Police fire on protesters in Boipatong after the massacre.
The following is an edited version of the memorial lecture of Boipatong delivered at Vaal University of Technology on 5 July 2019.
I should start with memory. Countries are built by bricks and mortar. Buildings, roads, houses, railway lines, airports and harbours are symbols of the existence of countries. The bigger they are, the better the country. So countries strive for the dominance of the world to create bigger airports, bigger stadiums, and bigger shopping malls. Societies however, are different. The link from one generation to the next is passed by word of mouth. In the modern world those linkages are passed down in the written form. So books of history, books of science and books of language are instruments to connect us to a world we never inhabited. They connect us to people we never met; places we have never seen; and a culture we can only imagine.
But the path to creating a society lives and survives only through memory. Memory is not confined to a generation, to personal experiences, and to a single lived reality. Memory is cross-generational; it is interpersonal; and it is the ability to transport and transpose one reality to the next. Stories of the past help us not only to know how our predecessors lived, but how they shaped our own living. Memory teaches us how to be. Without memory we might have a country, but no society.
So tonight I want to talk about memory. But I want to speak about one specific incident: the Boipatong massacre of 17 June 1992. That this is an inaugural lecture, 27 years after the incident itself says something about our collective respect — perhaps disrespect — for memory. Speaking about a different tragedy of people burnt to death in a building, Ben Okri writes, “sometimes it takes an image to wake up a nation, from its secret shame. And here it is every name, of someone burnt to death, on the stairs or in their room, who had no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed.”
We should take Okri seriously. Right now at the beginning of this lecture. He says death on its own might shine a spotlight on a secret shame of a nation. I suggest that the shame that he refers to is not in death itself, as death is part of life. But it is in the manner of death. The shame is also in our inability to explain the way of dying, or perhaps it is our inability to explain it away? Someone being burnt to death, when the burning to death was avoidable should bring us shame. Okri’s second point is about the perplexing nature of the explanations for death. People, he says, have no idea what they died for, or how they were betrayed before they died. Those people, he continues “did not die when they died; their deaths happened long before”. They happened in the minds of the people who never saw them. And they happened in the collective ignorance about their existence.
In what way then, might these two ideas, shame in death, and being killed before you die help us to explain Boipatong?
We should start by confronting the “shame” in the manner of death. One way of doing so is to explain how the deaths of Boipatong happened. We can do this without apportioning blame. We can seek to understand only what happened. We should do this to fill a void in memory. For a void in memory that takes us away from who we are and how we should look after each other before and after we die. A lapse in collective memory is itself a form of death. An erasure. Not seen when alive, erased when dead. Is this the case with the dead of Boipatong?
So what happened? Contrary to many accounts, violence in the Vaal did not suddenly erupt on 17 June 1992. There were early signals of an impending mass scale killing. According to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), as early as 1990, tensions were reported between the people of Khalanyoni Hostel and the Phola Park squatter settlement in Thokoza. These tensions came to a head after the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) began to recruit in the area. The climax of the conflict was when residents of Phola Park destroyed the Khalanyoni Hostel “brick by brick”. The police immediately put a spin to the conflict. They would not be involved in a “political fight” between Zulus and Xhosas, they protested in their refusal to put down the fire. But many in the area knew that Inkatha’s men were the instigators. Yet the police would not touch them. At that stage, there was not yet evidence of a symbiosis between the white police of the apartheid government and the killing men of Inkatha.
In Sebokeng, 23 people were killed in an attack on 3 September 1990. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that this killing was executed by Inkatha men who were armed with guns, hand grenades, spears and axes. Another 15 were also killed by the members of the South African Defence Force which opened fire on a crowd on the same day. A judicial enquiry found that the SADF was reckless in simply opening fire on people, but no action was taken against the responsible soldiers. Sebokeng had also been a scene for another massacre in March 1990.
It can be seen that the area of the Vaal had been a zone of killing, without responsibility and without accountability. What transpired on 17 June 1992 was that the killing transmogrified into a frenzy. A slaughter. Forty-five people were left dead. About 40 others disfigured by the scale of injuries. Houses, property were destroyed and damaged. Looted even. The assailants used pangas, axes, spears, knives, hand guns, shot guns, AK47’s, R1s, R5s — every killing instrument. Most of the dead were hacked or stabbed, and when the pleasure of extracting death by a knife was no more, simply shot.
