South Africa

South Africa

The Truth Elusive: Shell House massacre, 20 years later

The Truth Elusive: Shell House massacre, 20 years later

That seminal year of 1994 leaps into the mind’s eye like it were just yesterday, yet infants born that year have since mysteriously developed into voting adults. GREG MARINOVICH looks back at Shell House, a massacre of Inkatha Freedom Party loyalists in the run-up to the elections that could have forever altered South Africa's future.

(Editing this story was no easy task. It was a stomach-churning, gut-wrenching experience. The images you will see, should you continue to read this important story, may be traumatising to you. We took the decision to publish them, graphic as they are, because 28 March 1994 was a day of extreme violence and we feel it would be dishonest – and disrespectful to those who lost their lives – to present the story in a sanitised way. We apologise and share your horror. – Editor)

In March of 1994, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) Transvaal leaders/warlords Themba Khoza and Humphrey Ndlovu called for a rally to support the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelethini. Just a month before the first democratic elections, it was going to be an important test of South Africa’s resilience.

At that stage, Inkatha was refusing to take part in the elections due on 27 April, and their supporters were involved in a stream of constant clashes with African National Congress supporters across the Reef, the Vaal Triangle and KwaZulu-Natal. Up in the Transvaal, it was referred to it as the Hostel War, as most of the Inkatha strongholds were in or around migrant worker hostels – fortress-like structures in a time of conflict.

On 28 March 1994, journalists, police, military units and peace monitors began work long before dawn, traversing the black townships that punctuated the towns and cities along the reef of gold deep under the veld. Thousands of Zulu men poured out of hostels and shanty neighbourhoods, resplendent in their IFP regalia and a variety of militant, traditional or simply peculiar adornment. Civilians not savvy enough to have stayed in bed, ran from the stick- and spear-wielding men as they advanced.

Trains and minibuses heading toward Johannesburg’s city centre overflowed with singing, chanting men, led by indunas who could best be described as Roman centurions. The cohorts they led were called amabutho, yet the military bond was clear and unmistakable.

The meeting point was the Library Gardens, once the mining town’s market square. As legions of warriors and supporters converged on the square from all directions, tensions were high.

Bystanders scattered as the men, accompanied by a few women, strode down the city streets, overturning trashcans and looting street vendors’ goods. The route of many of the Inkatha supporters from the east was directly along Jeppe Street, and the ANC’s Shell House headquarters.

Inside the multi-storeyed building, a couple of hundred metres from a large taxi rank, ANC leaders and security officials fretted. There were rumours that Inkatha were planning to attack the building. There was a large police presence throughout Johannesburg. As the numbers at Library Gardens gradually swelled, journalists followed small groups of marchers or, like us, the photographers, went to drop off exposed film to get developed. There was time, we thought, to grab a bite to eat, and then head back to the rally.

Heading back towards downtown, we heard a police radio squawk with activity. “Member down, member down!” Police vehicles raced in various directions and we tried to figure out where to go, racing though the oddly deserted streets away from the Library Gardens. To our uninitiated ears, Member down seemed to mean a policeman was down, wounded or dead. When we finally got to the centre of the fracas, it was a couple of city blocks from the rally destination; it was at Shell House.

It was not policemen who were down, but rather Inkatha members – a semantic nod to the covert alliance between Inkatha and the Apartheid state. The sidewalks were littered with the bodies of dead and wounded Inkatha men. Their rich red blood was spreading thickly across the dirt-strewn streets.

A man lay face-down in his own life essence, the blood staining his cowhide shield – the symbol of a proud Zulu martial tradition useless against bullets.


One man laughed and joked as a paramedic tried to stem the torrent of blood from his lower leg, which was hanging by a thread. Perhaps, I thought, he was joking because the injured leg was withered and deformed from some childhood disease or birth defect. Perhaps, in shock, he was laughing at an empty victory for his enemies.


ANC security guards had opened fire on Inkatha members they believed were trying to breach the Shell House entrance. In the Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearings some years later, the ANC’s head of security at Shell House, Gary Kruser, said he had been warned there would be an attack on the building. A group of IFP marchers approached the entrance and he saw several weapons, including a rifle. Gunfire from the crowd hit the walls of Shell House and he told guards to fire warning shots, which had no effect. He then ordered more direct, and deadly, fire.



Photo: More IFP wounded and dead after African National Congress guards opened fire on Inkatha Freedom Party marchers. Johannesburg, South Africa. 28 March 1994 (Greg Marinovich)

Other witnesses say the Inkatha members did not open fire, merely chanted and sang outside the entrance, waving their traditional weapons.

