On 17 June 1992 the Joe Slovo Informal settlement in Boipatong outside Vereeniging was attacked by a group of about 300 armed men from Kwa Madala Hostel in nearby Sebokeng Township. The armed men were affiliated to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and observers suspected that the attack was aimed at undermining the delicate process of negotiations between the Nationalist Party (NP) government and the African National Congress (ANC). In response to the massacre the ANC withdrew from the negotiations, blaming the NP government for the attack.

The Boipatong massacre is one of the bloodiest and brutal moments of popular violence that engulfed South Africa in the decade between 1984 and 1993. Beginning in nearby Sebokeng and Sharpeville Townships, popular violence spread across South Africa, passing Boipatong by. Just when an end to popular violence appeared in sight, machete and spear-wielding “Zulu impis” struck, generating widespread condemnation for the IFP and Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi.   

After the massacre, on 18 June 1992, Joe Slovo and Cyril Ramaphosa visited Boipatong. Ramaphosa accused De Klerk and the police of complicity in the massacre. Then on the 19 June, religious figures Bishop Desmond Tutu and afterwards Ray Macauley visited the grieving families in Boipatong. 

Then on 20 June 1992 state President F.W De Klerk visited Boipatong under heavy police guard in an attempt to show “sympathy” for the victims. But, residents of the area were even more agitated by the visit and vented their anger chanting “To hell with de Klerk -- go away, go away”. His heavily guarded motorcade slowly drove down Bakoena Street which divides Boipatong bungalows from Slovo Park. The motorcade stopped in the middle of the where massacres had taken place. The angry crowd surged forward leading to confrontation with his security team. Consequently, he was compelled to stay in his vehicle. After a tense 15 minutes, De Klerk was forced to leave the area with people chasing his convoy.

Women mourning the death of nine month old Aaron Mathope killed in the Boipatong Massacre in June 1992, Photographer: Greg Marinovich, Africamediaonline.

Subsequent to his departure, armored vehicles moved into the area. One person was shot dead by the police resulting in a confrontation between the police and the residents as the latter attempted to identify the body. The police opened fire on the crowd forcing them to flee for cover across the veldt.

After the departure of De Klerk, Winnie Mandela visited Boipatong and addressed residents. Lastly, on 21 June 1992 with Nelson Mandela, Cryril Ramaphosa and other leading members of the ANC visited Boipatong. In addressing people on the field where the police had fired on a crowd of protestors after the hasty departure of De Klerk, Mandela expressed his anger, ‘I am convinced we are no longer dealing with human beings but animals...We will not forget what Mr de Klerk, the National Party and the Inkatha Freedom Party have done to our people. I have never seen such cruelty.” He then proceeded to Sebokeng where he addressed a rally. On 23 June the ANC NEC convened a meeting and resolved to suspend negotiations with the government citing its complicity in the massacre as the reason.

The Goldstone Commission appointed to investigate political violence during the transition period tasked British criminologist Dr. Peter A.J. Waddington to investigate the attack. He noted that the police investigating the massacre did not collect fingerprints, blood samples and other evidence which could assist in identifying the perpetrators and securing a successful conviction. Despite this, his report stated that there was no evidence of police complicity or involvement in the massacre. He concluded that the South African Police (SAP) lacked proper investigative procedures in dealing with even sensitive cases such as the massacre.  In 1993 members of the IFP were arrested and convicted for their involvement in the massacre. About 100 Boipatong residents and five State witnesses testified in their trial.

President FW De Klerk in his vehicle visiting Boipatong on 20 June 1992, Photographer: Greg Marinovich, http://mg.co.za/

Rather than derailing the negotiation process, the Boipatong massacre seems to have strengthened the resolve of those seeking to reach a peaceful settlement. While it may have heralded the end of the first Congress for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA I), but it paved the way for the emergence of CODESA II, which prepared South Africa for the first democratic elections held less than two years later. 

After the transition from Apartheid to democratic rule, sixteen members of the IFP applied for amnesty and appeared before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) held at the Sebokeng College of Education in July 1998. By their own admission they carried out the attacks as members of the IFP. In his testimony to the TRC one of the men, Vincent Khanyile claimed that the reason for the attack was revenge. He claimed that a week earlier, three members of the IFP were shot and killed by members of the Self Defense Units (SDU) in Boipatong.

