Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Massacre Shows How Crime Complicates S. Africa's Transition

ALL that remained at the scene of the massacre of Sebokeng when dawn broke Saturday was a large pile of shoes and pools of blood. Some 85 people were gunned down as they began to sing songs of mourning at the home of a slain activist of the African National Congress (ANC). At least 35 people died in the attack, and more than 50 were wounded. It was the worst single incident of the intrablack violence that has turned the townships around Johannesburg into places of fear and hatred.

Since the ANC signed an accord with the government last August, whereby it agreed to suspend its 29-year-old ``armed struggle,'' political violence has claimed more than 1,500 lives.

About these ads

The violence has taken the form of a power struggle between ANC supporters and members of the Zulu-based Inkatha movement of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi. But the massacre early Saturday revealed a more complex tale of manipulation of criminal gangs that operate in the shadow of political violence.

Eyewitnesses and family relatives reconstructed the massacre and the sequence of events that led up to it.

At about 2 a.m. Saturday, unknown gunmen cruised past the house of Rachel Ncube where some 300 mourners were holding an all-night vigil for ANC activist Christoffel Nangelembe. They opened fire with AK-47 rifles and threw grenades as the crowd huddled beneath a temporary awning. Piercing screams punctuated brief silences between relentless gunfire.

``We were preparing to bury Christoffel,'' said a dazed Mrs. Ncube. ``Now we have many more to bury.''

WHEN this reporter arrived at the Ncube home at noon Saturday, palls of smoke rose from six houses in the neighborhood that were torched by an angry crowd seeking revenge against suspected perpetrators. Security forces abandoned attempts to stop the crowd of several thousand people marching through the township's dusty streets.

Mandla Nangelembe related the events that led first to his brother Christoffel's death and later to the massacre. He said his brother was a member of the ANC Youth League and the local civic association that controlled ``street committees'' working for political mobilization and discipline. Several weeks ago Christoffel had come up against a gang of youths stealing automobiles in the township. Then on Jan. 5 he was kidnapped.

His brother says he traced the captors and found they were the same youths that had been stealing autos. He asked the police to help find his brother and gave them details of the house where the gang members lived. Police refused on the grounds that it was too dangerous. The following day, after more appeals to the police, Nangelembe's body was found several miles away.

About these ads

Mandla Nangelembe said the gang had indirectly threatened to attack the funeral vigil. But the community decided to go ahead after offers of protection from ANC youth and residents.

A former member of the gang told the Sunday Star newspaper that after clashes with the ANC-aligned street committee, the two sides had reached truce. But the gang had then split. Those opposed to the truce had been approached by an Inkatha member who said that Inkatha would ``deal with'' the ANC youth.

It is not clear whether the massacre was carried out by gang members or Inkatha members, or both, or whether there was collaboration between elements in the police and the gangs. But Mr. Nangelembe says there are ``large question marks'' about police conduct in responding to warnings about gang members. ``Most of the people here have lost trust in the police,'' he says.

Two weeks ago police launched a crime prevention campaign that included cash rewards for the handing in of AK-47's and other weapons used by warring factions. The ANC has condemned the police campaign as a bid to disarm members of the ANC's military wing. ANC leader Walter Sisulu said Saturday that the ANC was concerned that the police were providers of the AK-47's widely used by criminal gangs.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.