Ten days after the killings, Chief Zwelethini said, “As our investigation of the event shows, witnesses (including ANC officials) saw Zulus slaughtered in cold blood merely for having the temerity to march close to the ANC headquarters.

As things now stand, I cannot encourage my father’s people to vote on the 26th, 27th and 28th of April, and thereby lend legitimacy to what will be destructive of the very foundations on which the sovereignty of the Zulu Kingdom rests. You, Sir, are rushing into an election which I and the Zulu people reject.

After the Shell House massacre, the Zulu Nation carries an additional open wound: those who died because they were exercising their democratic right to oppose the election, shall be celebrated and remembered in various ways which we will announce soon.”

The Nugent Commission was set up to discover the truth, and Justice Robert Nugent declared that the IFP recounting was closer to reality, saying the ANC security contingent’s shooting was unjustified.


Photo: Police take cover as African National Congress guards opened fire on Inkatha Freedom Party marchers when they approached the ANC headquarters of Shellhouse, Johannesburg. 28 March 1994 (Greg Marinovich)

A year after the massacre, Nelson Mandela was heckled when he told Parliament that he had given the order to defend Shell House, and to “kill, if necessary”.

The Shell House Massacre was a stain on Nelson Mandela’s reputation, yet there appears to have been a lot more at play that day.

It is strange that police did not take adequate precautions to prevent a confrontation between the two parties. It would have come as no surprise that clashes would occur – the conflict between the ANC and Inkatha had seen tens of thousands of deaths in the previous four years. Every rally or march in those days inevitably led to conflict and often deaths. The months before the election were even more fraught.

Yet beyond the eight deaths outside of Shell House, many more died in and around the city. At least nineteen died downtown, and as many as fifty-five people were murdered throughout the Witwatersrand.


Photo: A dead man lies in the street after African National Congress guards opened fire on Inkatha Freedom Party marchers. Others were shot from the rooftops by persons unknown at the nearby Library Gardens. Johannesburg, South Africa. 28 March 1994 (Greg Marinovich)

The deaths at the Library Gardens themselves – way out of range and sight of Shell House two city blocks away – are of interest. I arrived after first having been at Shell House, and was therefore late to try to decipher firsthand what had happened. There were several dead IFP supporters. One of these was just inside the entrance to the underground garage. A young Zulu man was laid out on his back, his comrades gathered around him, as were three soldiers. All were apprehensively looking out the entrance, scanning the surrounding buildings.


Photo: A supporter of the Inkatha Freedom Party is attended by a medic after being wounded by ANC security guards. 28 March 1994 (Greg Marinovich)

Several witnesses claimed that they had been shot from the tops of the office buildings around the square. There were claims of snipers on the rooftops.


Photo: Traffic police and medics carry a wounded Zulu after African National Congress guards opened fire on Inkatha Freedom Party marchers. Johannesburg, South Africa. 28 March 1994 (Greg Marinovich)

Police investigations led nowhere; nothing was discovered about those mysterious gunmen – not even if there were gunmen on the roofs or not.

Later, the dead man’s shoes were removed and neatly laid next to him, to allow his spirit free and unpolluted passage to the afterlife. But for him, like the vast majority of those murdered in the Hostel War, there would be no earthly justice. (See main photo)

Last year, I was introduced to a man who had once been a police sniper, an assassin. Asking him about the Library Gardens murders, he told me that there had indeed been snipers on the rooftops that day; but they were not police. That enigmatic answer was all he would say on the subject.

If these marksmen on the rooftops – who killed more people than the Shell House security guards – were indeed not police, then logic must suggest that the police knew who they were. A vast array of police resources could have been brought into play to apprehend the snipers – helicopters, police tactical team members, etc. It is obvious that the police knew about those rooftop killers and either approved or were told to not interfere.

Perhaps one day, someone will come forward and explain why so many men marching for their king were gunned down, and to what end. DM

Read more:

  • Presentation by His Majesty King Zwelithini Goodwillka Bhekuzulu, King of the Zulu Nation to Mr Nelson Mandela, President of the African National Congress, 8/04/94.

  • SA History

Main photo: A dead supporter of Inkatha after a downtown battle when IFP members tried to storm the ANC’s headquarters Shell House. Several people were killed, and it became known as the Shell House Massacre, downtown Johannesburg, 1994. The shoes are taken off to allow the soul to enter the afterlife unpolluted by dirt. (Greg Marinovich)


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