Untangling a web of conflict
Guguletu Township, South Africa
If you don't know where to look, or why, there is nothing especially memorable these days about the northwestern edge of this black ghetto, a few miles from Cape Town Airport. With majestic Table Mountain lurking on the horizon, a dozen boys play soccer on a grassy field. But the goalkeeper remembers.
He was getting ready for school on March 3, 1986 when he heard gunfire: the opening shots in what would become one of the bloodiest, and most controversial, battles between South African police and black urban activists. ``When it was over, I went to look,'' he says. ``I did not know any of the dead men, but it didn't matter. These were my brothers! I felt an anger in my stomach. As I watched the police, I wished that we blacks had more guns.''
Riot-squad warrant officer H.J. Barnard, whose bullets felled two of the seven black men killed that day, also remembers. ``My job is to protect people who cannot protect themselves - not only whites, but blacks,'' he says, rolling up a shirtsleeve to display shrapnel wounds from a recent grenade attack on his car. ``Of course, the radicals don't like me! But what about the ordinary blacks? Where would they be if we simply left them at the radicals' mercy?
``I know in my heart if I hadn't shot those two guys, they would have killed me.... And in a situation like that, there is not exactly time to ask questions.''
Controversy surrounds shootout
Yet, within minutes of the battle, questions abounded. A Monitor probe into the clash - to look at the web of fear and pain and anger on all sides in the South African conflict - has served to stir as many questions as it answers.
Controversy about the incident began with official statements that police had killed seven ``trained terrorists'' of the outlawed African National Congress - in self-defense, in the heat of a shootout.
Several of the victims' parents denied their sons were ANC men. Witnesses at a workers hostel, yards from the battle, told a local newspaper that police had shot one of the victims on the ground, in cold blood. Another, according to the witness claims, was shot in the head after trying to surrender. Tian van der Merwe, an opposition parliamentarian, pressed Pretoria to say whether police acted improperly.
The government held firm. It told Mr. Van der Merwe it would not submit to his ``cross-examination.'' It rejected the witness allegations printed by the local daily, the Cape Times. It moved to prosecute a Times' editor for alleged misreporting: The trial is now under way.
But the government did hold a court inquest, routine for cases of unnatural death, into the shootings. Its report - made public, unnoticed by the news media a few months ago - includes new details about the manner in which some of the youth were shot. This information - supplemented by interviews with police, families, and friends of the victims, and other sources - offers a more nuanced picture of what happened and why. Among key aspects are that:
At least some of the black youths involved were armed, determined government foes, both police and witnesses suggest.
The key Cape Times witness, reinterviewed in the ground-floor hostel room from which he says he saw the tail end of the clash, stands by his account that one of the black youths was thrown to the ground, alive, by policemen and then was shot - in apparent response to an order to do so.
A second witness, a schoolmistress who came forward later and spoke to Van der Merwe, but has requested anonymity, says she saw police fire into the head of another youth lying on the ground.
Autopsies included in the inquest report, interpreted with the help of experts involved in the postmortems, reveal that one of the youths was killed by two pistol shots in the back of the head. Three others sustained almost identical wounds, as well as a variety of other gunshots. The wounds in these cases could be read, if one dismisses the witness's claim that one of the shots into the head was fired at a youth already on the ground, as consistent with the official account.
The autopsies also show, however, that a fifth youth was hit with a shotgun blast fired at very close range into the side of his head. The other two youths appear to have been shot just below the chest while lying face up on the ground.
Policemen interviewed by the Monitor say it is unfair to pick through such details in recollected tranquility. They maintain any reconstruction cannot help but understate the pressures on security forces in battle against armed youths determined not only to kill policemen, but to overthrow South Africa's political order.
One officer at the scene - who, witnesses suggest, fired only in self-defense after one of the youths tossed a grenade at him - is Johan Kleyn. Told of the autopsy findings, he replied that he hopes that, if there were police excesses, they must be accounted for and punished.
But, he adds, ``You must realize: It was a small war that day. Firing in all directions. In any war, I guess, there must be a winner and a loser.''
Van der Merwe says he is more concerned with the long-range implications of the controversy. ``I see no use in going on a witch hunt against individual policemen,'' he says. ``I do not expect policemen to risk their lives unnecessarily in such a situation.
``But if there is brutality and it is allowed to go unchecked - if the government allows or ignores possible excesses - you open an incredible mess, where you must expect the other side to act in the same way. You create an atmosphere in which the good, disciplined policeman cannot function.... You squeeze decent [black] people between a government without sympathy, and an increasingly violent township leadership.''
The `Battle of Guguletu'
The Battle of Guguletu began 15 months ago. The Cape area, and 20 other judicial districts, were under a state of emergency. There was a rumbling sense among some of the youths who dominated township politics - self-proclaimed ``comrades'' - that after years of intermittent black protest, ``liberation'' might finally be near.
