This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
The Bisho march and massacre: An assessment
SACP Central Committee member RAYMOND SUTTNER looks back
On the fateful day of September 7, I was one of over 100,000 people who marched on Bisho, "capital" of the Ciskei bantustan. From the early hours of the morning in minibuses and on foot marchers had been coming from all over the region to the Victoria Stadium in Kingwilliamstown. It was from there that we proceeded.
As a member of the ANC NEC detailed to do supportive work in the Border region, I had been asked by the Border ANC region to come down a few days earlier to help with preparations. I had also participated in the earlier Bisho march on August 4.
On this, the second Bisho march, I immediately sensed a different mood in the crowd. This time the marchers proceeded in a business-like manner. In the August march there had been a more joyful mood, with much toyitoying. This time the pace was fast, as if people were anxious to get the job done. All along theroute there was a heavy South African Police and South African Defence Force presence.
At the artificial border point between Ciskei and the rest of South Africa, razor wire had been erected, blocking the entrance to Bisho. I was with one group of marchers who proceeded towards the razor wire to negotiate with John Hall and Dr Antonie Gildenhuys of the National Peace Accord, with a view to proceeding further.
Another group, the larger body of the marchers, proceeded to the left of the wire towards the Ciskeian 'national' stadium. They were moving into the stadium and a group then immediately began moving through a gap in the fence, that had earlier been observed. They hoped to get through to the central business districts of Bisho and occupy them.
Unknown to any of us on the march, matters were about to take an ugly turn.
As the world now knows, it was at this point that the SADF-instructed Ciskei forces opened up with sustained fire, using hard-nosed am-munition, rifle-launched grenades and even machine guns on the unarmed crowd.
At least 33 people were killed and over 300 were wounded, many critically, with at least three being paralysed for life. The death-toll is probably higher. Relatives are still looking for some people who have not returned since the march. Their disappearance needs to be seen against the background of persistent rumours that the Ciskei authorities carried out hasty paupers' burials on the night of the massacre.
A cold-blooded ambush
Looking back over the events, remembering what we saw and what we have since learnt from numerous sources, we have been able to piece together evidence of a carefully planned, cold-blooded ambush.
The representations made on behalf of the ANC-led alliance to the Goldstone Commission on 24 September1992 deserve to be quoted at length:
"...Ciskei security forces were guarding buildings adjoining the road, and were also blocking the road behind the razor wire. The committee [of the Alliance, sent out to reconnoitre-RS] noted this and also noted conditions in the stadium. Ciskei defence force members were visible approximately 250 metres away to the right of the flattened fence, but to the left of the opening there appeared to be an unobstructed path through which the marchers could proceed if they chose to do so."
However, as the representation goes on to note, not all the soldiers were visible:
"An inspection after the massacre showed they must have been hiding behind shrubs intertwined with freshly cut branches and a mound of earth behind which there was a trench."1
Shortly after the marchers started to filethrough the fence, machine gun fire was directed at them and simultaneously on those of us who were approaching the razor wire.
"...As matters developed, the shooting started as the discussions [at the razor wire] were commencing.
"Shortly after the marchers had entered the stadium, an attempt was made by a group to get out of the stadium through the gap in the fence....
"A group of approximately 150 people moved out of the stadium and ran to their left away from the direction of the soldiers who were some 250 metres away, apparently guarding buildings. Members of the group were unarmed and it must have been apparent to the soldiers that their movement presented no threat to them or to any of the buildings that they were guarding.
"In fact, although this was not known to the group, there was another contingent of soldiers hiding behind trees, shrubs and other camouflage. As matters turned out, therefore, the group was running towards and not away from armed soldiers. The forefront of this group had hardly reached the dirt road running east to west...when the shooting started...
"When the front of the group that had proceeded through the gap in the fence was approximately 80 metres beyond the gap, the shooting started without any warning. At that time there was a large crowd in the stadium and an even larger crowd on the main road on the South African side of the razor wire barrier. The shooting was widespread and was directed at the people who had moved out of the stadium, some still coming in, people still seated on the grandstand and people on and alongside the main road, mainly on the South African side of the border, including leaders of the alliance and members of the National Peace Secretariat who were about to conduct negotiations across the razor wire.
