In the mid seventies I wrote a novel in which the body of an unknown man, found murdered, was shovelled by the police under shallow earth among reeds. When the drought broke and the river rose, so did he. That body comes back to me as a metaphor for what is happening to us in South Africa now. The Truth Commission is contemplating that body, which is androgynous in its representation of the ‘permanent removal’ of men and women who obstructed, with all their determined conviction, the continuation of apartheid under any avatar of racist gods. As a South African citizen who sits on no Commission, I feel vitally concerned to form my own sense not only of the cleansing of the past by confession, but of the connections between the past and what is happening in the present; to follow the roots that travel underground from what is supposed to be a felled, dead tree.

Comment on the shootings at Shell House is sub judice; there is a court case on the matter in progress. But this does not apply to what is open to us, already reported, printed or broadcast. A journalist, Gavin Du Venage, was present at Shell House on the morning of 28 March last year, and has written his account of how events there began.footnote1 He described the appearance of the marchers: ‘it was clear from the red ribbons and Inkatha paraphernalia that it was an Inkatha rally in all but name’, and he continued, ‘I was in the building for about twenty minutes before the first shots rang out. Single shots, presumably from hand guns, and the distinctive boom of heavy-gauge shotguns were directed at the front of Shell House. The anc headquarters was being attacked. anc security guards armed with hand guns took up positions in front of the building’s glass-door entrance. About a dozen policemen scurried for shelter. . .the volume of fire increased and the security guards withdrew into the building. The roar of gunfire was by now almost continuous. In the Shell House foyer, administration staff and bystanders who had sought shelter in the building huddled in terror behind the security desks. It was then that I became aware that the security guards were planning to counter-attack.’ Du Venage described Shell House as ‘a building under siege’.

Apologists for Inkatha have contended that the people killed at Shell House were taking part in a lawful activity, making their way to a lawful gathering. Large numbers of citizens, having withdrawn to their offices, looked out and saw what others have since seen on video, how heavily armed and undisciplined hordes of marchers indiscriminately attacked people. The Goldstone investigations confirmed that dozens had been killed or seriously injured before the attack on Shell House and that these killings took place from the early hours of the morning. The investigations established that the vanguard of the marchers, in moving towards Shell House, was moving in the opposite direction to their declared purpose of attending a gathering at the Library Gardens. Any of us who walks the layout of Johannesburg streets can verify this. Who among us who were in the city that day can honestly say that he or she was not afraid? How could one not believe that the whole purpose of these hordes coming to the city was the threat of violence and violence itself, to make it clear that the Transvaal leaders of the Inkatha Freedom Party (ifp) were capable of stopping the election? And where would we all be now, if they had succeeded?

anc President Mandela had personally informed President de Klerk of his information that the marchers would attack Shell House with the intention of killing anc leaders inside the building, and Mandela had received an undertaking from the Commissioner of Police, General Johan van der Merwe, that the roadblocks he demanded would be erected to ensure the protection of the Johannesburg community, and that marchers would be disarmed. President Mandela related this to the Senate in June this year, and said: ‘They [the marchers] came to Shell House and passed the spot where they were supposed to have their meeting. We know why. I gave instructions to our security that if the marchers attacked Shell House you must protect that House even if you are to kill people. It was absolutely necessary for me to give that instruction.’ This is a common-law position on the right to self-defence, Mr Mandela added in a statement to the press.

No roadblocks were set up around the city; the police outside Shell House that day ran away.

Mandela’s statements are not to be taken in isolation. A long and ominous story is part of their text. They lead back to Sebokeng in 1990 and the recurrent absence of police from scenes of known potential violence, although the highest authorities in the land were forewarned. They lead all the way back to 1968 and the subsequent changes in the law which were to lie behind, and abet, to say the least, these absences in which violence and death took over.

The carrying of dangerous weapons was generally prohibited for many years by the Dangerous Weapons Act of 1968. We were all protected by this until, in September 1990, President de Klerk promulgated an amendment to the Zulu Code—which had introduced additional, specific measures to prevent the carrying of dangerous weapons, particularly to meetings—exempting Zulus from the prohibition if there was proof of ‘bona fide intention to carry dangerous weapons in accordance with traditional Zulu usages, customs or religions’. This, in effect, provided legal justification for the ifp’s gatherings of armed men, and for the police if they chose not to disarm or arrest them.