Voices of Boipatong


On the night of June 17, a posse of armed Zulu men crept out of a migrant workers' hostel near a township called Boipatong, south of Johannesburg, and in an orgy of slaughter hacked, stabbed, and shot thirty-eight people to death in their homes. mong the dead were a nine month-old baby, a child of four, and twenty-four women, one of them pregnant. After the massacre, residents refused to give statements to the police because they were convinced the authorities were involved. (Allister Sparks, Tomorrow is Another Country, 1994)

The events that took place in the dusty and little-known Vaal township of Boipatong on the night of 17 June 1992 became a watershed moment in South Africa's negotiated transition. There were several forensic investigations into the massacre, but it was the political mobilisation of the meanings of the massacre that contributed to constructing the massacre into the turning point in the transition in South Africa. In May 1992, political negotiations at CODESA had become deadlocked over power-sharing with minority groups and the massacre provided the justification for the withdrawal of the ANC from CODESA.

The massacre sparked unprecedented popular outrage. The outcry over the massacre was overtly political. Boipatong was predominantly ANC-aligned. Its attackers came from KwaMadala Hostel, a Vaal stronghold of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), a predominantly Zulu political movement opposed to the ANC since the 1980s. Evidence of prior IFP-state collusion in the Vaal and elsewhere, as well as an array of allegations of police complicity in the Boipatong massacre led to local outrage, national and international reproach. Historian and researcher James Simpson explains,

"The Boipatong massacre occurred a day after the ANC began its mass action Campaign. National and local politics had become increasingly entwined and it was the massacre that provided a symbolic opening through which the rules of a new order could be brought much closer to fruition. Political actors seized upon this moment, hoping to reconstitute those social structures which the transition's dawning had left dislocated. Certain performances were decisive. ANC leaders gestured to the residents of Boipatong, to the country, and to the world with great effect.

Boipatong's people were not a passive audience. Their anger with police was manifest hours before their leaders sought to rouse it. Whether or not the accusations they levelled were true, their call for change reverberated across the country, through the authoring of testimonies, the stamping of feet, the singing of songs, and throwing of stones. South Africa and the world stopped to listen.

Ensuing struggles over the meaning of Boipatong saw the gap it had opened expand ominously into a darkening chasm, threatening to force the pieces of South Africa's torn landscape further and irrevocably apart. It was de Klerk who chose to relent. The swirling mass anger that animated the abyss was aimed at him and his government, as was the brunt of international reproach. Before Boipatong, he had fought tenaciously to retain minority powers, all the while seeking majority support. After the massacre, he resigned himself to the new role of benefactor to the ANC's inevitable rise. The National Party would no longer pursue the retention of power through collaboration with the Inkatha Freedom Party, nor would it stand idly by as violence continued unabated."

Welcome to the website, VOICES OF BOIPATONG that brings together the memories of the residents of Boipatong as they speak of the impact of that fateful day on their lives into the present together with the archive of materials and scholarship generated by this watershed moment in the country's history.

While the Boipatong Massacre of 17 June 1992 served as a critical point in processes that determined the country's political future, the meanings previously attached to the massacre have been whittled down by repeated contestation. This has obscured the lived experiences of an entire community. This website seeks to give recognition to the memories and experiences of the Boipatong community.

© Khulumani Support Group