"The shooting consisted of two sessions of automatic rifle fire. The first volley lasted for between one and two minutes and was followed by a second volley shortly afterwards, which lasted about a minute. During the rifle fire whistling sounds followed by explosions were heard near the stadium and the main road close to the razor wire. These explosions were caused by rifle grenades launched at the crowd. As is clearly indicated in the SAP video supplied to the Commission, four mini-craters were found where unarmed marchers were present and not anywhere near the Ciskei security forces."2
There had been no warning, nor had there been any firing from our side.
The full human dimension of the massacre still needs to be told. Some comrades showed considerable heroism during the attack. One security comrade threw his body over Comrade Cyril Ram aphosa, as a human shield. Marshals were killed or badly injured while helping others to take cover.
That night comrades held a vigil at the place of the massacre, youth toyi-toying up and down the road to keep themselves warm and also, turning grief into creativity, two new songs were composed. One of these goes:'Wena Gqozo sithi hayi-hayi.' [Gqozo, we say no more, no more.']
Some comrades had returned temporarily to Kingwilliamstown. When they tried to rejoin the group at the vigil they were stopped by SAP threats of police dogs and teargas. They re-turned to the stadium in Kingwilliamstown, where they waited till the next day.
On the day after the massacre, comrades were heartened by the arrival of Archbishop Tutu, and the reverends Chikane and Mgojo. The visit of ANC President Mandela to the place of the massacre and his speech at thesubsequent rally did much to raise the spirits. More than 30,000 packed the stadium to proclaim that Gqozo's fate is sealed. He will still be removed. The same message was reiterated on September 18, when over 100,000 people paid tribute to the first group of martyrs from this massacre buried in Kingwilliamstown.
Towards an evaluation of the massacre
The massacre at Bisho needs not just to be recorded. The organisational, strategic and tactical elements that went into its development, the state response to it, and the lessons that we should draw, all require careful and honest analysis.
In the first place, it is instructive to draw a comparison with that other horrific massacre of recent months, Boipatong. In my view, both Boipatong and Bisho need to be located within the regime's overall Low Intensity Warfare (LIW) strategy. The regime has, at the very least, been conniving in violence by allied proxy forces (the IFP at Boipatong, the CDF in Bisho). Over the last several months, after De Klerk had deliberately deadlocked CODESA 2, the strategy has been to turn our mass action campaign against us.
Pretoria's immediate reaction to the June 17 Boipatong massacre was to blame (!!) the deaths in this ANC-supporting squatter camp on our own mass action campaign, which we had launched just the day before.
But the sheer cynicism of this disinformation campaign rebounded badly on the De Klerk regime. Its knee-jerk and over-rehearsed propaganda was just too much to swallow in the face of the scale and horror of the massacre in which sleeping infants, children and women were killed; in which there were numerous indications of security force involvement, or, at the very least, as the Waddington Report was soon to note, of gross security force incompetence.
De Klerk learnt some lessons from the political disaster of his Boipatong campaign. He learnt some lessons... but he did not abandon his strategy.
After the Bisho massacre the same kind of disinformation campaign was unleashed. It was presented as "black on black" violence. The actual culprits, those who pulled the triggers were exonerated; and when this wore thin, then everything was done to ensure that the buck stopped with the CDF (as, in the case of Boipatong, with the Madala hostel-dwellers). Everything was done to obscure the involvement of the SADF and SAP. Once more, the central themes were repeated: "it is the mass action that causes the violence", "the mass action is designed to scupper negotiations."
But, of course, Bisho was also different from Boipatong. In the case of Boipatong the victims were caught in their beds and shacks. They were murdered in their sleep. Those who died at Bisho were victims, but they were active victims. They were killed directly in the course of mass action, as they brought their political power actively and deliberately to bear on the structures of the apartheid regime.
It was this difference that encouraged Pretoria into believing that what failed at Boipatong might just work at Bisho. And to some extent the gamble worked, at least within South Africa where a wide range of "middle ground" forces fell in with and even propagated with relish Pretoria's line3.
The international community, to its credit, clearly and unambiguously took a different stand. UK's Douglas Hurd, the Bush administration, and the German and Australian government's all placed ultimate responsibility for the massacre fairly and squarely on the South African government.
