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The Bisho massacre occurred on 7 September 1992 in Bisho, in the nominally independent homeland of Ciskei in South Africa. Twenty-eight African National Congress supporters and one soldier were shot dead by the Ciskei Defence Force during a protest march when they attempted to enter Bisho (now renamed to Bhisho) to demand the reincorporation of Ciskei into South Africa during the final years of apartheid.
Bisho (now spelled Bhisho) was the capital of the Ciskei, a nominally independent homeland (bantustan) for the Xhosa people in South Africa. The system of racially segregated homelands had been a core of apartheid, but between 1990 and 1994, negotiations were taking place between the government of South Africa and the African National Congress (ANC) to end the apartheid system.
With multi-racial democratic elections as the likely outcome of the negotiations, the ANC wished to organise and mobilise its supporters in the Ciskei, particularly as it lay in the Eastern Cape area, a traditional stronghold for ANC supporters. However, its military leader Brigadier Oupa Gqozo resisted this and prevented the ANC from organising.
Protest march and massacre
On 3 September, the ANC sent a memorandum to President F. W. de Klerk demanding that he replace Gqozo with an interim administration which would permit free democratic activity in Ciskei, but De Klerk refused, on the grounds that the Ciskei did not fall under South Africa’s jurisdiction. At the time, negotiations had broken down, with the ANC withdrawing following the Boipatong massacre and accusing de Klerk's government of fomenting the violence.
As a result, the ANC began a campaign of "mass action", organising a protest march to occupy Bisho and force Gqozo's resignation. Gqozo sought a court interdict to prevent the march, and the magistrate ruled that it could take place at the homeland's independence stadium, outside Bisho, but could not enter the capital. The ANC refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the Ciskei court.
On 7 September, about 80 000 protesters gathered outside Bisho, signalling the wide opposition to Gqozo's rule. The meeting was led by senior ANC leaders including South African Communist Party Secretary General Chris Hani, Cyril Ramaphosa, Steve Tshwete and Ronnie Kasrils.
When Kasrils led a group trying to break through the Ciskei Defence Force lines to enter Bisho, Ciskei Defence Force soldiers opened fire on the marchers with automatic weapons, killing 28 marchers and one soldier, and injuring over 200. More than 425 rounds were fired, the first fusillade lasting one and a half minutes, and the second lasting a minute.
Various inquiries agreed that the order to fire came from Colonel Vakele Archibald Mkosana, who incorrectly told his commanders by radio that his troops were under fire, and was given permission to return fire. Rifleman Mzamile Thomas Gonya was also found to have opened fire with a grenade launcher, killing one marcher.
The Goldstone Commission was tasked with investigating the massacre, and Justice Richard Goldstone condemned Gqozo for preventing political activity in Ciskei as well as for the lethal brutality of the Ciskei Defence Force troops. It dismissed his claim that the demonstrators had fired first, and it was later found that a Ciskei soldier who died during the shooting had been shot by a fellow soldier. It recommended strong action against Gqozo and those responsible. It also condemned Ronnie Kasrils for his irresponsible action in leading marchers breaking through the razor wire and provoking the forces into opening fire.
Ultimately, the massacre led to new negotiations between the ANC and the government. Nelson Mandela met de Klerk on 26 September and signed a Record of Understanding, establishing an independent body to oversee police operations.[page needed]
Gqozo remained in power in Ciskei but resigned shortly before the elections of 27 April 1994.
A granite monument was erected on the site of the massacre, outside Independence Stadium, off Maitland Road between Bhisho and King William's Town. It was unveiled by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1997. The victims were buried in Ginsberg township outside King William's Town.
Truth Commission hearing and prosecution
Only two applications for amnesty for the massacre were received by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, from Colonel Mkosana, who gave the order to open fire, and Rifleman Gonya, who fired a grenade launcher. Gqozo agreed to testify before the TRC, but failed to appear after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital suffering from depression.
In 2000, both Mkosana and Gonya were denied amnesty on the grounds that their actions were reckless and disproportionate and not associated with a political motive.
Following their failure to receive amnesty, Mkosana and Gonya were charged with one count of murder and Mkosana with 28 counts of culpable homicide. They were found not guilty on all charges on the grounds of self-defence.
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- Mandela, Nelson (1994). Long Walk to Freedom.
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- Flanagan, Louise (14 March 2002). "Mkosana, Gonya freed on all charges". Dispatch Online.