Background to The Incident
The Incident took place in apartheid South Africa in 1981. BW Botha, leader of the Nationalist Party was the hawkish President. He claimed South Africa was under a total onslaught and that this necessitated a total strategy to combat it. Blik Botha was South Africa’s robust Ambassador to the United Nations. Ronald Raygun was the President of the United States and Margaret Hatchet was the British Prime Minister. Under the ideology of apartheid, colonisers and European settlers had declared that Africans who happened to live in South Africa should be removed from the good land they occupied to reservations with generally poor land. These areas were later to be called homelands or bantustans. Africans who were the some 80% of the population of South Africa were confined to 22% of the land. The irony was that many of the settlers had themselves been displaced and had come to South Africa as refugees – in particular, protestant Hugenots who fled from Catholic France – arriving in the new country and in time proceeding to make the indigenous people refugees within their own country.
As would be expected, Africans were not too happy with this arrangement, as they were not consulted when these arrangements were enacted. Colonial mentality did not recognise that African people had rights, opinions or a history. They were meant to accept decisions taken for them by wiser more civilised people. Of course, they didn’t, and resisted those that imposed racially exclusive laws upon them. They formed organisations through which they resisted their oppression. The largest and most popular organisation was the African National Conference (ANC). There were a number of other organisations too, including the Pan African Conference (PAC). The ANC was a principled, forgiving organisation and recognised that all the people living is South Africa has a right to live there as equals. The PAC on the other hand did not recognise the right of colonists to be in South Africa and sought to drive them back into the sea.
Both these organisations and others that resisted the system of apartheid were demonised and banned. They were declared to be terrorist organisations, their leaders were jailed and their followers often gunned down whenever they dared to voice their opposition to their subjugation. The ANC’s iconic leader, Molson Madela, who had dedicated his life to fighting racism and discrimination, had been in jail for over twenty years. He was regarded by governments in the US and the UK as a terrorist.
Many African people who had been forcibly removed from their lands were unable to survive in the overcrowded bantustans. Many found their way to Cape Town where they settled “illegally” in a large informal settlement, which was in many respects an urban manifestation of the Bantustan system, in an attempt to survive and to provide for their families. At this time there were nearly 2 million people living in its extremely crowded unplanned streets. It was called Khayelitsha, but known locally as eGhazi, and was a rectangular strip of land enclosed by the sumptuous and peaceful suburbs of Cape Town on three sides and False Bay (the ocean) on the other. eGhazi was also known by the authorities as a hotbed of resistance and was well organised by both the ANC and the PAC. Both of these organisations had military wings which recruited and were operative there. Some years back BW Botha, who at that time was the Minister of Defence, decided that it was time to teach the people of eGhazi a lesson, so he had a high wall built around the settlement and had the army control all access in and out of the settlement. This meant that residents would now not be able to move freely in or out of the area and would be forced to make a living inside the camp. There was not enough food to feed people. However, some charities were permitted to bring in food and some medical supplies. Just enough food was allowed to ensure that people wouldn’t starve. It was like being on an enforced diet. Nevertheless, life continued within eGhazi, despite these pressures – alleviated to a small extent with underground smuggling of commodities.
The incident occurred one day in July during the school and university holidays, when a group of three Afrikaans young men, were travelling in a car from Natal to the Eastern Cape, through the Transkei bantustan. All paved roads through these bantustans were for the exclusive use of white people. African people were not permitted to use them. No one quite knows what happened. They went missing, failing to arrive at their destination. It appeared that they might have been kidnapped.
The president, BW Botha, was incensed and keen to capitalize politically, immediately blaming the PAC for the abduction of the “teenagers”. In reaction, he sent an army battalion to the Transkei to round up people thought to be members of or sympathetic to the PAC. Some 400 men were arrested and thrown in jail. Two weeks after they had gone missing, the young men were found dead.