There was also something about the timing of the attack. Between 9.30pm to about 11.00pm. In the dark of night. The killers knew that there was bad lighting in the township and visibility poor. A few hours before the attack the South African Police moved into the township of Boipatong. Despite the police motto to “protect all”, that was not the intention when they descended to the township of Boipatong which was in peaceful sleep that evening.
The police went about to systematically dismantle the self-defence units. The notion of “self-defence units”, is something we have now forgotten about. But during the chaotic ending of apartheid, people in the townships could not rely on the police to protect them against violence. In fact, they perceived the police as part and parcel of the organised violence against them. So they created their own institutions of self-defence. These were part military style in the sense that some basic military training. The point was that communities brutalised by criminal gangs and political adversaries, often ignored by the police, had to look after their own security.
And so on the night of the killing, by clearing the streets of self-defence units, the police would leave the area exposed, defenceless and vulnerable to attack. There was also a planned precision in the manner in which the self-defence units were decapitated. The police first removed the units who were patrolling Amatola Street. When there was resistance, shots were fired at the units at the North East end of the township, near Slovo Park. And the units in Seeso, Tugela, Batsoana and Thembu streets were also purged. Driving in protected armoured vehicles, the police used teargas to remove the units in Lekoa, Bapedi and Bafokeng streets. And as they went street by street, the police would also clear the youths at Barolong and Thaba Bosiu Streets and at the intersection of Amatola and Umzimvubu Streets.
How were the streets targeted, and for whose benefit? Between 7.30pm and 8.30pm residents of Boipatong saw police cars driving around Tugela Street.
Recently in the research towards the writing of the paper I met a medical doctor who was a teenager at the time who told me he had also seen a “police caspir outside [my] mother’s house that night”. And so, in the hours before the slaughter began, the area had been cleared by the police. The self-defence units, which had been installed by the community, had been disembowelled.
But the violence was also not spontaneous. There had been prior warnings of the impending massacre. At about 8pm on the night of 17 June 1992, the Methodist Reverend, Paul Verryn, received two phone calls from the residents of Zone 11, in Sebokeng and Bophelong who gave warning that there were signs of violence in the Vaal that night. At 7.45pm, Verryn called Colonel Gouws in Johannesburg and reported the warnings. Although Colonel Gouws promised police action, this fell to nothing.
Another warning followed. At about 9pm on the night of 17 June 1992 Meshack Theoane, a petrol attendant, started his shift at the Trek Filling Station at the corner of Noble and Frikkie Meyer boulevards. He was with a security guard. Theoane saw a group of armed men crossing Frikkie Meyer Boulevard from the direction of KwaMadala Hostel, which was situated approximately 100 metres south of the intersection with Noble. He rang the alarm at the filling station which is connected to the South African Police in Vanderbijlpark. Two white policemen arrived shortly thereafter in response to the alarm. Theonae explained what he saw: armed men entering the township from KwaMadala Hostel. The policemen took no interest and left. The security guard radioed his employers to make the same report as Theoane. Two white security men responded to the radio. Another two white policemen then arrived at the filling station and spoke to the white security guards. The security guards told Theoane that the police had instructed them to take him and the security guard away from the filling station because it was not safe. And so Theoane left the scene. His warnings ignored.
So who were the attackers? We know some of the names now because of the criminal trial that ensued and the TRC process where amnesty applications were made. But at the time what was known was that some (not all) of the attackers were heard chanting the slogan “usuthu”. Many wore overcoats and white headbands. They carried a range of weapons, including spears, shields, wooden sticks, knives, axes, pangas, hand guns, shot guns and automatic rifles. They smashed windows at most houses they passed; as they entered some houses they assaulted; they murdered those found inside indiscriminately. Neither women nor children were spared.
