Wrestling ghosts in Bhisho

2012-09-16 09:16
Richard Stupart
Anniversary of the massacre in the former Ciskei was marked last Friday, writes Richard Stupart

Twenty years ago, in a country that no longer exists, dozens of South African activists lost their lives in a hail of bullets.

Last Friday, two generations of South Africans marked the anniversary of the Bisho massacre when 29 people were killed in the former Ciskei with a day-long gathering at Bhisho Stadium.

Addressing the gathering, former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils recalled how he and fellow activists had underestimated the violence of the Ciskei’s security forces.

Pushing through an opening at the stadium on September 7 1992, people found themselves under fire from troops commanded by Colonel Vakele Mkosana, who would later be refused amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for giving soldiers the order to fire on protesters.

Up in the stands last Friday, watching the stage below, high school teacher Lesley Ngcongco, from nearby Jali High School in Qhugqwala, was sitting with students from his history class.

As one of those who marched on the Ciskei border 20 years ago, he recalled that it was only a combination of luck and crowding at the stadium’s entrance that kept him and his friends from being inside when the Ciskei security forces opened fire on those assembled.

“There was a helicopter flying around the stadium,” he told City Press.

“When it landed, there was confusion. A sound like ‘crikkt, crikkt’ coming from up ahead.”

It was minutes later, as the assembled crowd turned back, running and shouting, that he realised what had happened.

As he recounted the story last Friday, one of his history students pulled out his cellphone to record the tale.
Ngcongco chuckled: “When you tell them ... you know, kids don’t listen today. But when you tell them these stories, they listen.”

It’s no coincidence that he’s a history teacher – he believes it’s important for South African history to
be taught well.

“It’s important to remember the fallen comrades,” he said.

Down on the field, in the VIP tent and closer to the speeches, Sipho Mzileni and Fanisile Mnukwa sit together amid a mass of white chairs.

They were both in the stadium that dreadful day 20 years ago.

Today, Mnukwa is angry and feels betrayed – the government, he told City Press, had not done nearly enough to support those injured in the massacre.

Mzileni agreed. Gazing up at the half-full stadium, Mzileni said: “If the government was doing well, the stadium would be full.”

Now 75, the former MK soldier who was imprisoned in 1986 and later exiled, carefully unfolded a letter he’d brought with him from his home in Mooiplaas.

Addressed to Desmond Tutu, it was a request for livestock lost during the years he was imprisoned.

He wasn’t able to take his case to the TRC in person, and hoped that somewhere at the commemoration ceremony, there would be a person who could finally give his request to Tutu.

Meanwhile, on stage, Kasrils was talking about South Africa’s current problems.

“We need our government and our ANC to serve our people and make sure that we never have these situations where the soldiers or the police, the army of ekhaya South Africa, are in a situation where they are not trained sufficiently to deal with striking miners or protests,” Kasrils said.

“That we deal with that in a proper manner. That we don’t shed the blood of our people. That we find other ways to diffuse situations such as we saw at Marikana,” said Kasrils.