What angered the President (and he was a man easily angered) and other members of white South African society, was that these were Afrikaans kids. Afrikaners were god-faring people, some said god’s chosen people, who were on a god-given mission to preserve civilisation in Africa. In fact they believed they had a “covenant” with god to deliver their enemies into their hands and to bless their deeds.
President Botha was a calculating man and in this incident saw an opportunity to teach the PAC a lesson. So instead of ordering a police investigation to find the perpetrators of the crime (as one would expect in most countries) he decided on much bigger symbolic response. He commanded that the Defence Force, army, navy and airforce attack eGhazi, to remove the PAC “terrorist” menace once and for all. That no one in eGhazi would likely have had anything to do with the murders of the teenagers (because if occurred a thousand kilometres away and no one from eGhazi was able to leave or enter what had become known as the world’s largest open air prison) Botha wasn’t concerned. They are all Xhosa people. Few would notice this weapon of mass distraction from the original case of the murdered young men, he reasoned, and besides we have done this before on a number of occasions and no one amongst our friends cared enough to stop us.
For a month, South Africa’s armed forces rained bombs, shells and missiles down on the people of eGhazi. The army were sent into eGhazi in a ground offensive. Men, women and children died in their hundreds. The might of South Africa’s military (it was the strongest army in Africa) brought terror and destruction to eGhazi. Hundreds of children died, thousands of homes were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people made homeless. Nowhere was safe. There was nowhere to flee. So brazen had the military become that their soldiers had no limits – they were able to target and eliminate children playing on the beach, to shell the schools that some people used as shelter. They even shelled hospitals, fired on ambulances and other medical facilities. In some areas the ground troops encountered fierce resistance and some 56 soldiers lost their lives. The airforce bombed the small power plant that provided some of the residents with electricity, it bombed water treatment facilities and other essential infrastructure. Some two thousand people died in this indiscriminate bombing, some 10,000 were injured. Most of the people who died and were injured were civilians and a large proportion of them were children. Some half a million people were rendered homeless and almost the entire population were dependent on food aid distributed by charities. By the end of the month some 17,000 tons of explosives were fired on eGhazi, leaving over 1,000 tons of unexploded bombs. Three Afrikaner civilians died when one of the PAC’s rockets landed near to where they were standing. While many people were supporters of the ANC and the PAC, many were not. The one thing that was common to them all was that they all spoke Isixhosa, the same language spoken by the people of the Transkei.
A group of PAC members had managed to build a tunnel under the high wall surrounding eGhazi and were able to smuggle much needed supplies to the area. On one occasion a group of fighters had managed to break in to a nearby fireworks factory in Cape Town. They were able to steal a large quantity of fireworks including rockets. These were smuggled into eGhazi through the tunnels and hidden in the area. The PAC armed wing were able to modify the rockets by adding an explosive charge to them, using some of the gunpowder stolen from the fireworks factory. While inaccurate and difficult to aim with any degree of precision, they could be deadly if exploding close to a person. When the bombing of eGhazi began, the PAC retaliated by firing many of these rockets indiscriminately into the sprawled suburbs of Cape Town. They were relatively ineffective as weapons, but on one occasion did kill three people.
Many people around the world were shocked by the news reports they read and witnessed on their television screens. There were calls for restraint. There were protests in many cities. There were calls for South Africa to be isolated through boycotts, disinvestment and sanctions. And there were also many people who rallied behind the South African military, claiming that they were a moral army, and that they were ridding the world of a terrorist menace. Many supporters of the President, called for tougher action. In the suburbs around Cape Town many white South African were able to witness the bombing from the hills in Bellville. They brought their deckchairs, umbrellas, food and drink and cheered whenever they saw a large explosion. Many of the children were enthralled because it appeared so similar to the video-games they were able to play on their television sets. There were even some who proposed the establishment of concentration camps in eGhazi. The irony was conveniently evaded, as some people recalled the terrible conditions in the concentration camps that Afrikaners were held in during the Anglo-Boer War. One commentator guilelessly argued that there were circumstances when genocide was permissible, implying that this might well be such an occasion to get rid of the Xhosa speaking people. Some religious Afrikaners believed that it was their god given task to protect their own by indiscriminately killing and brutalizing others. They believed that Afrikaners so obviously stood for peace, the sanctity of all life, the brotherhood of man, cooperative co-existence, the generous sharing of their wisdom and knowledge with the whole world in all fields of endeavour, in short, all that is good in the eyes of all decent people. At the same time, many people found it difficult to reconcile this view with the facts about the system of apartheid advocated and implemented by the South African government.