But if the actual character of the Bisho massacre was different from Boipatong in one significant way, so too was the propagandacampaign. Shrill anti-communism is, of course, a constant theme in the regime's anti-democratic propaganda. But there are periods when the volume is turned up, when there is a concerted and focused anti-communist propaganda offensive.
This was the significant propaganda twist that was added to Bisho. Of course, there will be those who will argue that this twist was supplied simply because a number of well-known communists were prominent in the Bisho march, and because cde Ronnie Kasrils (who happens to be ANC national campaigns organiser - but also a leading SACP member) led the break-out from the stadium. All of this certainly added fuel to the fire. But, in fact, the anti-communist twist to the propaganda was in place a good 24 hours before the march took place - see the front-page of Rapport on September 6.
REASONS FOR THE MARCH
Why the march, why the crisis in the Ciskei?
Much of the media commentary, like the NP's interventions, has portrayed the Bisho massacre as an isolated incident. This obscures the fact that the massacre was an extreme manifestation of ongoing repression in the Ciskei. This repression is not merely some generalised consequence of the bantustan system. The administration of Oupa Gqozo, which replaced that of Sebe in 1990, is a particularly vicious administration. It has been, and is still involved in continual atrocities and murders throughout Ciskei.
The crisis in the Ciskei and the inability of De Klerk to resolve it peacefully, is itself a manifestation of a deeper political bankruptcy of the apartheid regime. It shows the apartheid regime's incapacity to build allies whose existence is not dependent on flagrant and wide-spread violation of human rights.
For a brief period at the beginning of his rule, and ironically Gqozo came to power on the crest of widespread anti-Sebe mass action, there were harmonious relations between the Gqozo administration and the ANC. But since this brief honeymoon, the period of Gqozo's rule has been characterised by massive violence against communities; the de facto banning of the ANC and all political activity by the organisation; and the reimposition of unpopular pseudo-tribal structures.
Without any attempt at an exhaustive presentation, a few salient issues need to be noted:
"Ciskei security forces, including the Ciskei Defence Force under the control of Brigadier Marius Oelschig, the Ciskei police under the control of General JJ Viktor [formerly of Vlakplaas and implicated in CCB activities-RS], and military intelligence under the control of Colonel Ockert Swanepoel, have been the central component in fomenting of the ...situation of violence, and they have aided other forces such as the ADM [African Democratic Movement a paper organisation, waiting in concealed ambush formation in front of the hole in the fence, set up in the wake of Gqozo's to ensure they were able to shoot directly at the breakaway group. increasing unpopularity, on the model of Inkatha - RS] and headmen in pursuing acts of violence and intimidation against ANC members. In these actions they themselves have been guided by other forces. The ANC submits to this conference that the activities of the Ciskei security forces are orchestrated by members of the South African Defettce Force, who have directed and even controlled the current Ciskei regime from its inception."4
SADF control has increased rather than diminished with Gqozo 's growing isolation. This control has reached into the cabinet itself. Gqozo has dismissed a total of 23 cabinet ministers. This has left the administration almost entirely in the hands of seconded and ex-South African government officials.
The implementation of low intensity war-fare in the Ciskei region has been easier to conceal than in a place like the Reef. There is only one major daily newspaper in the area and very few correspondents for other media. Much of the area where atrocities are perpetrated is rural. The scale of the terror perpetrated in this region has consequently not received adequate attention.
"It is evident that a systematic policy to prevent the ANC from operating legally in Ciskei is being pursued by the Ciskei administration and security. forces. The chief magistrate in Alice, Mr Mxesibe, has informed us that magistrates throughout Ciskei have been given instructions to refuse permits for any march. This was confirmed by the Middledrift magistrate who said that he had received documentation to this effect. In the last month a number of marches and rallies which were planned as peaceful demonstrations have been forcefully broken up..."5
"There is a concerted campaign of harassment, intimidation and what can only be referred to as state terrorism, waged by the Ciskei security forces, in conjunction with headmen and ADM members."
Specific Ciskeian security legislation has been used to enforce the denial of free political activity, even though it has been declared by the courts to be contrary to the Ciskei's own Bill of Rights.6
The scale of violence perpetrated by theCiskeian security forces has been increasing in proportion to Gqozo's rapidly increasing unpopularity. There is hardly a village or town that has not experienced killings, assaults, teargassing and the regular presence of security forces.