Self Defense Units were organized and usually armed groups of youth formed to protect residents from hostel inmates in townships across the country. It is believed that just as the security agencies of the apartheid state were responsible for arming vigilante groups like the IFP, SDUs were armed by 7 underground Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) operatives.   

Most accounts of the Boipatong massacre continue to explain the attack as the apartheid government’s attempt to undermine the ANC ahead of the envisaged democratic elections. The IFP was an instrument used to achieve this objective. It is generally assumed that because the attackers were inmates of Kwa Madala Hostel, they had not fully integrated into local communities, they could kill with impunity. When mass action campaigns were planned, some argue, hostel inmates were not part of decision-making processes.

Police open fire on ANC supporters after they attempt to claim a body of a person shot by the police on 20 June 1992, Photographer: Greg Marinovich, Permission: Africamediaonline.

This explanation overlooks significant developments in relations between hostel inmates and township residents in the period 1978 to 1983. In townships across South Africa interactions between hostel inmates and township residents were typically neighbourly, with both sets of communities living almost cheek by jowl with each other. Residents of Sebokeng remember that before the hostilities broke out, they used to walk across the hostel on their way to bus and taxi ranks along Golden Highway. More importantly though, there were “Spaza shops” inside the hostel that residents patronized. Residents had unrestricted access to the hostel.

Similarly, hostel inmates were regular patrons in township shebeens. These regular visits often led to growing relations between hostel inmates and young women in the townships. In a few cases these relations produced children. The existence of such bonds between hostel inmates and township residents makes the brutality shown in the Boipatong massacre illogical.

The rage displayed by hostel inmates has been the subject of heated debates in townships and academic discourses. Township legends often invoke the use of the potion known as “intelezi” administered by traditional doctors before the “Zulu warriors” set out to attack. It is believed the potion numbs the warriors of any feeling of compassion for the victims. This is often used to explain why one of the attackers drove a spear through the body of a two year old toddler in the arms of his mother. Other attacks, described in the TRC are even more gruesome.

Throughout the Witwatersrand (present day Gauteng), where popular violence involving the IFP was widespread and intense, the brutality of the “Zulu warriors” have become legendary. The attack on students at the University of Zululand in 1983 was carried out with the same degree of ferocity shown to residents of the Joe Slovo Informal Settlement in Boipatong. It was believed that in this case, the majority of students were from outside KZN and therefore unlikely to be spared by the “warriors”.

Few, if any of the accounts of popular violence involving the IFP offer a detailed explanation of the roots of animosity the “warriors” seemed to have for township residents. Sources suggest that the IFP was manipulated by the NP government to undermine and weaken the ANC in the months leading to the first democratic elections in April 1994. Considering the history of cordial and sometimes warm interactions between hostel inmates and township residents, this explanation appears wanting.

It is not only the social and historical background of the “warriors” that needs to be unravelled in these violent encounters. Township residents were themselves not a homogenous group. The majority of residents of the Joe Slovo Informal Settlement came from Boipatong Township established in the 1950s. With the apartheid government not providing new houses in black townships in the 1960s and 1970s, overcrowding became inevitable. Residents erected backyard shacks as families increased numerically in the 1970s and 1980s before others moved out to establish homes in the burgeoning informal settlements.

But not all residents of the Joe Slovo Informal Settlement came from Boipatong. During the 1980s and early in the 1990s thousands of families were forced off the land on white commercial farms on either side of the Vaal River. As agricultural operations became mechanized, farmers’ demand for labour decreased substantially, forcing those not gainfully employed to migrate to the towns. The remainder of residents at the settlement came from the white farms and small holdings on both sides of the river. This in itself is a factor in explaining the ferocity of the violence that swept through the Vaal townships in the 1980s and 1990s.


This article calls for a more systematic and detailed analysis of communities that were embroiled in the popular violence of the 1980s and 1990s. The suggestion that supporters of the IFP were duped by the apartheid government into attacking township residents across the Witwatersrand overlooks some critical factors in the relationship between the two groups.  

Collections in the Archives