Twenty Years Ago Today: The Shell House Massacre

Twenty years ago today, 20,000 or more Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrators converged on Shell House, the headquarters of the African National Congress. The demonstration was angry, and loud. Security staff inside the building were nervous. There'd already been violence between the IFP and the ANC. Then the shooting began.

Eyewitnesses (including a journalist) inside Shell House said that pistols and shotguns were fired towards the building from the crowd, shattering windows and forcing people to take cover. Inkatha disagreed, and stated that there was no provocation for the security guards to blast the crowd with bullets from assault rifles. Either way, nineteen people lay dead once the shooting was over, and all of them were from Inkatha. The scandal rumbled on for years. Nelson Mandela admitted in 1995 that he had given an order for the security guards in the building to defend it with lethal force if they felt it necessary. Amnesty was eventually granted to eleven people by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the massacre remains a sore point between the ANC and IFP.

Yet both of these parties were opposed to Apartheid. Both of them had much to gain from its end, and the elections that were soon to come. The leader of the IFP, Mangosothu Buthelezi, had been a member of the ANC in his youth. You'd think they had a lot in common. But in spite of everything, Inkatha was planning to boycott the elections in protest. How did it come to this?

I can't give a full account of the differences between the two parties, but I can give you a quick summary. So far as I can make out, this is what happened...

The ANC was formed more than a century ago, in protest at the white domination of South Africa. It has a long tradition of opposing Apartheid - sometimes violently, through the Umkhonto weSizwe paramilitary organisation, formed because they despaired of ever achieving anything through political means. The Inkatha Freedom Party was created more recently, in 1975, building on the foundation of a cultural organisation in KwaZulu. Unlike the ANC, it pursued a peaceful path to power - but only on a local level, and through a system that used ethnic differences to ensure that native peoples would be kept divided.

Map showing the Bantustans, just before they were dissolved

Bantustans were areas in which black ethnic groups were given varying degrees of autonomy by the Apartheid government. But they were not particularly good places to live. Their governments were usually corrupt, and most people lived in poverty, forced to travel to South Africa proper for horrible, underpaid jobs. Inkatha came to represent the Zulu monarchy, and held power in the KwaZulu 'homeland'. This wasn't the worst Bantustan, but Inkatha was certainly complicit in the Apartheid policy of 'divide and rule'. With the end of white rule came the end of the Bantustans, which were folded back into South Africa during the course of 1994, and the people there given full citizenship so they could vote in the elections. KwaZulu became part of the KwaZulu Natal region, and the power base of the Inkatha Freedom Party.

The ANC, though, wanted to represent everyone, and they weren't always bothered with whether or not people wanted this. So they campaigned against Inkatha in KwaZulu Natal, which inevitably annoyed Inkatha in the extreme. This wasn't a new problem; they'd been butting heads on this issue since the 1980's. When right-wing elements of the police offered military training and weapons in order to fight back, Inkatha accepted (as we saw earlier in the year). And thus two groups of people that could have been working together ended up trying to kill each other.

The Shell House Massacre was not the beginning of the enmity, nor was it the end. It was just one more horrible step along a path of rivalry that was only growing worse as the elections drew near...

Here's a 2013 news report on a protest to commemorate the massacre: