The Bisho March and the Leipzig Option

Revisionist histories of South Africa’s transition to democracy are overdue, like on the deadly march on Bisho in the Ciskei homeland on 7 September 1992.

The Bhisho Massacre Memorial Site in Bhisho commemorates the victims of the Bhisho Massacre. Image credit Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality CC BY 4.0.

Thirty years ago, on the morning of September 7th, 1992, in the midst of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to liberal democracy, 80,000 demonstrators gathered at the Victoria Grounds in King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape’s Border region. Mobilized by a broad coalition of local organizations, under the banner of the African National Congress (ANC)-led  Tripartite Alliance in the region (which included trade unions and the Communist Party), the demonstrators would march to Bisho, the capital of the nominally independent Ciskei “homeland.”

The protesters planned to hold a “people’s assembly” and to demand the removal of Brigadier Gqozo, whose military regime was waging brutal repression despite the unbanning of the political organizations in 1990. This march was a remarkable performance of mobilization but the events are best known for the tragedy that unfolded at the homeland’s border after the Ciskei Defence Force (CDF) opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing 29 people and injuring more than 200.

Once a collection of colonial reserves, the Ciskei bantustan was reinvented as an ethnic-national unit under the apartheid government’s project of self-governing bantustans or “homelands.” Granted nominal “independence” in 1981, the small and scattered Ciskei was always overshadowed by the larger and more powerful Transkei; both regimes were established as ostensible Xhosa “homelands.” The pseudo-ethnic structures on which the Ciskei regime rested were defunct and illegitimate: by the 1980s, Lennox Sebe’s regime relied on intense military repression and was rampantly corrupt.

Sebe’s replacement in early 1990 by Brigadier “Oupa” Gqozo, brought to power in a bloodless coup by senior officers in the CDF, was initially celebrated by the liberation movement. But Gqozo’s initial nod to democratization quickly unraveled: free political activity was prevented by repressive security laws, violent policing, and a murderous campaign by the so-called African Democratic Movement (ADM). Developed under the influence of South African Military Intelligence and modeled on Inkatha (Buthelezi’s Zulu ethnonationalist movement, supported by the government in its war against the ANC), the ADM was employed to enforce the reintroduction of headmen in Ciskei, in the face of resistance by civic organizations whose authority the regime intended to displace.

Understandably, narratives of the march on Bisho in September 1992 have focused on the forces culpable for the brutal massacre. The Goldstone Commission (set up by the outgoing apartheid government in 1992) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which, between 1996 and 1998, held public hearings on apartheid atrocities), blamed the CDF, whose troops opened fire in the disproportionate and frenzied attack on unarmed demonstrators, alongside the South African regime, who supported Ciskei and refused to rein it in. Criticism was also leveled at the march leadership, particularly Ronnie Kasrils (a former leader of the ANC’s armed wing and later government minister), who led protesters through a gap in the fence of the Bisho stadium, triggering the violence.

Some journalists claimed that the march was driven by the South African Communist Party’s “insurrectionists” in the national leadership, who, inspired by popular revolutions in Eastern Europe, invoked the “Leipzig Option” of rolling mass action to overthrow the regime. However, historical research reveals that this is a partial truth: the campaign in Ciskei had been driven not by national leaders but by local organizations, while mass action was itself a terrain of contestation within the Tripartite Alliance.

The Bisho march of September 1992 became a theater of national politics. As talks cohered in 1991-92, the ANC leadership faced growing criticism from its grassroots who were frustrated with the elite negotiations and eager to see meaningful material change. By May 1992, when the  CODESA (Congress for a Democratic South Africa) negotiations collapsed, frustrated and impatient comrades in the wider Alliance, who had long called for a return to the streets, were rewarded with the ANC’s endorsement of a renewed mass action campaign.

The meanings of mass action were complex, and their politics were contested. As James Hamill argued, the real debate within the Alliance was not between negotiation on one hand, and mass action, on the other, as was often suggested, but over the role of mass action in the transition and its relationship with negotiations. If a few SACP intellectuals threw about a discourse of the “Leipzig option,” other more powerful Alliance leaders, such as the ANC’s Secretary General, Cyril Ramaphosa, looked to mass action both as a game of hardball, to press for concessions from the government in negotiations, and as a method to restore the organization’s mandate to negotiate by renewing its relationship with the grassroots. At a local level in Border, civic organizations employed direct action to bring about meaningful local democratic change.

Although Ciskei was small and weak, the strength of opposition to it made the situation in the Border region highly influential in shaping ANC politics at the national level. By late August 1992, with the national leadership lacking clear direction in the next phase of national mass action, the campaign in Border presented a prime opportunity to focus and intensify the ANC’s national strategy. The Bisho march of September 1992 was the product of local mobilization and regional leadership, yet it became subject to the preoccupations of national politics as the negotiations reached a critical juncture.