It is clear that hit squads are operating on an extensive scale. Residents of various areas, such as Komga, have reported the presence of Zulu-speaking and other non-Xhosa speaking people staying in camps in the vicinity. When enquiries were made to the authorities, these people were removed from the area.7
In most cases those installed as headmen were former Sebe officials associated with oppression as well as graft.8 Many were imposed without any democratic process whatsoever, against the clear opposition of the people.
Not only were these headmen intended to replace local community structures, but it was made compulsory for people to go via the headmen for all dealings with the Ciskeian administration, for example, in regard to pensions, disability grants, death certificates, and matters of concern to business-people.
The reimposition of the headman system was not merely a retrogressive step aimed to re-establish what the Gqozo coup purported to sweep away with the previous Sebe administration, but manifested a clear invasion of free political activity.
Secondly, the maintenance of the headman system has been at gunpoint and has led to continual conflict and harassment of our people.
Unfortunately, du Preez only presents part of the problem. In the first place, the Ciskei administration, like that of Bophuthatswana, has not unequivocally accepted reincorporation at Codesa. While paying lip-service to reincorporation, De Klerk's negotiators were happy to let the obduracy of Ciskei and Bophuthatswana remain a stumbling block in the negotiations. The assumption, therefore, of some plain sailing, negotiated reincorporation is a myth.
This argument leaves aside the additional question which is obviously more pressing for people in the region, that they might well be killed before a year is over, even assuming that du Preez's "be patient" projections are correct.
ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE MARCH
The march on Bisho was a response to a crisis in people's lives, resulting from the violence of the Gqozo administration. But it was also a major organisational achievement to harness and mobilise the popular anger, through various local structures.
The march on Bisho was an achievement in terms of the functioning of the tripartite alliance at a regional level. The alliance also worked well with the South African National Civic Organisation, other community organisations and the churches. In this respect, important work has been done towards the re-establishment of the broad democratic front of forces that constituted the Mass Democratic Movement prior to February 1990.
A significant factor that is overlooked by many outside observers is that the Gqozo ad-ministration was regarded as an obstacle to peace not only by the broad democratic forces, but also by business interests in the region, who at the very least acquiesced in attempts to get rid of Ggozo.10
The march of September 7 was preceded by mobilisation of the whole region, visits by regional and national leaders to villages in all corners of the region, as well as to factories. There was no need to whip up emotions. The people themselves, young and old, men and women, all had a clear demand: Gqozo had to go. In abstract political terms this was a call for freedom of political activity - but in a practical sense the eviction of Gqozo meant the same thing.
The march on Bisho can be seen as a high point in the campaign of mass political activity, the re-linking of the masses with the ANC leadership. The people of the region and the organisation responded to their anguish by declaring the march on Bisho a national campaign. This won us much support.
The march on Bisho, whatever its tragic consequences, has forced the whole question of the bantustans high up onto the agenda. While paying lip-service to a united South Africa, De Klerk has been happy to let this sore fester on. He will now no longer be able to twiddle his thumbs on this burning issue. Lack of progress to bring freedom of political activity and reincorporation might seem like an abstract constitutional issue at the World Trade Centre, but for the people living in Ciskei, KwaZulu, QwaQwa and Bophuthatswana it is-a real crisis. Despite all the disinformation and counter-propaganda, the Bisho march has underlined that.
Strategic and tactical Issues In relation to the march
The initiative for the march against the Gqozo administration came from the people living under that administration. These included people living in Bisho itself, who on the night before the march were singing within hearing of the 'head of state': 'UGqozo uyayishiya lendawo' [Gqozo is leaving this place/vacating his seat of power.]
But it may and must be asked whether the decision to make this a national campaign resulted in appropriate and thorough strategic and tactical planning.
The alliance correctly identified the question of freedom of political activity in the Ciskei, with a march on Bisho, as a national campaign. But was it really treated as a national campaign? What does it mean to treat it as a national and not merely a regional one? To what extent did national structures of the entire alliance assist in this campaign? At the very least one can argue that there was very little propaganda in support of this campaign at a national and international level. At the level of personnel, could there not have been greater national support?