This was not a war. In war there are rules of combat. This was a destruction of all living things. Dogs shot in the head as they barked at the murderers. There were pregnant women, there was a nine-month-old baby, there were small children, there were the disabled, and there were the elderly. They would meet violent deaths via axes and pangas. Killing was not the only motive. Violence by sexual assault was also part of the modus operandi. Several women reported raped, and sexual assault in grotesque and brutalising ways. Medical reports produced afterwards brought home the severity of the sexual violence. There was excessive bleeding, tearing of the sexual organs, indescribable pain felt by most. Permanent, visible scars were left. But there was mental, emotional and psychological trauma resulting from the sexual assault themselves.
Physical violence was not the end game. There was large-scale looting of the township and complete destruction of property. Televisions sets, music systems videos, blankets, watches, jewellery and money were stolen. Mirrors, crockery, cutlery, doors, tables and chairs were smashed with sticks, spears and axes. Stoves, television sets and videos were destroyed literally with blunt instruments. Some were burnt into ashes.
So who were the dead, the injured and the disfigured? Who were these people that Okri says died long before they were killed? We have been told that these were Xhosa, or ANC supporters. On the evidence, as I shall show later, these were Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa and Venda speakers. There was no coherent political affiliation among themselves. Ordinary men. Ordinary women. Talented children. Playful dogs. We must pay homage to them. But unless we revisit the manner of their death, we cannot do so. Often the term “defenceless” is used to describe the victims of Boipatong. But it is not enough if we do not break down the story into its pieces to pay real homage to the dead, the maimed and the wounded.
We will do this later. For now let us ask another question. How did the attack take place? We know the police had cleared specific streets of self-defence units and patrollers. What is striking is the similarity of the routes cleared by the police and those used by the attackers. A large group of the attackers entered the township from Lekoa Street which intersects with Moshoeshoe. From the intersection, the attackers split into two groups, one going up Lekoa Street and the other in Moshoeshoe Street. On the way they killed two people, both from the Motsoetsa family from 660 Moshoeshoe Street. They also killed the 70-year-old Paulina Dlamini and her granddaughter Maria, who was 21 years old, from 110 Lekoa Street. Maria Dlamini was stabbed to death with an assegai as she lay on the ground trying to protect her two-month-old baby.
It has been said before that these attackers were Zulu men. This is not consistent, however, with eyewitness accounts. Eyewitnesses saw a white man participating in the murderous attack at 660 Moshoeshoe Street, where the Motsoetsa family were murdered. Some of the attackers emerged from an armoured police vehicle at the corner of Lekoa and Moshoeshoe streets. Armoured vehicles moved off with some of the attackers up Lekoa and down Moshoeshoe streets. These vehicles also moved near the intersection of Lekoa and Moshoeshoe streets approximately 15 minutes after the attack had taken place. So, the killers were dropped by police cars, but they were also taken away in police vehicles leaving behind all the trail of destruction.
There was a rampage alongside Moshoeshoe, Majola and Bapedi streets to Slovo Park. A group of attackers travelled to Slovo Park moving East along Moshoeshoe and Majola streets. Every house that was in sight was rampaged. Every person found was murdered or injured. At 666 Moshoeshoe Street, Anna and Percival Sebolai were murdered. Anna had been stabbed repeatedly in her shoulder, arm and spine after the attackers found her lying under her bed, hiding from them. Percival was stabbed several times. But the stabbing was not enough. Percival was shot in the face and died. The attackers murdered a 63-year-old woman, Nellie Kubu, across Moshoeshoe Street. They stabbed her repeatedly in her upper thighs and shot her three times. A 22-year-old Dorothy Kubu was stabbed in the back but survived the attack by lying on the ground pretending to be dead. To live, she had to pretend to be dead.
The involvement of the police did not end at Lekoa Street. At 194 Senqu Street, the attackers looted the house of Mrs Maria Letsoko while she was hiding under her bed and hacked her son Andries and her daughter Anna and their children’s friend Richard to death. Some of the attackers had been seen emerging by residents alighting from a caspir on Senqu Street.
