JOHANNESBURG — DESPITE a moral stature earned over decades of fighting apartheid, South Africa's President Nelson Mandela has undergone a tremendous battering in Parliament over his admission that he'd given shoot-to-kill orders in a demonstration a year ago.
It had taken Mr. Mandela more than a year to admit that he had ordered African National Congress security guards at ANC's political headquarters in Johannesburg to shoot and "kill, if necessary" a crowd of marchers from the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Eight were killed.
Standing firm against hecklers in Parliament, Mandela declared that it was "absolutely necessary" to give such a command in order to defend his party's headquarters.Tens of thousands of armed supporters of the archrival IFP marched in the streets and threatened Shell House during demonstrations in the weeks before the country's first all-race election.
In the fighting on March 28, 1994, 55 died and hundreds were wounded. It was the bloodiest day of the country's transition to democracy when civil war appeared close. However, it brought South Africa's politicians back from the brink and Inkatha back into the elections it had been boycotting. The peace process was saved only weeks before the polls opened.
MANDELA stands accused by opposition parliamentarians of murder and a massive cover-up. The ANC had in the past claimed that the Inkatha marchers shot first. But despite a lengthy police investigation, the details of how so many people lost their lives that day are still unclear. And with the president's surprising admission only last week, parliamentarians have now called for a full independent inquiry.
The acrimonious debate in Parliament Wednesday night, comes at a time when violence has again surged in the KwaZulu-Natal province between factions of the ANC and the IFP. Mandela and Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi have personally blamed each other for being directly responsible for the killings.
"This kind of wild rhetoric and provocative statements by the leaders only means dead people on the ground," says political analyst Tom Lodge of the University of the Witwatersrand.
"No amount of damage control by the ANC can put a gloss on this. It has made an already tense situation worse. Mandela lost his self-restraint and spoke in anger [when he made the admission last week]. He seemed to assume that he has that kind of authority to justify such an order. And that's disturbing."
Given the volatile political climate at the time, few have challenged the right of the ANC to defend its headquarters, which housed prominent leaders of the movement. But questions remain about why live ammunition was used and why Mandela initially refused to cooperate with the police investigation.
Political observers believe opposition parties and particularly the IFP, are "milking the Shell House incident for all it's worth," to try and gain the upper hand on the ANC and push for international mediation to resolve the problem of increased regional powers for Inkatha's stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal.
"This has damaged Mandela's reputation simply because we do a double-take when he acts less than saint-like," says Raymond Louw, a political commentator in Johannesburg. "But Buthelezi is enough to try the patience even of a saint."
Despite the tension, a breakthrough took place in Parliament Wednesday when Mandela and Buthelezi, who is also a Cabinet minister, agreed to form a multiparty strategy aimed at ending the violence in KwaZulu-Natal.