The timing of the march may have contributed to this, and the date may have been too early. Consultations between the Border alliance and some leaders from the national level led to the selection of September 7 because it coincided with the day of De Klerk's conference on federalism. Was this an adequate reason for choosing that date?
It has been remarked that a key factor that should have been taken into account in deciding on the date was when the UN monitors would be deployed (in the event they only arrived after the march). Whether their presence, however desirable, would have deterreda massacre is open to question.
But one should ask whether the failure to make this a truly national and international campaign was partly a result of the rush in preparation. It occurred just over a month after the previous march on Bisho. Very little time was left to approach other regions to send contingents, although contingents did come from immediately neighbouring regions. Very little time was allowed for supportive actions, such as occupation of Ciskeian consulates, etc.
Possibly related to the rush, but an independent point of criticism, is that there was no clarity as to the objective of the campaign. Nor was there clarity as to the strategy and tactics to be employed to realise this objective.
Sometimes we spoke of the campaign as being for free political activity. But how was that to be achieved? The Border region's letter to De Klerk immediately prior to the march places the onus on him to remove Gqozo. What would we have done had De Klerk ignored our demands, while we occupied Bisho?
But a lot of our statements suggested that we would occupy Bisho and thereby remove Gqozo. That seemed to be the understanding of a lot of activists and leadership of the alliance - at every level. And this was expected to set in train a domino effect with Mangope next and Buthelezi following. This was stated by a number of leaders.
Freedom of political activity or the removal of Gqozo required a strategy, a series of planned actions aimed at realising our objectives. This had not been clearly elaborated. We were not clear what we would do in Bisho. There was talk of a people's assembly. There was also an expectation that sections of the security forces and civil service would join us. Would we then have removed Gqozo? What would we have done then?
Even on the day before the march these questions had not been answered nor was there real debate.
We had raised the temperature in the country, we had put De Klerk under pressure, we had suggested that he would have to choose between his puppet falling, followed by others, or drown our peaceful action in blood. We underestimated his willingness to choose blood-shed. We underestimated the bankruptcy of the regime, its limited political choices and in so doing we committed a very costly error.
Should we have listened to the Democratic Party which warned that the march would provoke bloodshed? I prefer to answer this question from another angle. What the DP was trying to do was carve out for itself a place in the "middle ground" through attacking mass action. Unwittingly, this played into the hands of the generals in Pretoria who read their statements to mean: "Do your damnedest, after the event we'll point fingers at the ANC-alliance and not at you." Our error was not that we failed to listen to the DP. Our error was that we underestimated the impact of their opportunism on Pretoria's low intensity warfare strategists.
We were encouraged in these errors because we based ourselves partly on the experience of the August march, where brinkmanship led to negotiations, which in turn led to a retreat on the other side. In the course of the August march we had to consider the possibility of our retreating rather than being mowed down. On the second march we never even got the chance to talk.
But had we had better intelligence perhaps we could have foreseen the unfolding of events. It is now clear that journalists had information for two days before the event that pointed to preparations for a massacre. It is clear that journalists knew much about the deployment of forces that we ought to have known.
This was not secret information obtainable only through conspiratorial methods, but information available through using normal press contacts.
We had very good intelligence on troop movements and political tendencies within the armed forces for some weeks leading up to the massacre, but in the last days when Pretoria appears to have stepped in on a large scale, we seem to have lost track of what was happening. This was not merely because Pretoria stepped in more boldly. It was because our national intelligence was not being deployed in the campaign. It did not have connections with ordinary journalists that could have provided the type of information needed for us to make adequate decisions. A campaign, whose success depended on adequate intelligence, did not appear to involve ANC national intelligence at all.
If some of our planning was inadequate, in other respects it was over-elaborate. Despite all our experience of mass marches, in some of our planning we forgot that a crowd of some 100,000 on a mass march cannot be manoeuvred like a highly mobile army unit.
The march set off with a plan to divide into two columns. As it proceeded this did not seem possible. The marshals were having great difficulty controlling the massive numbers in any case.
A group sent ahead to reconnoitre reported that there was a gap in the fence of the Bisho stadium through which it would be possible to move towards the central business district of Bisho, with a view to occupying it. A strategising committee, established by the Border alliance, supplemented by national leaders, took the decision to go through the gap. The decision was taken after very brief consideration. It was taken without the type of information that was available to people other than those who took the decision. It was taken in good faith - but it was a serious error. It led us straight into a well prepared ambush.
