Afraid of the dark
March 28 1994 was a beautiful day: crisp, sunny and not a cloud in the sky. I remember it well. I woke up late that day. I had worked the evening shift the previous day and then gone out for drinks with friends. I had a hangover.
I walked from Hillbrow to my workplace on Sauer Street in the Johannesburg city centre. Something was not right. The usually bustling streets were empty. It wasn't that it was not a busy day. The city was empty. There were no hawkers in the streets. There were no minibus taxis. It was eerie, like a scene from a Stephen King novel. I kept walking.
It was as I was approaching ANC headquarters, the old Shell building on Plein Street, just a block up from the usually bustling Noord Street taxi rank, that I remembered.
The Inkatha Freedom Party was marching on the ANC that day.
The IFP intended to boycott the first free elections in our country, to be held on April 27 1994, and was marching against the ANC, ostensibly to show its opposition to the polls. Why the IFP had to march on the ANC, a party not in power, to show its opposition to the elections was not clear.
It was an incredibly tense time. The doors of freedom and democracy were within reach but violence in various parts of the country - stoked by apartheid-era death squads, rivalry between the IFP's self-protection units in township hostels and ANC self-defence units - was on the increase. The threat of attacks by right-wing groups hung in the air; several bombs had been set off by them.
We know what happened that fateful day. Sections of the IFP marchers, some high on intelezi (the concoction lately used by the Marikana mineworkers in the belief that it would make them invincible), allegedly tried to storm the ANC office building. Inside, ANC guards lay in wait.
In 1995, a year after the incident, Nelson Mandela, then installed as president of the country, spoke about the events leading up to that day.
"Before the march on that day, the ANC had received information that some of the marchers were to be directed to attack Shell House, destroy information and kill members of the leadership," a Reuters report quotes him as saying.
Mandela said he warned the then president, FW de Klerk, and the police, about the threat but no action was taken.
"The surging columns [advancing] on Shell House, away from the routes to their [announced] destination, shots fired and the fact that the few policemen deployed decided to run away gave credence to the information we had gathered," he said.
Mandela gave the order to the party's guards to do whatever they felt was necessary to defend the headquarters, including shooting to kill. That is what happened on that day.
Nineteen people were killed.
You can imagine the effects of this. It was a terrible, dark period in the history of our country. Business was extremely worried. Reports of capital flight were rife. Violence flared across the country yet again, with the government declaring a state of emergency across large chunks of Gauteng and the whole of KwaZulu-Natal. A question mark hung over the possibility of a peaceful transition to a democratic South Africa.
April 27 1994 was a month away. It was also a lifetime away, and seemed to be swiftly rushing out of our grasp. The nation wallowed in a massive depression.
We are going through the same thing today. In a peaceful country, in a democratic dispensation in which the rule of law purportedly reigns supreme, 34 mineworkers are killed within minutes, some allegedly shot in the back, by our own police service. That it has happened is mind-boggling. The actions of political, trade union and business leaders following the event are depressing.
We came through the Shell House massacre (the Nugent Commission of Inquiry into the killings found that the shooting by the ANC guards was unjustified).
Just a year before the Shell House massacre, four Azanian People's Liberation Army cadres walked into StJames Church, in Cape Town, mowed down 11 congregants and wounded 58.
We got through that.
On April 10 1993 an assassin murdered popular ANC leader Chris Hani, taking us to the brink of war. We got through that, too.
I am trying to find some hope for today. I am trying to say that we will find a way through Marikana. I am trying to say that on March 28 1994 I was among the many who thought that the dream of a new South Africa might be lost. I am trying to say that we have it in us to make things work, even when darkness threatens to overwhelm us.
I am trying. I am trying very hard.