Vital tape evidence wiped, Boipatong inquiry told

A JUDICIAL commission inquiring into the Boipatong massacre, the incident that precipitated the United Nations decision to intervene in South Africa, heard yesterday that a crucial piece of police evidence had disappeared.

The police officer investigating allegations that the security forces had assisted Inkatha hostel-dwellers in the 17 June massacre, in which 39 died, told the Goldstone Commission that tape recordings of 13 hours of radio transmissions between police officers in the area before, during and after the attack had been accidentally erased. Major Christo Davidson said this was due to a technical problem which he was unable to explain.

The major's testimony, which prompted counsel for the African National Congress to suggest that the tape had been deliberately erased, provoked Justice Richard Goldstone to order the police to deliver the relevant tapes to the commission immediately.

Earlier in his testimony, Major Davidson told the commission the security forces had not been involved in any way in the massacre.

This was not the view of seven Boipatong residents who testified earlier that, among other things, Casspirs - police armoured vehicles - had delivered Inkatha attackers to the township.

One point on which both the massacre survivors and the police agree is that the main body of attackers came from nearby Kwa- Madala hostel, an Inkatha stronghold. On Monday, 82 hostel residents appeared in court on charges of public violence and murder. They were remanded in custody until the 28 August.

Even this police investigation, however, has been described as 'woeful' by British criminal experts who fear that prosecutions will, in the end, be hard to come by. A similar verdict on the police was delivered on Monday by a Johannesburg Supreme Court judge at the conclusion of a trial of four Inkatha supporters accused of having carried out the killing of 13 people at a funeral vigil in Alexandra township in March last year.

The judge acquitted all four men, noting that police investigating the killings had presented a case riddled with 'inconsistencies, contradictions and fabrications'. Simon Nxumalo, an Inkatha leader in Alexandra who was assassinated by unknown gunmen in May this year, told the Independent last year that the attack had been carried out by 'the Third Force', clandestine elements in the security forces.

It is in large measure to examine allegations of this kind that the UN has proposed a full-scale inquiry, under the Goldstone auspices, into the police and army, as well as the ANC's guerrilla wing. With indications yesterday that both the government and the ANC were prepared to accept the proposal, another sign of movement on the wider political sphere was a report that President F W de Klerk, Nelson Mandela and the Inkatha leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, will hold face-to-face talks within the next four weeks.

The South African Law and Order Minister, Hernus Kriel, said yesterday six former magistrates would be appointed as special inspectors to safeguard people held in police custody after claims by a pathologist late last month that police routinely kill prisoners, AP reports.