CAPE TOWN – South Africa was on the brink of what most understood to be its peaceful transition to liberty and democracy when, in July 1993, an aggrieved minority in the larger political equation made a bloody 11th-hour intervention that shocked the country, yet proved to not be a deterrent.
For those involved, it was an extraordinarily testing moment.
“I remember walking into the church,” Bishop Frank Retief, pastoral leader of Kenilworth’s St James Church congregation recalled five years later of the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla) attack during the evening service of July 25, 1993, “and seeing a group of medics working frantically among the splintered pews, trying to save a life.
“As I walked up, someone turned round and said: ‘Bishop, this man’s got no legs.’ I will never forget that moment. I’ll never forget any of it.”
Retief had been at home in Plumstead when Gcinikhaya Makoma, Bassie Mzukisi Mkhumbuzi and Tobela Mlambisi, members of the PAC’s military wing, killed 11 worshippers and injured more than 50 in the rifle and grenade assault, but was alerted the moment it happened.
His second son, Bruce, then 21, and 14-year-old daughter Debby-Anne, were there. He didn’t know as he sped to the scene whether they were alive or not.
“When I got there, I could not believe what I was seeing. You must understand, this is where we had spent our entire working lives, it was all we knew and we knew it well, as a place of great joy and happiness, a place with a buzz. And here was this devastation and death, blood all over, bodies lying in the aisles, their feet sticking out from under blankets, groups of people weeping. People dying, right there.”
Eleven people were killed and 58 injured in the St James church massacre. File photo: Jim McLagan/Independent Media
The first half of the 1990s were late-20th century South Africa’s bloodiest years and, though they delivered a democratic settlement without the civil war many had predicted would be apartheid’s ultimate consequence, violence was widespread and intense.
Whether it was justified or not was fiercely argued. Apla (which had initially denied responsibility) always insisted its attacks of 1993 – at St James’ Church and the Heidelberg Tavern in Observatory and elsewhere in the country – were retaliatory, avenging military action by the apartheid state. In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to the three attackers.
Yet, while the overwhelming response of the St James congregation was one of Christian forbearance and forgiveness, many saw the horror of that July Sunday as an unforgivable moral outrage.
This was certainly the view of Imam Ali Gierdien of the neighbouring Harvey Road Mosque in Lower Claremont, whose letter to the paper on July 27 described the attack as “one of the worst and dastardly acts of violence that has ever been perpetrated in this country where the loss of life means nothing to the murderers whom we all pray will soon be apprehended and brought to book for this vicious and unwarranted deed against innocent people”.
Gierdien said he was convinced that “this is an act of hatred by a very small section of a vast population that does not believe in, nor support, wholesale killings and butchery like this”.
Cape Town woke to grim accounts on July 26, among them the report headlined: “Hymn turns into a bloody nightmare as grenades fly.”
“The killers struck the packed church in suburban Kenilworth halfway through the Sunday evening service, when worshippers were listening to a duo singing the hymn More Than Wonderful.
“A man wearing blue overalls burst through a side-door next to the stage. In the words of Rondebosch schoolgirl Patti Noland, 16: ‘A man was standing at the door with something blue on his head. I saw a gun and flashes and got down. Then the ground shook twice.’
“Seconds later, 10 people were dead or dying; 54 were injured.”
Veteran journalist Vivien Horler described the scene: “When I arrived about 20 minutes after the attack, crowds of anxious people stood outside in pelting rain, their tense faces illuminated by the revolving lights of ambulances, fire engines and police cars. Bodies shrouded in blankets lay on the blue, blood-soaked carpet.”
Argus picture editor Jim McLagan was the first photographer on the scene, 20 minutes after the attack.
He described emergency personnel “putting the injured in ambulances” where “girls were screaming with pain”.
In 1998, when the three attackers were granted amnesty, a report noted that it was tempting to “explain away” the forgiveness expressed by the St James congregation “as a kind of hysteria, a mawkish religiosity”.
The sequel, as may be expected in a country like South Africa, is a plural condition.
The youngest of the St James’ Church killers, Makoma, was back in the news more recently and not creditably, when he was sentenced in 2012 to life and 46 years in prison for his part in a deadly cash-van heist in Parow in December 2007 that cost the life of cash-van driver Andile Selepe.
But there was a very different outcome for two others who were at the tragic centre of the 1993 violence. The former director of Apla operations, Letlapa Mphahlele, and Ginn Fourie, mother of Lyndi Fourie, who was killed in the 1993 Heidelberg Tavern massacre, are today friends and collaborators in an ongoing “conciliation” project through the Lyndi Fourie Foundation.
TOP PHOTO: Ginn Fourie, mother of Lyndi Fourie, who was killed in the 1993 Heidelberg Tavern massacre with former director of Apla operations, Letlapa Mphahlele collaborate in a project through the Lyndi Fourie Foundation. Picture: Forgiveness Project