The marchers were determined to enter Bisho, the tiny capital of what Pretoria deems to be the 'independent' Xhosa homeland of Ciskei. The soldiers were under orders to stop them.
The marchers knew that to press on meant certain death. The soldiers knew that if an opening volley did not discourage the mass of the crowd - which snaked back for a mile - from continuing their advance, they would be torn to pieces.
In an interview two hours earlier, the Ciskei Defence Force chief, Brigadier Marius Oelshig, had said that he would not allow 'these people' into Ciskeian territory. 'If they try, we'll do what we have to do.'
Not only does the ANC detest the quintessential apartheid mechanism that Ciskei - devised as a dumping-ground for blacks - represents, its present leader, Brigadier Oupa Gqozo, is as unpopular as Ceausescu was in his final days.
The brigadier took power in a coup two-and-a-half years ago, before he himself was taken over by South African military intelligence, whose agents - it is well documented - convinced him to turn against the ANC and enter into a political alliance with the government and the Zulus of the Inkatha Freedomn Party. But, save for his soldiers and some civil servants, the brigadier has no constituency to speak of.
Some of the Communists heading yesterday's march had reckoned that here at last was the insurrection they had long dreamt of - not feasible, they know, in greater South Africa. But in Ciskei they thought it might be. Happily, when they got to within 50 yards of the 'Bisho welcomes you' sign, they halted. The next four hours saw an intense game of high-stakes diplomacy.
'We're not going to be stopped at the border, because we don't recognise it,' said Chris Hani, the Communist Party general secretary and the most senior ANC leader on the march. 'We have orders to shoot if they try it,' retorted the white colonel in charge.
But on hand was a member of the United Nations observer team monitoring 'mass action', Jose Campino, of Portugal, and his local guide, an enormously tall lawyer by the name of Antonie Gildenhuys, who is chairman of a (hitherto) massively discredited national body known as 'The Peace Secretariat'.
Between them they engaged in frenetic bouts of shuttle diplomacy to prevent what seemed to be a certain massacre - a massacre with frightful consequences for the broader South African peace effort.
Messrs Campino and Gildenhuys scampered over to see the Ciskei cabinet and then scampered back to Mr Hani at the front of the marchers. Proposal after proposal, compromise after compromise, was turned down. After two nerve-shattering hours under a burning sun, with the marchers continually threatening to break ranks and the soldiers' trigger fingers increasingly twitchy, Mr Gildenhuys brought word that the South African Foreign Minister, Pik Botha, was on the phone at a nearby hotel and wanted to speak to Mr Hani.
Mr Hani went, and they spoke. They half reached a deal, spoke again, and then everything collapsed. By now the crowd had advanced about 200 yards and the soldiers, to the relief of the dozen journalists standing in no man's land in between, had retreated.
Then, as a number of priests among the marchers explained it, a miracle happened. Mr Gildenhuys negotiated a compromise allowing the marchers to stage a rally at the local soccer stadium. It was night by now. The soldiers suddenly fell away and the marchers surged forward, punching the air and bellowing: 'The ANC] The ANC]'
And everybody, not least the soldiers themselves, smiled, laughed and even joked. All of South Africa could breathe again.
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