White men participated in the attack at 101 Bapedi Street. Police vehicles were present in close proximity to the attackers along Majola and Bapedi streets at the intersection of Thaba Bosiu and Bapedi streets. There was a widespread killing at Slovo Park as well. In fact Slovo Park turned into an orgy of death. Most of these attackers reached Slovo Park on foot. And others, evidence emerged, had been brought to the squatter settlement in police vehicles. At about 10pm, two caspirs moved towards Slovo Park, along Amatola Street. We know Amatola had specifically been cleared by the police. One stopped to pick up a group of armed men and proceeded in the direction of Slovo Park. When the attackers arrived at Slovo, they broke the windows and smashed the shacks, flattening them beyond recognition. Nine-month-old baby Aaron Mathope was hacked at shack 109. His mother, Mantshidi, died in hospital after being shot and stabbed in the stomach during the attack. A pregnant woman, Maria Mlangeni, was stabbed in the breast near shack 81. She lost her baby that she was carrying. The inhabitants of shack 19 were hacked with pangas. There were four of them. One Mita Molete was left bound to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. There were several more brutal incidents.
Also in Slovo Park residents witnessed whites participating in the attack. These whites were wearing balaclavas. They move along Bakoena Street, carrying arms. One of these men entered the yard of 153 Bakoena Street and started to shoot. White men participated in the attacks of shacks 93, 96 and 133 and at a shack in Slovo Park directly opposite the African Methodist Church. White people also took part in the attacks of the Lata and Ramoletsi families at shacks 46 and 97. From Slovo Park the attackers moved along Bafokeng, Tugela and Hlubi Streets.
It was widely reported that when the killers finished their acts of barbarism, they returned to KwaMadala Hostel. Others vanished into police cars, never to be seen again. There are many more stories of barbarism, of cruelty, of pain in death that occurred that night. Many are known, but some are unknown. Time and space do not permit for each one of those stories to be ventilated tonight.
A commission of inquiry was set up. It was led by Judge Richard Goldstone. He suspended his inquiry when tapes, apparently containing damning evidence from the Vereeniging command of the Internal Stability Unit, were wiped clean. Major
Davidson of the police force could not explain why the tapes were wiped clean. But this could only have been intended to destroy the evidence.
In March 1994, 17 residents of KwaMadala hostel were convicted of the crimes relating to the massacre, and sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from 10 to 15 years. They gained bail, pending an appeal, but the appeal went against them. At the trial, the police admitted that several rounds of used ammunition which were found at the scene were destroyed. As I have tried to show, these attacks were systematic. They were executed by people who had the control and the mastery of violence.
In the days after, a major disinformation campaign began. In January 1992, Themba Khoza, the notorious leader of Inkatha in the Vaal, had been acquitted of several crimes including possession of illegal weapons. We now know that he should not have been acquitted. Three white policemen applied for amnesty before the TRC and admitted to fabricating evidence to secure his acquittal, thus planting the seeds of disinformation.
When the story of Boipatong played out before the TRC, evidence about disinformation came out. The disinformation was coordinated by what was then known as Strategic Communications, or what we have come to know today as “Stratcom”. The head of Stratcom at the time was Vic McPherson.
The dominant explanation for the massacre at Boipatong was about “ethnic tensions” between Zulus and Xhosas or IFP and ANC people. Now, with the benefit of history, we know that this was manufactured nonsense. To start with the attackers were not exclusively Zulu, indeed they included a considerable number of white policemen. We also know that the victims were not exclusively Xhosa, as they included Tswana, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa and Venda speakers. So on its face the theory of a tribal conflict was fantasy from the onset. But in historical terms the theory about a tribal conflict always had to be treated with caution. The idea of a tribe is itself a colonial construct. Mahmood Mamdani has explained the construction of a tribe as an instrument of colonial rule and control in his book Citizen and Subject by showing that the very imagination of a tribe was colonial. It was necessary to enforce a form of control over the native races. And so, the construction of the ethnic group of Zulu, for instance, is not the consequence of deliberate and exclusively Zulu speakers themselves. Rather, it is an imposed identity primarily for purposes of exacting political control.
In Johannesburg, particularly in townships such as the Vaal, tribal identities were always artificial. Here, streets tendered to follow what appeared to be tribal identities. Is it true that only amaHlubi live on Hlubi Street? The hope of the apartheid establishment was that there would be separation between the various tribes, and clans which would indeed serve the ultimate apartheid project of “separate development”. But as soon as the tribes were constructed, they began to fall apart. Indeed, people cannot be separated by tribal identities. No tribe decides who we should love, who we should shake hands with, who we should hug or indeed who we can be friends with. So the tribal identity served to justify the killings of Boipatong. But it was from an already committed standpoint, which presumed that tribal difference could simply be converted into enmity without more.