Throughout 1991 the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) aspired to “speak with one voice” with bantustan leaders, hoping to include them in a Popular Front alliance. The ANC’s proposals on the idea of interim government to CODESA, which crystallized in late 1991, proposed to include the “TBVC states” (the “independent” Transkei; Bophuthatswana; Venda; and Ciskei) in interim structures, but negotiators had underestimated the complex politics of homeland reincorporation. As the CODESA negotiations progressed, it became clear that the “independent” TBVC states could not be treated as a bloc, nor could the support of favorable bantustan elites be taken for granted. While the ANC had developed a firm alliance with Bantu Holomisa in Transkei and fostered associations with bantustan elites in Venda and in various of the smaller “self-governing” bantustans (Gazankulu, KaNgwane), it struggled to firm up the Alliance for which its leaders had initially hoped. Buthelezi and Mangope, head of the most powerful bantustans of “self-governing” KwaZulu and “independent” Bophuthatswana respectively, remained as intransigent obstacles to democratic reform. The government and its security forces continued to support the bantustan regimes as allies in its federal designs.

Residents of the Border region refused to be represented at CODESA by a repressive military dictator supported only by the white regime. Frustrated by the slow pace of change and facing violent repression, in late 1991 the broad-based Campaign for Peace and Democracy developed in the Border region, spearheaded by civic organizations. They identified Gqozo’s regime as the principal impediment to democracy and sought to replace it with an interim administration. Members of the ANC NEC, informed by a conciliatory approach preferred by older politicians from prison and exile, intervened to placate Gqozo and to rein in the Border radicals, seeking to preserve the momentum of the fragile national negotiations. This rankled with activists of the United Democratic Front in Ciskei and other bantustans who faced savage and unrelenting repression.

This tension—between the ANC’s national prerogatives and the dynamics of local struggles—came to a head in  March 1992, when an intensified campaign against Gqozo in the Border caused a national furor. Gqozo and other bantustan leaders threatened to pull out of negotiations and CODESA’s Management Committee withdrew from the dispute. The NEC again leaned on the Border ANC leadership to temper their campaign, which pressed ahead nevertheless. This dispute of March 1992 exposed the problems with the ANC’s proposals for interim government: they would never be accepted in Border, where much of the organization’s support lay. This realization by the ANC leadership contributed in turn to the collapse of talks: Ramaphosa admitted that the negotiating teams had conceded more than could be accepted by the grassroots, and had focused too much on national issues.

The left wing of the Alliance was steadily regaining influence, bolstered by the national mass action campaign of early August 1992. While turnout for the campaign was mixed, especially in metropolitan areas, it was obvious that mass action in the border region was exceptionally popular and militant: a huge demonstration of 50,000 had marched on Bisho on August 4th, resulting in a tense and protracted stand-off between demonstrators and armed Ciskei riot police. Amid criticism of neglecting their constituencies in the negotiations, and following the government’s referendum for white voters (asking them whether they approved of the decision to negotiate with the ANC), an anxious ANC leadership identified the opportunity to renew their mandate by visible association with a struggle whose signs and symbols were solidly ANC. Having actively sought to stem the campaign in the border, the NEC now looked to turn local mobilization to strategic advantage in negotiations, thereby “harnessing the power of the people.” At a national Alliance summit in late August, following a briefing from the border ANC, it was decided to turn the national focus of mass action to the hostile bantustan regimes, and first to Ciskei. The local campaign in Ciskei offered an appealing model to the strategists of the national mass action campaign. The assumed weakness of the Ciskei regime made it an easy first target for popular action, to be followed by marches mooted on the capitals of Qwaqwa, KwaZulu, and Bophuthatswana. With great haste, enthusiasm and confidence, a repeat march to Bisho was to be planned in just two weeks.

If the national leadership belatedly leaped to support the campaign in the border, they also  disregarded the threat of state violence, which had only been averted at the march on August 4th after tense and protracted negotiations. Brigadier Gqozo, determined to prevent the  forthcoming march, threatened to use his full military capacity to stop demonstrators from reaching Bisho. Warnings of state violence proliferated across the political spectrum. Determined to demonstrate a show of force against Gqozo and his South African sponsors, violence was a risk acknowledged and accepted by the march leadership at both local and national levels, but this risk was never methodically assessed.

Among various local organizing committees formed in preparation for the march, a strategizing committee was appointed by the regional Alliance leadership to make tactical decisions on the day of the march. Dominated by SACP members and national leaders, the civic organizations, who had been at the heart of the local campaign, and church leaders, who cautioned repeatedly against the threat of violence, were excluded from this committee. The committee was influenced by a misplaced hope that, when faced with the weight of  popular mobilization, Ciskei troops would refuse to fire on “their people” and defect to the liberation movement. As events unfolded, the strategizing committee came to have disproportionate influence on the outcomes of the march.