South Africa was criticised around the world and the UN Security Council was convened. A resolution to impose sanctions against South Africa was tabled. During the debate, South Africa’s ambassador, Blik Botha went on one of his usual tirades about the hypocrisy of those supporting the resolution. “Why do you point your fingers at us. Look at the rest of Africa. The bantu in the Bantustans we have created for them are far better off. Their standard of living is higher. Those who criticise us are anti-Afrikaner!” Raygun and Hatchet had instructed their ambassadors to the UN to exercise their countries’ vetoes and so the resolution was not passed. The US and UK had been supplying weapons to South Africa. Arms manufacturers in both countries were ecstatic as this was an opportunity to test some of the new weapons they had developed. They continued to supply the South African military with some of the most sophisticated weapons ever produced. They also resupplied the defence force when it started running low of missiles and shells.
The South African Broadcasting Company (SABC) went into overdrive. Clip Saunders was on television every night explaining how evil, immoral and inhuman the PAC and the ANC were. He explained how important it was to defeat terrorism and to uphold western values and civilisation from the dark forces that were out to destroy it. He explained how South Africa was doing the world an incredible service by being in the frontline against this threat. He explained how unfortunate it was that children had been killed, but this was not the fault of the SA Defence Force. It was clearly the fault of the PAC who had been hiding amongst the civilian population. He explained how the PAC was intent on ensuring that there were 1000s of deaths amongst the residents of eGhazi and had therefore been provocative by firing their rockets into the suburbs. He omitted to explain why it was that the South African Defence Force had been so accommodating of the PAC’s alleged objectives and had obliged them with the slaughter of so many innocents.
However, there was growing number of Afrikaners who were not comfortable with the killing of thousands of civilians. They began to speak out and make their voices heard. They began to distance themselves from mainstream Afrikaner society and for this they were called self-hating Afrikaners. They were often vilified and ostracised by the Afrikaner community which had become increasingly intolerant of dissent.
Yet the eGhazi attack was not sustainable. One government official had spoken about it as a way to mow the grass. He spoke more truth than he realized: grass keeps on growing, even under scorched earth policies, and especially when the shedding of tears irrigates new shoots. But a far-sighted leader was not yet in sight; one who could convince his constituency that there an alternative was possible – one that would secure peace precisely by protecting human rights and recognizing why the amaXhosa felt such a sense of historical injustice.
Some years prior to the incident, a former Prime Minister of South Africa, BJ Foster, had warned his Rhodesian counterpart, Ian Smiff, that the consequences of an all out racial war in South Africa were “too ghastly to contemplate.”
During the years between then and the occurrence of the incident, President BW Botha had plenty of opportunity to contemplate, as he and his party pressed forward with their racial agenda, that deprived Africans of their land. He had plenty of time to contemplate the manifestations of discontent amongst the African population and their unwillingness to accept the injustice of the theft of their land, and the constant indignities that they were subjected on a daily basis as they attempted to go about their daily lives. He had plenty of time to contemplate, the messages of condemnation of the policies he was adopting from the community of nations. He also had plenty of time to contemplate alternatives to the policies of his government. He had plenty of time to demonstrate through his actions that he was committed to a peaceful coexistence with the African majority. Instead, he chose the path of conflict in the belief that South Africa belonged exclusively to whites and that Africans were an inconvenience on the path to the utopian society, devoid of Africans, that he sought.
Simon Ratcliffe lives in Oxford, England.