One by one the 20 men, black and white, stood up in the crowded Durban courtroom to proclaim their innocence and deny that they had anything to do with the death squad that gunned down 13 people, mainly women and children, nine years ago. They entered their pleas of not guilty in either Zulu or Afrikaans while protesters and a police armed with a water cannon took up positions outside the court building.
It was a dramatic and fitting opening to what has been billed as South Africa's trial of the decade.
The trial of the former defence minister General Magnus Malan and 19 co-defendants is not just another murder case. It represents the first time since the advent of black majority rule in South Africa that senior officials in the former white minority governments have been tried for apartheid-era crimes. Perhaps even more significantly, it marks the first attempt to examine in a courtroom how the old regime operated when trying to crush its black opponents.
The prosecutor, the KwaZulu-Natal attorney general, Tim McNally, drove home these points in his opening statement. "The prosecution will cast a shaft of judicial light to a corner of our history which has hitherto been dark and secret. That process has now begun. It is a process of truth and justice," he told the courtroom.
The charges against General Malan and the others relate to the murder in KwaZulu- Natal on 21 January 1987 of 13 people, five of them children, during a hit-squad-style attack on the home of an anti-apartheid activist linked to President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC). The target was said to be a youth leader, Victor Ntuli, who was not at the house at the time of the attack and survived only to be killed by assassins three years later.
Mr McNally will argue that the 20 accused - five generals, a vice-admiral and six senior army officers, the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party deputy secretary general, Zakhele Khumalo, a security policeman and and six former policemen from the old apartheid-era Zulu homeland - are all guilty of either murder or conspiracy to commit murder.
The case against General Malan and the officers in the dock revolves around the prosecution's assertions that they were the masterminds of a covert operation which led to the massacre. The operation, Mr McNally alleged, was intended to fuel violence among blacks, through state funding for the Zulu nationalist Inkatha movement, which by then was fighting ANC supporters in the Zulu heartland.
According to the indictment, General Malan and the others set up and trained a paramilitary group for Inkatha, and that members of this force were responsible for what is known as the KwaMakhutha massacre.
President Mandela and the ANC have long maintained that the apartheid regimes worked with Inkatha to form what has been called a "third force" to promote black on black violence and destabilise the struggle against white rule.
The first prosecution witnesses in the case, mainly former policeman, were called to the stand yesterday to describe the crime scene. The trial is expected to be both lengthy and expensive. Mr McNally defended the cost of the trial saying that no matter what the price justice has to be served in this particular case.
One figure in particular is expected to loom large over the trial, although he may not ever appear in court: Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader. The indictments against General Malan detail Chief Buthelezi's role in setting up the paramilitary unit. Court papers indicate that Chief Buthelezi met senior South African military officials on at least four occasions to discuss the formation of the group. The papers said that the men sought to keep their relationship secret because exposure could damage the chief's status as an opponent of apartheid.
Mr McNally declined to charge Chief Buthelezi when he indicted General Malan and the others in December. Ever since then passions around the case have run high. Yesterday was no exception. A large group of Inkatha supporters outside the court chanted and danced protests, near a group of ANC demonstrators. Eventually the police used a water cannon to disperse the crowd.Reuse content