A calculated risk that proved fatal: The Ciskei marchers saw themselves emulating Tiananmen protesters but did not expect a similar fate

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Countdown to a massacre

2.30am: The Ciskei magistrates grant permission for the ANC to march to Bisho stadium but not beyond.

8.00am: Cyril Ramaphosa arrives and says marchers will not abide by a court order from the Ciskei government.

9.00am: Marchers start to gather in King William's Town. Ciskei troops already deployed in Bisho and on the border.

10.30am: Ramaphosa and other ANC leaders arrive to fire up their supporters ready for the march to Ciskei to occupy Bisho until Brigadier Oupa Gqozo surrenders power.

11.30am: About 70,000 marchers leave King William's Town.

12 noon: The marchers halt at the top of the first hill to regroup.

1pm: As they near the Ciskei border, some excited marchers start to break away.

1.15pm: Ramaphosa at the head of the march reaches the Ciskei border, closed by razor-wire. Several thousand demonstrators break away and head for Bisho stadium. About 200 spill out towards Bisho. The first few shots come from Ciskei troops close to the stadium; then a five- minute barrage from soldiers dispersed across several hundred yards overlooking the marchers.

WHEN the African National Congress Secretary-General, Cyril Ramaphosa, stepped from his flight to the Eastern Cape shortly before 8am on Monday, the front line for the coming confrontation between ANC supporters and the leadership of the Ciskei black 'homeland' had been set.

In the early hours a magistrate in Ciskei's capital, Bisho, had granted the ANC permission to march about 200 yards into the 'homeland' to a sports stadium, but no further. Mr Ramaphosa was asked what he thought. The ANC had stopped at the stadium when they marched in July to demand that Ciskei's military leader, Brigadier Oupa Gqozo, surrender power. This time, Mr Ramaphosa said, the ANC intended to carry out its threat to occupy Bisho.

Tensions had risen for days. The Ciskei military accused the ANC of smuggling in weapons to fuel an armed rebellion. Attempts by church leaders and others to mediate had failed, and the ANC was not going to be deterred by an order issued in the name of a government it - and almost no one else in the world - recognises.

Within an hour of Mr Ramaphosa's arrival in King William's Town, three miles from the Ciskei border, the first ANC supporters started gathering at the Victoria Park cricket ground. As usual, the diehard membership was fleshed out by the tentative and curious. The ANC marshals, always recognisable in their khaki outfits augmented by the black, green and gold of the movement, kept order.

The rally at the cricket ground was brief, before the marchers started up the main hill out of King William's Town led by Mr Ramaphosa. It was a long, largely uneventful slog toward Bisho under a blazing sun. Whites peered over their walls at the black mass. The South African army and police made sure of their weapons.

The marchers seemed as determined as their leaders. There was no way they were going to obey the despised 'homeland' government. They had not asked for permission from the puppet regime in Ciskei, and they were not going to abide by its rules. Comparisons were drawn. Did protesters in Tiananmen Square have permission? Did young Germans who scaled the Berlin Wall wait for approval? They, too, knew the risks. One group paid with their lives, the other started a revolution. Few on the Ciskei march expected their demonstration to have an ending comparable with Tiananmen.

It took close on an hour and a half for the 70,000-strong crowd to catch sight of the Ciskei border. As they closed in some of the young protesters started running. They leapt fences and pounded through the bush until ANC marshals brought them into line. The head of the march drew up at the razor-wire a few yards inside the Ciskei border. To the left stretched a path to Bisho stadium 150 yards away. Ciskei troops were dispersed below the stadium to the left, and along a ridge overlooking the road from the right. There were very few soldiers on the road itself. The South African police had disappeared.

Mr Ramaphosa stepped forward to talk over the razor-wire with members of the National Peace Secretariat, who were offering to act as shuttle diplomats with the Ciskei authorities. Excited and challenging, a large section of the marchers broke away and bolted towards the stadium. That was permitted under the court order. On the Bisho side of the stadium there was a large hole in the fence. An ANC national executive committee member, Ronnie Kasrils, led a few hundred through it to charge the town, the other side of the Ciskei troops. At that moment the court order was broken.

Brigadier Gqozo admitted there was no warning. He said his men were under attack and responded in kind. But even the South African government, which has blamed the ANC for the killings, has not accused it of firing first. Brigadier Gqozo's troops appear to have let loose as soon as the crowd spilt from the stadium. They had gone no more than 20 yards when the five-minute fusillade broke out, pausing only for a few seconds.

Leading article, page 18