Shell House day in Port St Johns

2009-03-25 00:00

Johannesburg, March 28, 1994, is remembered in South African history as the day of a terrible street battle outside Shell House [the offices of the ANC], when warring factions of the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party supporters clashed in a fight that claimed lives, maimed healthy young bodies and brought more shame to South Africa in its bitter war against itself. The world reacted with horror to the day’s events, as the bloody scenes were transmitted on television sets across the world.

In Port St Johns, we knew nothing of what was going on in Johannesburg. We were too busy thinking of our own survival to tune in to the news. We had got caught up in the crossfire between the local factions of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress.

It was during what I refer to as the “shoot-a-white” days, before the elections. Transkei hadn’t been reincorporated into South Africa, crime was rampant and out of control, and any misdemeanour was done “for political reasons”. That was an outright lie — the police were more crooked than the criminals, and the people who were supposed to be in charge were either in cahoots with the real criminals, or too apathetic to do anything about the situation.

We were constantly on the alert for attacks. It was a real Wild West situation. Women carried pistols in their handbags. We knew that in the event of an attack while we were driving, it was best to sit up high in the seat, as that way there was less of chance of a bullet hitting something vital. So, most people left Port St Johns. We stayed and I used to watch TV with a shotgun across my lap.

Gunshots were a regular occurrence and, for the most part, were taken as background noise. If they weren’t too close, they were ignored.

The day started normally. Our wholesale was open for business as usual, and the traders came and went. At around 11.30 am my sister (our manager) and I were standing in the shop, discussing a consignment of dried beans, when shots were heard in the distance. We stopped talking and listened. More shots were fired, but as they were fairly far away, we shrugged our shoulders and carried on discussing the beans.

Then we heard closer shots, and shouts and screams. We listened, and decided to get the hell out of the shop. So while she shooed customers out and closed doors and shutters, I ran over to the house to my sons, aged three and two years. “Ran” is an exaggeration. I was very pregnant and looked somewhere between a hippo and an elephant, so I actually waddled fast. I gathered up the children, our maid, Florence, the nanny, Molly, and tried to get all our dogs to follow us upstairs, above the shop, to where my sister, Jane, lived. The entrance to the stairway was out of sight and we had a view of all comings and goings, so we thought that it would be the safest place to be. One dog, and the cats couldn’t be found. I hoped they would have the brains to hide in the bush. They did.

Shots were now being fired in earnest, in what we later found was a running gun battle up and down the main road. Mortars were being fired too. The town emptied. No voices were heard, no vehicles moved. The afternoon went. We realised that we hadn’t been very clever in planning our safe house — in the rush to get everyone to safety, we hadn’t thought of food and the only edible stuff Jane had was Weetbix and a bottle of Bovril. It’s an interesting combination.

A person was seen moving up from the beach towards us. We were all on the alert and would have been quite prepared to shoot him had he been a threat. He turned out to be one of the Special Forces soldiers we knew, and we asked what he was doing there.

“Hau. It is too dangerous there. I am going.”

The first deserter, and he was supposedly trained by Rhodesia’s crack Selous Scouts. There were many more runners.

Night fell. We didn’t have any lights on and we talked in hushed voices. Voices were heard from below, from the direction of our house. As we peered into the darkness, we had a good giggle. For some reason, a stick of 10 soldiers were creeping across our garden, in typical ready-for-action stances (like you see in the movies), when they got a surprise. As they got halfway to the house (to digress — I don’t think the house was a target in any way, they just didn’t know where they were), the motion detectors switched on the security lights, and we saw a confused and horrified bunch of soldiers with no idea of what to do. They opted for running back in the direction they’d come from.

The rest of the night was spent wide awake as we listened to shots and mortars going off intermittently. The folk of Port St Johns all told stories of how they spent the night, stories that all became quite funny in the light of day. Those closest to the action had mostly favoured the bathtub as a safe place to be should a mortar hit the house. Our local headmaster had just taken ownership of a refurbished Land Rover, his pride and joy. He couldn’t bear the thought of that being incinerated, so he took the chance of running outside and moving it to the furthest corner of his garden. Then he and his family hid under the dining-room table.

Eventually, in the early hours of the morning, the shooting first became intermittent, then stopped. Police vans were heard, odd voices. Cars drove around. Roadblocks to stop any baddies leaving were set up on the only two roads leading out of town.

Stories started filtering through of what had happened. Over 2 000 rounds had been fired and 20-odd mortars had been used. Death toll: five of the baddies (PAC) and a very potholed road from where the mortars had landed. Our mayor got shot in the bum. It’s a very big bum, so no serious damage was done.

Shops opened, school started. The vice principal, Kevin, had to drive from Second Beach (where there had been no action) to town. His car, an old jalopy, normally backfired continuously. Kevin drove up the road and saw a roadblock, where a car going in his direction had been stopped. Police and army, all brandishing weapons, surrounded it. Kevin, who is not normally religious, prayed fervently that his car, just this morning would not backfire: “Please, don’t backfire, please!” It didn’t. He was recognised by the police and waved through, his car still behaving itself. Then it went off, or he thought it did. It didn’t. It turned out that the car that had been stopped was full of suspected baddies. They were hauled out the car and allegedly shot there on the spot.

And the problem was over — right up until elections in April, Port St Johns had no more ANC-PAC skirmishes.

• Rina de Tiago is a traveller who lived in the Transkei and other parts of Africa for many years.

The shoot-out

The Witness attempted to find out more about the incidents reported in this story, but details are scarce. However, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission Amnesty Committee report provides some details of a shoot-out that took place in Port St Johns on this date.

“This incident happened on or about March 28, 1994, at or near the high school in Port St Johns. … the ANC was holding a workshop for its voting agents with a view to preparing them for the coming general election. The facilities at the high school were perfectly suited for this purpose and the workshop was held there. At some point during the course of the day, certain [people], who were believed to be members of Apla [Azanian People’s Liberation Army], started shooting at the school in an apparent attempt to intimidate the participants in the workshop and to disrupt the proceedings. The firing was coming from the direction of the home of a senior PAC member, one Mr Mposelwa, who lived directly opposite the high school premises. Mr Mposelwa was centrally involved in the political conflict in the area.

“After the workshop, participants unsuccessfully attempted to enlist the assistance of the police, who appeared to have been reluctant to engage the Apla forces, [and] reinforcements were summoned from the ANC security department in Umtata. After the ANC reinforcements arrived on the scene, a prolonged shoot-out ensued with the attackers until the ANC security personnel eventually managed to evacuate the high school.

“Although all of the members who participated on the ANC’s side in the shoot-out made use of heavy calibre firearms, as well as automatic rifles, it is not clear whether any [people] were killed or injured on the Apla side during the incident. The applicants who participated in the shoot-out were Fundisile Guleni, who was armed with an R4 rifle, Mafanelo Dan Matshaya, who was a member of the ANC security department and was armed with an AK47 assault rifle, Dumisa Mdlulwa, [who was] also a member of the ANC Security Department [and] was armed with an Uzi sub-machine-gun, and Templeton Zamekile Pato, who was an ANC member participating in the election’s workshop [and] used an Uzi sub-machine-gun which he picked up after it was dropped by one of the Apla attackers …”

The same report details the killing of PAC and Apla members by ANC members on March 23 and April 20 in Port St Johns.

• The full transcript can be found at www.doj.gov.za/trc/decisions/2000/ac200045.htm

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