On the morning of September 7th, an advance party set out to survey the route only minutes ahead of the main body of the march. This advance party, among whom many were members of the strategizing committee, found their route to Bisho blocked by a razor wire fence at the border between South Africa and Ciskei, which would corral the huge demonstration into the Bisho stadium. As the march reached the border, amid the chaos and confusion of the crowd caged in at the razor wire border, the committee hurriedly resolved to enter the stadium and breach the boundary fence in order to reach Bisho. There was apparent confusion and disagreement among leaders at the head of the march, not all of whom were in the strategizing committee. In resolving to break out of the stadium, the committee subverted the conditions of the march and the structures of the peace accord which had been so critical in preventing state violence at the march on August 4th. They made a tragic miscalculation.

Against the backdrop of intense political violence, attacks on Ciskei personnel, and police intelligence reports of a planned coup, CDF troops feared they would face an armed onslaught. They had been instructed by their superiors to hold the border and block the  marchers from entering Bisho. The Ciskei riot police present at the border, trained in crowd control and charged with defending Bisho, were sidelined by CDF bosses in the scrambled defense operation. As the demonstrators breached the stadium fence, CDF troops reported that they were under attack and were granted orders to fire. They did so, in a frenzied show of force, raining down bullets and grenades on the demonstrators around the stadium and on the dense crowd corralled at the razor wire border. Twenty nine people were killed, and more than 200 were badly injured.

In the aftermath of this horror, accusations flew. Contrary to claims by Gqozo and the South African government, it was clear that the majority of the demonstrators had been unarmed; that the use of live ammunition was disproportionate and displayed total disregard for human life. If blame lay principally with the state security forces, the ANC were also accused of playing a dangerous game of political hardball.

Facing criticism of their own leadership, and only quietly reproaching those in the breakaway group, the ANC curated its narrative of the march. Kasrils at first boasted that “everyone knew there was a risk … but we believed getting rid of Gqozo was worth the risk,” while Ramaphosa argued that the shooting was a “completely unprovoked attack on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators.” Kasrils later claimed naivety: at the TRC he argued that “if we had known that the Ciskeian forces would open fire … we would never have taken those risks. We did not imagine that Gqozo, would dare react with such brute force … .” Aimed to deflect blame and to direct it rightly at the Ciskei regime and the government, efforts to underplay the anticipated confrontation, and claims that leaders could not have anticipated violence, were nevertheless disingenuous. A report of the march and its background prepared by members of the border ANC leadership in advance of the Goldstone Commission was quieted: their report seemed to contradict a cohering narrative preferred by the national leadership under Ramaphosa, which underplayed the determination, militancy, and initiative of the local campaign in favor of an image of naïve demonstrators led by unsuspecting national leaders.

The massive marches on Bisho in August and September were not the product of national initiative: they were organized by regional Alliance networks, in response to local demand. The campaign in Ciskei was shaped by the political traditions of the civic organizations, who called for a 24-hour people’s assembly in Bisho and through the performance of direct democracy hoped to elect an interim administration in Ciskei. Few civic leaders would have recognized the rhetoric of the “Leipzig option” adopted by SACP intellectuals: rather, a main point of reference was  the “Open City” campaign through which local democratic negotiations had begun in cities such as Cape Town, and from which East London was obstructed by the Ciskei, which incorporated the city’s largest township of Mdantsane.

It is often argued that the Bisho massacre, having threatened the negotiations completely, conversely resulted in a restored commitment to talks as the negotiating parties stared into “the abyss of violence.” The Record of Understanding of 26th September 1992, frequently understood as the logical outcome of the Bisho massacre, was the product of bilateral negotiations between the ANC and NP underway since August 1992. The tragedy of the massacre undoubtedly shaped the Understanding, prompting a summit on peace, but bilateral negotiations led by Ramaphosa and Roelf Meyer had been progressing for some weeks. Amid these ongoing deliberations, the Bisho march was exploited by national politicians to give weight to hard talk while evidencing their legitimacy through the performance of popular leadership.

Ramaphosa, himself personally shaken by his experience at Bisho, nevertheless effectively utilized the march and massacre to legitimize his leadership in negotiations. He presented the march as evidence of  the responsiveness of the leadership to the grassroots in repost to the disillusioned within his own ranks, and as a marker of popular support to substantiate demands to the government. Cautioned in the wake of the massacre, after brief consultation with the NEC Ramaphosa conceded that the leadership would no longer endorse mass action to bolster political negotiations. Some in the ANC saw the violence at Bisho as expedient: it was “just what was needed to get negotiations going again.”

The transition was not formulated, as some accounts would have it, in the boardrooms of Johannesburg. The enduring struggles waged by local civic movements and the structures of the United Democratic Front continued to shape the politics of the transition. The mass action campaign of 1992 and the escalating situation in Ciskei exposed the faultlines of the ANC-led Alliance, itself in transition. The crisis in Ciskei forced the ANC national leadership—initially naïve in their approach towards the bantustans and too focused on issues of central government—to realize that politics in the bantustans could not be dismissed as marginal. Returning to multilateral negotiations at the Multi Party Negotiating Forum (MPNF) in 1993, ANC negotiators had learned that the thorny local and regional politics concerning the future of the bantustans would have to occupy significant focus in the deliberations.

Further Reading