The March 28 Battle of Johannesburg

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Langa Zita

Exactly a month before the elections, on Monday, 28 March, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) engaged in an act of political adventurism that revealed many aspects of the difficult transition we are experiencing. The IFP brought the whole of central Johannesburg to a frightened halt, leaving more than fifty people dead, including many of their own members. The event involved a shootout at the ANC head office (Shell House), and seemed an attempt to threaten, in broad daylight, the lives of the leadership.

[Editor’s note: Contrary to some U.S. media reports of ”tribal” fighting, it seems evident that the Inkatha action was an attempt to extend its terror campaign against the scheduled election to the heart of the black working class. Had this attempt to assault the ANC headquarters succeeded, the possibility of holding the elections would certainly have been in question.]

There were two sets of responses: a combination of fear and exhilaration from the side of the ANC, and anger and possible vengeance from the IFP. ANC staff and supporters welcomed the defense of Shell House because, in the words of one observer, “it confirmed that MK (the ANC military arm) is still alive.” Yet the vanquishing of Inkatha during the attempted siege of ANC headquarters did not soften the blow inflicted on the larger society.

What remains to be seen, though, is the implication of this attack, and others in Natal and on township activists. Impatient with the way the ANC leadership has dealt with Inkatha, the activists emphasized a military approach to Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. Other “electoralists” argued for a quiet approach that would not upset the balance of forces. Can we see within this conflict any possibilities for peace in South Africa within the medium term?

Peace will come through the ANC-led democratic movement. Any other party that does not respond positively to the challenge of peace has no possibility of surviving as a political force (other than banditry). This is more the case because the principal social forces — capital and labor in general — do not see positive prospects in a series of violent disruptions.

These dynamics were strengthened by the disclosure of the role of two powerful Third Force elements — Deputy Commissioner of the South Africa Police Lieutenant General Basie Smit and head of Police Counter-intelligence Major General Krapies Engelbrecht — as principal conspirators in fuelling so-called black-on-black violence.

As the election approached, it seemed that the Goldstone Commission investigating the Third Force would, in the short-term, neutralize these activities. What remains to be seen is whether forces which are used to this impi (war) mentality will in these new circumstances forgo violence.

Inkatha, after the exchanges of gunfire in Johannesburg, revealed spasms of panic, fear, and paranoia. The extent to which Inkatha’s apparent disorganization can be a basis for peace will depend on whether the elections can be defended in the Natal/KwaZulu province. Natal seems to have moved from a crisis to a full-fledged disaster. Inkatha seems to be determined to wreck havoc on any plans by the ANC to prepare for the elections. Leading ANC election candidates, including the ANC premier candidate of the province, Jacob Zuma, have seen their houses destroyed.

There seems to be only two possible resolutions to the conflict. One would be a nightmare: a ruling by the international mediators (Carrington and Kissinger) that favors Inkatha’s claims within the constitutional process. This is possible, but if such a ruling implies a postponement of the election in Natal, tensions could rise further. Hopefully the ANC would contain these, but only at a tremendous political cost.

The second scenario is one in which the situation reaches a level that forces an intervention by the South African Defense Force in Natal, which would impose peace by force. Emerging trends on the role of the SADF in Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and in the East Rand where fragile peace exists after months of war suggest that something can indeed be done (i.e. that the SADF can actually play a neutral, post-apartheid role). The question, however, exists as to whether the SADF can rise to the occasion and support democratization in a site of struggle as tough as Natal.

In South Africa, war is separated from peace by a very thin thread. We are not yet in Angola, yet we are not that far. We could however still have peace.

ATC 50, May-June 1994