On this date in 1987, Moses Jantjies and Wellington Mielies — “political prisoners” in the estimation of their supporters — hanged along with five common criminals at Pretoria for the murder of Ben Kinikini and five others.*
The killing of Kinikini occurred in an environment of bitterly escalating hostilities in the eastern cape city of Uitenhage and especially the KwaNobuhle township. Anti-apartheid school boycotts dating back to September 1984 (part of a spreading revolt in the townships at that time) had metastasized into violent confrontations when protesters were denied meeting space by the black KwaNobuhle councillors.
Kinikini was such a councillor, and he and the others had been under popular pressure to resign, and even had their homes stoned, since the last weeks of 1984.
Protesters stoned vehicles. Riot squads roamed the streets. Police shootings became everyday events, and more enraged crowds gathered at the resulting funerals of their victims.**
Coffins of the Langa Massacre’s victims. (cc) image from United Nations Photo Library. Also see this, this, this and this.
And then it really hit the fan.
Riots erupted following the Langa massacre, and it was on March 23 that Kinikini was dragged from his house and murdered: black township councillors were liable to be seen as apartheid collaborators. Defense witnesses for Jantjies and Mielies were quite a bit more specific, slating Kinikini with direct links to murderous vigilantes who liked to beat up and rape protesters in the creepy privacy of Kinikini’s apt personal business, a mortuary.
And as one memoir of the period puts it, “the government knew black councillors would not participate in a democratic charade unless their lives and property were protected and avenged. Some two and a half thousand black councillors, policemen and informers, real and rumoured, had been killed in the unrest that had begun in 1984.”
For South African president and white-rule stalwart P.W. Botha, those were far more pressing constituencies than mercy appeals from usual suspects like black activists and the West German government. These were also the first two township-rising convicts to come up for execution, out of some 33 then on death row, so their treatment figured to set the precedent for even higher-profile cases on the horizon like the Sharpeville Six. (In the event, apartheid collapsed before the Six could actually be hanged.)
The message was hardly lost on its internal audience.
“We have come to terms with the fact that the enemy has declared war,” Winnie Mandela told a Johanessburg memorial service for Jantjies and Mielies hanged. “We accept the challenge. The blood of the comrades has not flowed in vain.”
* Ben Kinikini, his four sons and nephews, and one other person were stabbed and burned to death. Some reports term at least Ben Kinikini’s killing a “necklacing” — the brutal method of popular execution that arose in the 1980s in which the “jewelry” was a rubber tire filled with flaming petrol. It sounds from the widow’s secondhand description as if this could indeed characterize it, though the fact that the Truth and Reconcilation Commission called a July 1985 killing the country’s first necklacing might indicate otherwise. News stories suggest that photographs and video exist of, if not the murder, at least the aftermath: perhaps these are dispositive on the point.
** See Thole Majodina, “A Short Background to the Shooting Incident in Langa Township, Uitenhage,” Human Rights Quarterly, August 1986.
† March 21 also happened to be the very anniversary date of one of apartheid South Africa’s most infamous police atrocities, the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre. Thanks to Sharpeville, this first day of spring is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, as well as the date on which South Africa marks Human Rights Day.