And so not only was tribal identity a ruse, it was manifestly implausible. Something else had to be manufactured. The other explanation was political: “black on black violence”. Many will recall the period of the transition between 1990 and 1993 the term “black on black violence” was in vogue. Here in Sebokeng, it was used to explain the violence of Boipatong. The explanation was that the attackers were IFP and the victims ANC. But when subjected to forensic scrutiny this too could not stand up. We know from the identities of the victims that the overwhelming majority were indeed not politically active at all. How could babies be? These were people who had wishes for themselves, for their children and indeed for their own country to prosper. They had no committed political affiliation. What they wanted was peace, prosperity and happiness for their families.
What the evidence, however, did show was that among the killers were Inkatha’s men. There were testimonies by the accused in the subsequent criminal trials and applications for amnesty at the TRC that IFP leaders were present at the planning meetings before the attacks on Boipatong. We should not forget the role of the white apartheid police. Official police vehicles were used to fetch and to carry the attackers. It is also known that the attackers themselves included white police officers. What is most discernible from the manner of the attack is its coordination with the state. A few hours before the attacks the streets had been cleared off. Warnings that were given were completely ignored. And we know now from the benefit of hindsight that some policemen applied for amnesty for their involvement in the massacre.
And for its part the TRC’s findings were clear: “The commission finds that, in their approach to the prevention and investigation of political violence, the [South African Police] was biased in favour of Inkatha Freedom Party and that their failure to intervene in and to properly investigate such violence led to large numbers of gross violations of human rights and strengthened the prevailing culture of impunity. The SAP is accountable for the gross violations of human rights that resulted from their actions.”
So then, the so-called “black on black” violence as a theory to explain the massacre also could not be justified at all. The findings of the TRC put the blame squarely on the doors of the police. We might ask then, why until now the senior police officials and ministers who were in government then were never taken to task. Why was it only the foot soldiers who were held responsible. We know who they were. Most held high office in the days after 1994. Today they enjoy their lives in the lavish settings of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Waterkloof, Sandhurst and Sandton, clearly content with their contribution to history. The victims of the violence that they orchestrated, however, have passed their trauma to today’s generation. No doubt they will pass it on to their children as well. Without facing the past, is it really difficult to see why black society is broken?
And finally there is the theory that the violence was because of the conflict between hostel dwellers and the rest of the township residents. And here it is necessary to talk about hostels themselves. Hostels are a product of the racist economy stretching all the way from the discovery of gold in the Transvaal and diamonds in the Cape. The idea was to establish a migrant labour system that would have 14 no permanent relationship with the cities where they worked but it would understand its role in pure migrant terms. That concept of a migrant labour system continued to exist beyond the destruction of the colonial labour system into apartheid. A key product of the apartheid state was industrialisation. One of the industries that they focused on was steel. Steel was crucial to maintain the apartheid state. Indeed without it is difficult to conceive how the state could have become sustainable as an economic and viable entity. Their primary institution for manufacturing and selling of steel was Iscor. It had its primary operations in the Vaal. South Africa has always had labour challenges flowing from the necessity to accommodate people who come from the native reserves. Iscor faced the same challenges. The hostels in KwaMadala had a number of Iscor employees. And because of the crisis of unemployment that had hit the Vaal in the 1980s and the 1990s, contestation for jobs at Iscor was rife. According to a submission made by Iscor to the TRC, suggestions had been made to close down the hostel as early as 1990 owing to instances of violent conduct by hostel dwellers. But, it seems on the evidence that the preoccupation of Iscor was profits rather than the welfare of the community around which it operated and conducted its business. There are echoes of the migrant labour situation today. Marikana, which resulted in approximately the same number of deaths as Boipatong, faced the same challenge. Yet years after the Marikana killings the structure of a migrant economy is still intact in the mines.
The theory of a conflict between hostel dwellers and township residents was unreliable for another reason. From the inception of hostels, there was co-dependence with the township. A mutual co-existence if you like. And it was not as if people from the township did not work at Iscor. And so the explanation of a hostel versus township conflict proved utterly and completely unreliable.
