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The Bhisho Massacre:
the day 29 people died

Bhisho, the administrative capital of the Eastern Cape, was once the capital of the Ciskei, a so-called homeland of South Africa. It gave its name to a massacre that happened there on September 7 1992 when Ciskei strongman Oupa Gqozo's troops opened fire on an ANC march heading into the capital. Twenty-eight protesters and one soldier died. Hundreds of others were injured.

At that time, negotiations for South Africa's non-racial constitution had broken down amid accusations that the ruling National Party was fomenting "third force" violence in black townships. Another stumbling block was the refusal of Gqozo to participate in negotiations and undertake to give up the homeland's "independence". The meeting at the stadium in Bhisho was organised by the ANC to protest this, to demand free political activity and an end to state violence and repression in the Ciskei.

About 80 000 people - including Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa, Steve Tshwete and Harry Gwala - marched from King William's Town to Bhisho, chanting "no more slavery".

Disastrous miscalculation

Determined to peacefully occupy Bhisho and force Gqozo's resignation, Ronnie Kasrils, a stalwart of ANC protests, led a section of the marchers through a gap in the razor wire erected to contain them. In his autobiography Armed and Dangerous: My Undercover Struggle with Apartheid, Kasrils writes: "By not charging in their [soldiers] direction, by giving them a wide berth, we would avoid confrontation." The organisers and the demonstrators believed that with the eyes of the world on them, Gqozo's troops would not dare open fire.

But this was a disastrous miscalculation. Ciskei troops opened fire, ostensibly on the orders of Gqozo.

Recounting it later, Kasrils writes: "One moment I was running, my comrades with me. The next instant, without warning, the soldiers opened fire." Kasrils hit the ground, but bullets cut into the crowd following him. Petros Vantyu, his bodyguard, was one of those hit by the gunfire. "As I began to crawl towards him, the gunfire broke out again, as angry and prolonged as before, and I froze where I lay. The sinister whirr of projectiles overhead, followed by four dull thuds, made me realise with horror that they were firing grenades as well."

Deadlock breaker

An official investigation revealed that the first fusillade lasted one-and-a-half minutes, while the second lasted a minute. More than 425 rounds were fired. At the end, bodies lay scattered in pools of blood along the line of razor wire erected to contain the marchers.

Gqozo denied giving the order to fire. He accused ANC demonstrators of opening fire first, killing a soldier. He said his troops had acted with restraint. Then-president FW de Klerk said at the time that the massacre resulted from the ANC's failure to observe march conditions agreed with Ciskei authorities. "I did not start mass action, the ANC did. It is a fallacy, an unsubstantiated lie, that my government was involved," he said.

But Nelson Mandela differed with him. "The creation of a climate for free political activity, including in the homelands, is an important condition for us to return to the negotiating table. An enormous responsibility rests with the South African government to create that climate."

In the end, massacres in Bhisho and Boipatong, where 49 people were killed, acted as deadlock-breaking mechanisms. Key players in the negotiation process were forced to rethink their strategies and options. The spiral of violence gave way to the reopening of talks and South Africa once again resumed its journey towards democracy and freedom, which culminated in the country's first democratic elections in 1994.

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 What I remember

 
"It was just after 12 on one such hot, sunny day, when 80 000 of us came over the hill from King William's Town, saying 'no more slavery'. The police helicopter was high in the sky. Gqozo gave the order of the apartheid masters from that building [the present legislature] to open fire and our people's blood was spilled, blood that nourishes the tree of freedom."
- Ronnie Kasrils, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, in an address in 1999 during his first visit to Bhisho after the massacre

Read more about
Ronnie Kasrils
on the Polity site

 

 Visitor's info

Visit the site of the Bhisho Massacre

The memorial to the 28 people who died in the massacre is outside Independence Stadium, off Maitland Road between Bhisho and King William's Town. The monument was unveiled by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1997. The names of the victims have been engraved in white-on-black granite at the site and a cairn has been built. The victims of the massacre are buried in Ginsberg, a township outside King William's Town.

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