The Shell House Massacre: Another piece of the bloody puzzle emerges
The key mystery from the events of March 28, 1994 is just who the snipers were atop the roof(s) around the Library Gardens.
One of our readers was an eyewitness to what happened at the Library Gardens. He wanted a smoke and this decision led him out onto a fire escape. From here, this former military conscript had a good view of the square below, as well as the surrounding buildings.
He noticed a young white man on one of the several rooftops of the multi-levelled Sage Life building (Now the Department of Transport & Public Works). The building is a vaguely modernist glass and concrete edifice. It has various sections ending at different heights, and this particular rooftop was about three-quarters of the way up the full height of the building.
The man, the eyewitness recalls, “… looked like a South African, was very fit and extremely relaxed. He had a can of Coke and was smoking a cigarette… dressed in Chinos and a short-sleeved shirt.”
The reason he was paying such close attention to his fellow smoker was that there were five R4 rifles with telescopic sights laid out next to the parapet. Sniper rifles.
The commission of inquiry into the Shell House massacre, led by Judge Robert Nugent, decided that there were no rooftop shooters that day. This despite the control room receiving a message from a policeman, warning his colleagues that shots were being fired into the crowd from rooftops.
Our witness says that the rifles were in place thirty minutes before the Inkatha members began to gather in the square below. By the time the Library Gardens were full, and the rally had begun, there were five snipers in place on the rooftop(s), lying flat on their stomachs.
The commission found that there were shots being fired into the air from the crowd, a common enough practice at political rallies, but this happening in the centre of Johannesburg would have spooked the police and others.
The commission found that there were indeed people on the rooftops, including three members of the Internal Stability Unit in camouflage uniforms, along with a civilian employed at Sage Life on the very top roof of the multi-levelled Sage Life building. He believed that they were there to observe the crowd.
The Judge believed that the shooting that erupted at Library Gardens was unprovoked and most likely a result of the echoes of these un-aimed shots from the crowd that led many to believe they were under attack, and to begin to shoot at the rooftops. The dust kicked off the buildings by gunfire from below, he says, was what people took to be gunfire from the rooftops down to the square.
Our nicotine-loving reader saw a different version of events. He saw the snipers picking off people in the crowd. He also noticed the three riot-uniformed policemen, and said they could clearly see the snipers on the rooftop below them.
“You may recall, also, that in those days, the gardens were enclosed by walled structures with terracotta roof tiles. When one of the gunmen on the south of the Library Gardens was shot dead, he let off a round that hit one of the tiles from underneath.
“I saw the puff of tile dust. So the next day I went out to the Library Gardens and found a corner of the tile that had been unintentionally shot off.
“I kept it. Then I looked around for the bullet. I found it. I kept it, too.”
The Nugent Commission says this: “There is substantial evidence that people amongst the crowd did take out firearms and begin shooting at about this time.
“Some of those amongst the crowd also told policemen on the scene that shots were being fired from surrounding buildings.
“While we have not discounted entirely that possibility, we have found no evidence of substance that this was so, and it is quite possible that a mistaken belief to that effect was induced by a number of coinciding circumstances.
“I have already indicated that shots were fired from amongst the crowd, the sound of which would have echoed from the surrounding buildings.
“At the time there were a number of uniformed men, and perhaps some cameramen, on top of certain of the buildings overlooking Library Gardens.
“Three officers of Unit 6 of the Internal Stability Unit had taken up a position on the roof of Customs House in Market Street, in the company of an employee of the Department of Customs.
“There were personnel of Volkskas Bank on the roof of its premises alongside.
“Three members of the Internal Stability Unit were on the roof of Mutual & Federal Centre in President Street; and three members of the Internal Stability Unit and an employee of Sage Life were on the roof of Sage Life Building, which is also in that street.
“The police officers had taken up these positions to observe events taking place below.
“Some of them, at least, were in possession of either R4 or R5 rifles, and were dressed in camouflage.
“Their presence, together with echoes from shots fired from amongst the crowd, could easily have given the impression to observers that they were firing at the crowd.
“There is also substantial evidence that members of the crowd, and police officers too, fired back in the direction of some of these buildings, though precisely what they thought they were firing at is difficult to discern.
“Spurts of dust and debris from these shots striking the buildings would only have fuelled the mistaken belief that shots were being fired from the buildings, and led to more shooting in return, and in our view to a large extent that is what occurred.”
Now every lawyer says that the worst witness is an eyewitness, and this might apply equally to our DM reader – and to those that appeared before the Nugent Commission. Yet despite this, the finding of the commission does not convince me in this regard.
While I was not down in the square when the shooting began – I was further down, at Shell House – I was there soon enough to speak to witnesses. Police, soldiers and IFP members all believed that there was shooting coming down at them from the rooftops. While civilians might easily be confused as to the source of gunfire, soldiers and paramilitary policemen, like so many of our South African cops, are less likely to get this wrong. And let us not forget that by 1994, Inkatha had been involved in a war with the ANC for a decade and a half in KwaZulu-Natal, and for four years in the Transvaal.
The DM reader who watched this unfold believes that the snipers took out people in the crowd who were firing handguns at, he believes, the IFP leaders at the podium. I am not convinced that there were those among the crowd shooting at the podium. The leaders there never gave any testimony to that, or even made claims to that effect in the media. If they believed they had been the targets of an assassination attempt, they would have said so.
It is most likely that the snipers were part of a police or military unit, covert or otherwise. The mystery remains as to what their orders were. Were they there to foil a possible assassination attempt – after all, the IFP leaders at the square Themba Khoza and Humphrey Ndlovu worked closely with police, both covertly and overtly. Or were they there to create chaos, and try to derail the upcoming elections? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has heard from policemen who did just such work – especially on the commuter trains in and around Johannesburg.
The questions remain unanswered. In the meantime, we hope more of you will contribute to this and other fragments of our history. DM
Photo: A dead Zulu supporter of Inkatha after a downtown battle when Inkatha Freedom party members tried to storm the ANC’s headquarters Shell House. Several Zulus were killed, and it became known as the Shell House Massacre, downtown Johannesburg, 1994. The shoes are taken off to allow the soul to enter the afterlife unpolluted by dirt. (Greg Marinovich)
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