell the newspaper, and the head of the white people that this is no good. We go to court to hear our case but we get shot. We don’t fight but we still get shot.”

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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