The Bisho Massacre

September 09, 1992

Nonviolence, the philosophy of provoking change that Mohandas K. Gandhi developed as an Indian lawyer in South Africa at the start of the century, can work where the authorities have learned to restrain their power. Where, when the protester throws his body in front of the tank, the tank driver stops. Not where the tank rolls on.

On Monday, the African National Congress abetted by the Communist Party of South Africa tried to overthrow the hated, despotic regime of the mythically independent homeland of Ciskei, which outside of South Africa is recognized only as part of South Africa. The technique was to mobilize some 50,000 or 60,000 or more South Africans of ANC sympathies to walk across the border and peacefully occupy Bisho, the seat of government, such as it is, displacing the despot.

The aim was not peaceful protest, but revolution. The technique, however, was not violent but massive mobilization of human bodies willing to put their life on the line. This has worked, among other unlikely places in East Germany in 1989, where the troops did not shoot. (If Communist boss Erich Honecker had had his way, they would have, but Mikhail Gorbachev forbade it.)

This time, the troops of the despot, Brigadier Joshua Oupa Cqozo, fired. No observer heard an order given. The firing killed at least 28 unarmed demonstrators from outside Ciskei, wounding nearly 200. It was one of the great outrages of South African history, which has more than its share. And it makes the resumption of constitutional talks involving the white government of South Africa, the ANC and other parties -- including Brigadier Cqozo -- even more problematical.

The troops, their officers and the "government" directing them were black. They were the power center in one of the so-called black homelands set up three decades ago by the apartheid government. Does this atrocity rank with the Sharpeville massacre of 69 blacks protesting apartheid by white police in 1960, or as part of the civil war among blacks to fill the vacuum the departing white government will soon leave? Since the Ciskei regime is a South African puppet or client, and one of the black conservative power centers with which the white regime of F. W. de Klerk means to thwart the ANC from coming to power, this massacre was equally part of the last South Africa and the next.

The constitutional negotiation under the rubric, Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), offers the best hope of a speedy, orderly evolution to a more democratic majority rule. Unless that route is taken in good faith, the Bisho massacre is the way ahead, a sample of what will happen on a larger scale, with the political outcome uncertain.

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