Guguletu, recalls Irene Mxinwa, the mother of one of the youths who died in the shootout, was ``a confusing place'' back then. Like dozens of black townships countrywide, it was a place where few youngsters could hope for steady jobs. Many worked part time in white areas. Others loitered, talked, seethed.
They were, in a sense, at war with the men who ruled them. Yet that war, too, divided blacks from one another.
Older people, like Mrs. Mxinwa, still lived pretty much as always. ``I came to the Cape as a youngster. I went to a mission school, where I learned English - and Latin!'' At the time of the shooting - as now - her main interest was to make a living as a once-a-week maid in a white area some 10 miles away.
``The youngsters were different; they are different, Mrs. Mxinwa says. ``I remember they used to come to our houses and say you must not pay your rent, and threaten petrol bombs and the like. Who were these people, the ones in charge? We could never be sure. You couldn't go talk to them.''
The mother of Zenith Mjobo, another of the youths, recalls, ``I never really knew my son, saw inside him. The young people didn't talk to their parents about such things.'' She knew only that he was involved in politics, and that he had just left his job for fear of arrest.
In late February of last year, police informers turned up plans by township youths to mount an unprecedently audacious strike at white authority - an ambush on the police mini-bus that brings desk officers and clerks to Guguletu police station each morning at 7:15 a.m.
``These weren't armed officers who would be attacked,'' says officer Barnard, a lifelong policeman who began work in mixed-race ``Colored'' areas of the Cape during the political unrest following the black student uprising of Soweto in 1976. Complaining that newspapers often portray South Africa as a place where bloodthirsty police kill innocent blacks, he adds, ``How do you think my family - my wife and three daughters - feel when they read in the newspaper that I'm some kind of killer? I, for one, ignore such things. I do my job.''
On March 3, police set up a counter-ambush. ``We weren't going in looking for specific names and faces,'' recalls Captain Kleyn, a murder and robbery investigator assigned to the Guguletu team with orders to follow the ambushers should they pile into a getaway vehicle. ``That's the terrible aspect of this conflict. We are, of necessity, often a step behind - hoping only to get people after they've carried out an attack.''
The counter-ambush went wrong. As policemen waited in unmarked cars or in the overgrowth, the staff bus rolled by on schedule - unmolested. As the police squad prepared to disperse, however, Kleyn noticed several youths who seemed suspicious. When he challenged them, one hurled a grenade. Diving for cover, he fired. The area became engulfed in gunfire.
The black youths, say witnesses at Dairy Belle Hostel, fired at the police - wounding Kleyn's partner with a ricochet. The police - better positioned, staffed, armed, and trained - loosed dozens of rounds of fire. Within minutes, it was virtually over. The autopsies show five of the victims were peppered with bullet wounds; one victim sustained more than three dozen.
It was in an unkempt field some 15 yards away, however, that the other three youths appear to have died. One was the man whom dairyworker G. Ngubesisa Sibaca says he saw wrestled to the ground. ``I was getting ready to go to work,'' says Mr. Sibaca, a migrant worker from a tribal homeland who has worked for Diary Belle for five years. Motioning through his window as he recreates the scene, he says he saw two black men running, firing over their shoulders, into an overgrown bush area at the edge of the field. Ducking after one shot crashed through an adjacent window, Sibaca got up to see police stopping a third black man only several yards away.
``He put his hands up.... Then a policeman grabbed him from behind. Another policeman took a pistol from the man's belt. They threw him to the ground. He was lying on his back. Another policeman shouted, `Skiet hom!''' - Afrikaans for ``shoot him.'' Three shots were fired into the prone man, Sibaca says.
His testimony was given to the police and, by affidavit, to the inquest. The presiding judge weighed it. In the end, he dismissed it, saying none of the autopsies showed three chest wounds.
In fact, the relevant one did show an entry wound - a few inches below the chest - running ``upward and backward,'' in what a source involved in the post-mortems says privately is a sign the victim was shot face-up on the ground. Contacted for comment, the magistrates' court said the presiding judge had since retired, and South African law barred his discussing the inquest anyway.
The two other blacks fleeing into the bush were pursued by two policemen, and killed there. ``We were running after them because it was clear they were going to escape,'' says one of the policemen. ``We got within six or seven meters,'' he told the Monitor, echoing a sworn affidavit to the inquest.
``One of them had a grenade. It was me or him, and I shot him. The second drew a pistol, and I also fired and killed him.''
Then, he was asked to comment on an autopsy report suggesting the man was shot at close range in the head - the felt wadding from the shot-gun bullet had entered the wound. He replied, ``You know, when you're running after a man during a shootout, you don't always realize precisely how close you are. Maybe it was closer. I remember I was about to catch up with him.''
