The first group of the 10,000 Zulus to hit the streets of Johannesburg yesterday in a controversial demonstration seemed to materialise out of thin air. The Jeppestown district was deserted most of the morning, but for a few dozen soldiers and police agents who cradled shotguns against their flak jackets at some road blocks.
Then, 400 Zulu warriors waving knobkerries, metal pipes, sticks and spears turned a corner. Where there was silence a moment before, an entire neighbourhood was abruptly heaving with rhythmic chanting and the clacking of truncheons against cattle-hide shields.
The police stared at a wall of Zulu demonstrators in a variety of costumes, ranging from leopard-skin loincloths to pink dresses. The Zulu impi, or regiment, waved its traditional weapons in a taunting manner at the police and in clear defiance of the law.
The police vowed only hours before to uphold the week-old Dangerous Weapons Act. But in such circumstances, even with their shotguns, any attempt to disarm the crowd would have been foolhardy. Instead, the police talked into their two-way radios and gave way before the prancing warriors and ululating women.
It was one of the few tense moments in a day of protest which passed with surprisingly few incidents. The demonstration was called to commemorate the shooting to death of eight Inkatha supporters outside the Shell House building, the headquarters of President Nelson Mandela's ANC, two years ago, on 28 March. It became known as the Shell House massacre and is still a source of friction between the ANC and Inkatha.
Tension was high before the demonstration as both the ANC and its Inkatha rivals traded accusations of plots to provoke a similar incident.
But in the end, as is often the case in South Africa these days, it was the law which had to yield. One police officer assured me that "particularly dangerous" weapons, such as spears and axes, had been confiscated.
In the next breath he admitted it had been done in very few cases and only when the police were dealing with small, "manageable" groups of Zulus.
A strong show of force by the police and the army, who cordoned off parts of the city centre with razor wire, as well as the police's pragmatic approach to enforcing the law, were credited for allowing the demonstration to pass without trouble.
But the police's failure to make good its threat has left the government looking weak, and has reinforced an impressionthat people in South Africa may flout the laws they dislike.
The Dangerous Weapons Act, passed last week at the urging of Mr Mandela and his Safety and Security Minister, Sydney Mufamadi, was aimed at reducing the political violence between ANC and Inkatha in KwaZulu-Natal.
The fear is that, as yesterday showed, the new law is unenforcable. A similar weapons ban was instituted by the last white minority government of FW de Klerk at the behest of the recently unbanned ANC. Then the police were also faced with huge rallies, where it was impossible to disarm people without inviting mass slaughter.
Unless the government makes progress on investigating the Shell House massacre, next year's demonstration may not be so passive.Reuse content