As with Boipatong, the regime immediately tried to lie its way out of trouble. ANC people were alleged to have shot first, but there were too many journalists present, who themselves came under fire, along with the National Peace Accord representatives, for that account to hold.
But in the heat of the moment and in subsequent days, some of our statements fed into the counter-attack that was to have most effect. Some of our statements created an impression of taking casualties lightly, of a willingness to use force recklessly, of a willingness to dispense with negotiations.
The weakness of this counter-attack is that it ignores one simple fact - the people, who, for writers like Slabbert, are merely a troublesome element periodically intruding to prevent deals being struck.
Unfortunately for Slabbert, the people of theBorder region and others suffering underapartheid throughout the country are not prepared to be passive spectators. They have an interest in the type of settlement that is reached in this country and they intend to influence that process.
The willingness of communists to associate themselves with mass action is depicted as an attempt to sabotage what is called a 'successful transition to democracy'. It is precisely because of a commitment to democracy that the ANC and the SACP must continue, unashamedly, to link themselves with the most downtrodden, help empower them, help them to feel that the new South Africa in the making is primarily made by their own power.
It is crucial, in our pursuit of free political activity in the bantustans and the country in general, that we draw proper lessons from the Bisho massacre and do not repeat any of our errors.
In the face of the current onslaught against the SACP and mass action, it is essential that the alliance as a whole follows the example of our Border comrades. Their answer is to strengthen the alliance through continued unity in action. Not only must it be strengthened, but it must be broadened and the unity of all democratic organisations must be built and consolidated.
We need to ensure that the gains of the Ciskei campaign are not lost, that we continue to consolidate and deepen the links forged on the ground in that region and through mass action throughout the country. We also need, in regard to the bantustans, to use the results of this campaign to ensure that the .question of free political activity remains high on the political agenda
There is no doubt that the frankness of this evaluation will be grasped at by some enemies of the SACP. That is the risk we take in drawing lessons for ourselves. We have to do this if we are to remain true to the essentially humanistic quality of our beliefs.
We must expect the attacks on the Party to increase. Bisho is merely an episode in that regard. While we did make errors, the reason for the attacks on us are not so much these errors, but what is considered to be our real crime - that we continue to stand with the people.
The De Kierk regime needs to understandthat this will remain a fact of South African life. We are not going to abandon the people who live in the little villages whose names do not even appear on Pretoria's maps.
We shall honour the memory of those who died in Bisho, those who died to end the violence of Gqozo.
We shall do this best by harnessing the power of the people - throughout the country - to hasten the demise of all the crooks and murderers, of the central government and its host of little tyrants.
1. Representations on behalf of the ANC, SACP and COSATU for the Goldstone Commission of Inquiry into the Bisho Massacre, 23 September 1992, p.18.
2. Ibid. pp.19-21.
3. Many South African newspapers fell into line with this theme. See, for example, the following newspapers immediately after the massacre: Sunday Times, Sunday Star, Sunday Tribune, Rapport, Vrye Weekblad (through its editor Max du Preez and an interview with van Zyl Slabbert), Sowetan, Cape Times, and Business Day. It is interesting to note that the political commentaries written in various editorial offices often gave a very different political slant to that given by their reporters on the ground in Bisho.
4. See ANC submission on the nature and causes of violence in Ciskei, and proposals for the resolution of violence and the creation of a climate for free political activity, September 4, 1992, p.2.
5. Ibid., pp.1-2. The document goes on to list various examples.
6. Ibid., p.1.
7. Office of the Secretary General. Background to the Bisho Massacre. Briefing Document, ANC Department of Information and Publicity, September 8 1992, p.2.
8. ANC submission, p.6.
9. Vrye Weekblad, September 11, 1992.
10. Comrade 'Soks' Sokupa, president of the ANC Border region, remarks in an interview in the forthcoming October issue of Mayibuye: "At the Border Peace Conference in July last year, a whole number of organisations came together, including business and churches. This started a broad campaign. The political statement that came out of the conference was that Gqozo and the Ciskei administration are stumbling blocks to free political activity."