Speaking generally, police spokesman Col. Steve van Rooyen said, ``We go to great lengths to use the absolute minimum of force. But when someone throws a grenade, when it is a life or death situation, circumstances may force you to have to cut out some of the textbook steps. Remember, these were armed terrorists.''
`Trained terrorists' or restive youths?
The youths, or some of them, were armed and dangerous. Were they ``terrorists?'' Were they ANC men?
Col. Jac Buchner, a top police expert on the ANC, says official investigation leaves no doubt that this was the case. He says, only, that it remains unclear precisely where some of them received their ANC training. Capsule biographies on the youths prepared after the shootout by Colonel Buchner's Cape counterparts, listed specific acts of violence in which they allegedly participated.
Interviews with the youths' families and neighbors paint a murkier picture, reflecting the complex currents of township poverty, and politics, so often reduced by daily newspapers to a single word - ``unrest.'' Neighbors of Mr. Mjobo, the one victim not from the Guguletu area, do remember him as a ``comrade.'' He was involved, one friend says, ``in the struggle.''
Another youth, Christopher Piet, struck friends as much less overtly political. His first love was Rasta music. But the Rasta culture, in black townships, does sometimes carry black-nationalist overtones.
A spokesman for the youth's longtime employer, a bread factory in a nearby white area, says that after many months of work as a delivery boy for the firm, Mr. Piet suddenly ``went missing'' from the job twice, for several months, in March and September of 1985. It was then, according to the biographies of the youths presented at the inquest, that Piet underwent a ``crash course'' in weapons use at ANC facilities in Botswana and Lesotho. His mother angrily denies this.
A third black involved in the shootout, Jabulani Miya, was also a Rasta devotee, though independent evidence of political involvement could not be found.
One case in which such involvement seems, on the surface at least, unlikely was that of Mrs. Mxinwa's 23-year-old son, Simon. According to the police biography, he had undergone an ANC crash course in weapons, and was involved in a variety of violent attacks.
But his mother, insists he was a ``slow'' child. In fact, according to a woman who treated him off and on for five years at a mental-health facility, ``He would hear voices; hallucinate.'' Did he sometimes turn violent? ``Absolutely not,'' she replies. ``He would withdraw into himself. He was quiet, remote.'' Interestingly, his only fervent, occasional interest was Rasta music.
And politics? ``Absurd,'' says the physician. ``He was a simple boy. He was incapable of grasping such issues as politics, much less becoming a `trained terrorist.' All I can imagine is that he may have fallen into something he didn't understand.''
His mother says her son had been acting strange for several days before the shootout. The night before he died, he went missing. She never saw him again.
Anger and grief in the townships
Mrs. Miya did see her son that last morning. ``Jabu came to me around 4:30, because he knew that was when I woke up to go to my work in Cape Town, as a maid. He said he wanted to go look for a job and he asked for bus fare.'' Sobbing, she says: ``I had five rands. So I gave him half of it.... The next thing I knew was when I turned on the evening news, and found out he was dead!''
Mrs. Piet watched the same newscast. ``The shock, and the hurt,'' she says, ``will be with me always.''
Yet for her and the other parents, the later inquest was almost as painful. Mxinwa says, ``I am a poor woman.... I live with six of my children in a three-room house. I am not saying the police were wrong - or right. How can I know? All I wanted was a little money, to help with the funeral.''
Miya is angrier. ``The way the inquest was done - it was as if these people were saying, `The dogs are already dead. There is nothing more to decide.'''
Piet's mother, a faith-healer and lay minister at a Guguletu Presbyterian church, says the worst thing of all was a ``sense of helplessness. We feel there is no one to turn to. I am a deeply Christian woman, and I accept God's ways. But I can never be at peace with what happened - this was not God's work. Never.''
The woman who treated Mxinwa's son says, ``Even if Simon did get involved, I say that those who killed that boy are mad.'' She adds, ``In a community like ours, whether we are `political' or not, we cannot forget these things. It does not bring peace. It makes us angrier.''
In Mbekweni township, east of Guguletu, children chat, play, loiter outside the house where Mjobo, nicknamed ``Semi,'' lived. They are not, says one, planning violence. They no longer sense that liberation, as township talk once had it, is around the corner.
``But we have T-shirts with Semi's name on them here. For us, he was a hero. We see him as part of a struggle, a long struggle. But we know we will win. When we do, we will try to punish the people who killed him. We must not punish too much, but enough.''
Captain Kleyn still hopes - believes - that none of his colleagues was guilty of wrongdoing. But the bitterness the battle has left behind worries and saddens him. And if, he says, there were police transgressions, ``it is important that those responsible be punished.... That is the only solution. The police's role is to protect the public. By punishing wrongdoing where we see it, the public will see that we are fulfilling that role.''
This report was written in conformity with South Africa's press restrictions.