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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.