SA's ugly birthmark - the Shell House massacre

On March 28 1994, journalists, police and peace monitors began work long before dawn, traversing the townships that punctuated the towns and cities along the reef of gold deep under the veld. Thousands of Zulu men poured out of hostels and shanty neighbourhoods, resplendent in their Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) regalia and a variety of militant, traditional or simply peculiar adornment. Civilians not savvy enough to have stayed in bed ran from the stick- and spear-wielding men as they advanced.

Trains and minibuses heading towards Johannesburg's city centre overflowed with singing, chanting men, led by indunas who can best be likened to Roman centurions.

The meeting point was the Library Gardens (since renamed Beyers Naudé Square). As legions of warriors and supporters converged on the square from all directions, tensions were high. Bystanders scattered as the men, accompanied by a few women, strode down the city streets, overturning dustbins and looting street vendors' goods. The route of Inkatha supporters from the east was directly along Jeppe Street – past the ANC's Lancet House regional headquarters and three blocks away from its national headquarters at Shell House

Inside the multistoreyed Shell House, several hundred metres from a large taxi rank, ANC leaders and security officials fretted. There were rumours that Inkatha was planning to attack the building. There was a large police presence throughout Johannesburg.

At the rally, we heard a police radio squawk: "Member down, member down!" Police vehicles raced in various directions and we tried to figure out where to go, racing though the oddly deserted streets away from the Library Gardens. "Member down" seemed to our uninitiated ears to mean a policeman was down, wounded or dead but, when we finally tracked down the centre of the fracas, it was a few city blocks from the rally – it was at Shell House.

It was not a policeman who was down but Inkatha members – a semantic nod to the covert alliance between Inkatha and the apartheid state. The sidewalks were littered with the bodies of dead and wounded Inkatha men. Their blood was spreading thickly across the dirt-strewn streets.

A man lay face down, the blood staining his cowhide shield – the symbol of a proud Zulu martial tradition useless against bullets.

One man laughed and joked as a paramedic tried to stem the torrent of blood from his lower leg, which was hanging by a thread. It seemed that perhaps he was joking because the injured leg was withered and deformed from some childhood disease or birth defect – an empty victory for his enemies.

ANC security guards had opened fire on Inkatha members they believed were trying to breach the Shell House entrance.

In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, the ANC's head of security at Shell House, Gary Kruser, said he had been warned there would be an attack on the building. A group of IFP marchers approached the entrance and he saw several weapons, including a rifle. Gunfire from the crowd hit the walls of Shell House, he said, and he told guards to fire warning shots, which had no effect. He then ordered more direct, and deadly, fire.

Other witnesses say the Inkatha members did not open fire; they had merely chanted and sang outside the entrance, waving their traditional weapons. Whichever version is closer to the truth, when the gunfire died out, eight men lay dead outside Shell House. Another 11 people were killed in the city that day and dozens were injured.

A stain on Mandela's reputation

In March 1994, the IFP leaders/warlords Themba Khoza and Humphrey Ndlovu in the then Transvaal called for a rally to support the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelethini, in his quest for the restoration of the Zulu kingdom.

Just a month before the first democratic elections, the king and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi had declared they would ask their followers not to take part in the elections on April 27. The last weeks before that historic poll were to be an important test of South Africa's resilience.

At that stage, Inkatha and its supporters were involved in constant clashes with ANC supporters on the Reef, in the Vaal Triangle and in KwaZulu-Natal.

The Nugent Commission was set up to investigate the incident, and Justice Robert Nugent declared that the IFP account was closer to the facts, saying the ANC security's shooting was unjustified. A year after the massacre, Nelson Mandela claimed that he had given the order to defend Shell House, and "kill, if necessary".

Ten days after the killings, Zwelethini said: "Witnesses [including ANC officials] saw Zulus slaughtered in cold blood merely for having the temerity to march close to the ANC headquarters. As things now stand, I cannot encourage my father's people to vote on the 26th, 27th and 28th of April and thereby lend legitimacy to what will be destructive of the very foundations on which the sovereignty of the Zulu kingdom rests. You, sir, [Mandela] are rushing into an election which I and the Zulu people reject.

"After the Shell House massacre, the Zulu nation carries an additional open wound: those who died because they were exercising their democratic right to oppose the election shall be celebrated and remembered in various ways."

The Shell House massacre was a stain on Mandela's reputation but it did little to prevent his party taking the polls a month later with a massive majority. – Greg Marinovich