That leaves two unexplored explanations. The first is to situate the Boipatong massacre in the grand political project of transition. At that stage, although Nelson Mandela and all the political prisoners had been released, there was a conservative group of whites with enormous influence within the state machinery, and in particular within the security forces, that resisted the possibility of change. The crisis of apartheid had resulted in an internal rupture within the apartheid state. FW de Klerk’s National Party was facing contestation from the Conservative Party. On 17 March 1992, De Klerk, however, had won a crucial victory against the CP. The whites-only referendum gave De Klerk an overwhelming mandate to negotiate towards a “peaceful” transition. Instability served the interests of the white fringe right-wing group opposed to the transition. And so the march towards freedom could not be resisted any longer, except through acts of terror such as the barbaric killing at Boipatong. The whites opposed to change from inside the state could no longer rely on the official institutions of the state. Indeed, there was intense international focus on the manner in which the state behaved. And so the strategy was to infiltrate African communities.
This of course is not to deny any pre-existing internal tribal tensions. But it is to recognise that absent the particular force of state power, those internal tribal conflicts could not possibly have produced the massacre. Indeed, if the state had played its role of maintaining law and order the massacre could have been avoided altogether. And so the key driver of the massacre was the state, first by not acting and later by fuelling, driving and masterminding the conflict.
But there is a further explanation. It is structural in nature. I want to postulate three strands of thought. The first is the culture of deprivation. The area of the Vaal, like many other areas in South Africa, are deeply deprived areas. That deprivation has taken many years to be entrenched leading to cycles of violence, cycles of crime and cycles of repression. Indeed, the establishment of manufacturing sites in the Vaal was never intended to alleviate the poverty in the area, but rather to strengthen the economic arm of apartheid. When one approaches a community where the culture of deprivation is endemic, it is not difficult to see how young people, otherwise raised in the ethos of honesty, can turn into savage killers. The second is a loss of humanity. There are structural explanations for that too. To avoid killing, one must first respect the human body, the human spirit and the human soul. If the respect for the human soul is erased, killing would have no morality, only a morale. Killing, then, becomes a job. Something to be done for revenge. As an exchange for money. Or for the sheer pleasure of witnessing the suffering of another. This is the loss of humanity. If we are to honour the dead in Boipatong, we should start by respecting humanity first.
I must end then, where I began. On memory. If we forget about Boipatong, we might as well forget about ourselves. Indeed, Boipatong was the moment when it became clear that freedom would come in our lifetime. If the process towards negotiations was stopped, South Africa would be burnt into ashes, from within. Boipatong was, in this way, the central pivotal event in the transition to democracy, reminding us why freedom is urgent to avoid another massacre. As a result of the massacre Mandela suspended the ANC’s participation in the Codesa negotiations, insisting that a date for the election had to be set first. These negotiations resumed only after the National Party government committed to the date of 27 April 1994 as the date that would mark the end of white political rule.
In this sense then the deaths were not in vain. To use Okri’s striking metaphor, there is no shame in the deaths of Boipatong. We should remember the dead. Not as statistics. But as people, who like us, had dreams. Dreams for freedom for their country. We must remember the dead from Slovo Park squatter camp. It was left to an artist, not a professor or a politician, to put a human face to the so-called “squatters” of Boipatong. In the song Boipatong, Brenda Fassie’s lyrics are evocative: “These are the people that have no food, no shelter and nowhere to go. oh no. They set up homes wherever they go but it’s not easy. Oh no. They call them squatters.”
It was also Brenda who called out the duplicity and hypocrisy of the police. Also it explained the irony of the police. Also in song. Wearing a tie, but brutally killing babies and old people. For this, she could sing “Oh Boipatong, we give you hope and sympathy. Oh Boipatong, may your love at once rest in peace.” The victims of Boipatong had aspirations. Not only for the nation, but for themselves. Their hopes for their own children. And if we respect humanity as a whole, we must also remember the killers. Don Mattera has reminded us that “memory is a weapon”. Remembering, then, is not to pass moral judgments. It is not to say others were good and the others were bad. It is to remember so that we know who we are. And memory can help us to know so that we can be better.
Tembeka Ngcukaitobi is a lawyer, public speaker, author and political activist. He is a member of the South African Law Reform Commission.