Address by President Nelson Mandela at the snap debate on the Shell House incident in the National Assembly, Cape Town

7 June 1995

Madame Speaker;
Ministers and Honourable members.

It is not often that this august assembly debates an issue at such a level. It is rare that there should be such a passionate divergence of views on any matter.

That the death of eight citizens outside Shell House on 28 March 1994 should occupy the centre of national attention, reflects, we believe, a genuine concern for human life.

We do appreciate this. That is why we felt it necessary that we should have this matter aired honestly and comprehensively. Whatever the precise circumstances of this incident, it should not have happened. Once again, we wish to reiterate that we regret that loss of life, and again express our heart-felt condolences to the bereaved.

The regret at this loss; these condolences; this concern for human life, multiply many-fold in respect of the 47 other citizens who died on the day, and the more than 20 000 who have lost their lives in such violence since 1984.

In the sense that this debate invokes their memory, it places a great responsibility on us. The pain that this re-opening of old wounds inflicts, is mitigated by a silver lining: and that is that, for reconciliation to have real meaning, the truth should be brought to light.

Real and lasting reconciliation requires men and women who are prepared to state the brutal facts, unpleasant as they may be. Thus would the national catharsis be real, remedying and a basis for a healthy and vibrant future.

Real and lasting reconciliation demands that matters like this are understood not from the narrow perspective of party political interest. Certainly, it is in the nature of politics that parties should seek to exploit perceived weaknesses in their opponents; and, if there are none, conjure them up.

However, I hope that this House will, at least on this occasion, rise above this mode of handling matters.

We made the statement to the Senate on the 1st of June not because it was a pleasant thing to say. We acknowledged this fact not in order to boast about loss of life. And we do not for a moment consider the President to be above the law. Rather we sought simply and honestly to reiterate the right to self-defence, given, in part, the trail of party political misrepresentation of this incident.

This matter has on countless occasions been brought before this House. In all these instances, facts have been deliberately turned upon their head in pursuit of party political advantage in a well-planned vendetta against the ANC.

We should of course welcome the fact that during the last interpellation debate in the National Assembly, we had somewhat started to steer back to the true facts. And simply as they may be, it is necessary to repeat them:

That more than 8 people died on that day, the majority of them far away from Shell House along the routes of the marchers;

that the investigation has now been broadened to include all such killings on that day;

that the ANC is co-operating with the investigators - our doors are wide open; and

that, both from the investigators and the parties concerned, we require the utmost speed and integrity.

Madame Speaker;

Our historic task as leaders requires that we work together to remove the perception that some parties are not really concerned about black lives. They only raise their voices in an opportunistic way, to get at the ANC.

The Shell House incident of 28 March 1994 was not a bolt from an otherwise clear blue sky. The character of what happened, particularly the behaviour of the ANC, was part of a pattern that goes back decades.

At its inception and for 48 long years thereafter, the ANC sought redress to the majority by peaceful means. It expressed over and over again, in its statements and through its own conduct, the hope that those in power would respond positively. Yet the heavy-handed attitude of the powers-that-be forced it, when all avenues the peaceful action were closed, to adopt armed struggle in defence of the people and the democratic ideal.

When the opportunity for negotiations presented itself, the ANC seized it with both hands, even from the dungeons of apartheid. To encourage this process, the ANC decided on its own initiative to suspend armed struggle. Yet immediately thereafter, a new wave of violence on the people in KwaZulu/Natal, the then PWV Region, Eastern Transvaal and other parts of the country. Again, in those circumstances, we legitimately had to develop the people's capacity to sel To many in this House, especially my friends on the left, this may sound academic.

But those who, like me, had to attend countless funerals and see mothers and relatives wailing; those who have been to the scene of violence and overcrowded hospital wards: those who have in real life seen the smashed heads of babies; stomachs of women ripped open by so-called traditional weapons; mutilated bodies of train and taxi passengers; will know what this violence meant and means to ordinary citizens.

Shell House was not a bolt from the blue. The period of February and March 1994 had witnessed an intense campaign by forces bent on sabotaging the elections, to murder their way to this objective.

In KwaZulu/Natal, where their attention had then been focused, weekly death tolls had reached unprecedented proportions in the build-up to March 28. To quote some figures:

During the week of 1st to 6th March, 42 people had died; during the week 7th to 13th March: 37; 14th to 20th March: 73; and 21st to Sunday 27th March: a staggering 128, the highest ever recorded weekly death toll in the history of this violence.

We do not need to go into the statements made to agitate for these violent actions. What we do know is that, having succeeded in their designs in KwaZulu/Natal, the objective was then to further escalate violence in the PWV.

Shell House was not a bolt from the blue. Before the march on that day, the ANC had received information that some of the marchers were to be directed to attack Shell House, destroy information and kill members of the leadership.

The day before the march, we had called the then State President, the National Commissioner of Police and the Regional Commissioner, and proposed to them that roadblocks should be set up and the marchers disarmed. All of them agreed. But as events were to unfold, this was not done. By the time the marchers reached Shell House, we had already received reports that more than 30 people had been killed in their wake.

Needless to say, the surging columns on Shell House, away from the routes to their destination, the shots fired, and the fact that the few policemen deployed there decided to run away, gave credence to the information we had gathered. It is in this context, Madam Speaker, that this incident happened.

And it is in the broad context outlined above that the President had issued the instruction to security at Shell House, and I quote: "that if (the marchers) attacked the House, they must please protect it, even if they had to kill people. It was absolutely necessary for me to give that instruction."

This is nothing more nor less than a statement of the common law right to self-defence.

Again, I should state that we regret the loss of life, anywhere and under any circumstances. But what parties involved in this vendetta need to pause and reflect on, is what would have happened, if the intentions of these plotters had been realised: if indeed Shell House had been invaded, documents destroyed and ANC leaders killed!

Madame Speaker;

The point needs to be made very emphatically that the pattern on that day was not new. In particular, the warnings given to the previous government, and the pathetic response, were a reflection of what had happened in countless other such incidents.

Certain parties, even today wish to portray what happened then, and current tensions, as problems merely between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party, and even as inter-personal tension between the leaders of these parties.

It is patently clear that, as with other events, the marchers themselves were not the originators of the strategy to attack Shell House; perhaps not even their immediate commanders were.

Evidence over the past years has pointed to the collusion between elements in the previous government and leaders of this campaign. According to their own admissions, funds were passed on to the IFP; and in some instances, supporters of both sides were murdered to provoke a conflagration.

Trust Feed and the bizarre shootings at Library Gardens on March 28 are just the tip of the ice-berg. Today, further details of this are being uncovered, and many more arrests of the culprits will follow.

Part of the strategy of Low Intensity Conflict was the propaganda that we continue to hear being regurgitated in these hallowed chambers: to portray the NP as being clean and above the problems.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever the origins of the IFP may have been, it was in time adopted by the National Party government as an instrument to weaken the ANC and other democratic forces. And we should emphasise that there are many sensible people in the IFP who are themselves victims of these machinations, who have unfortunately been intimidated into silence.

Honourable members;

The cabinet met this morning to examine measures needed to arrest the terrible trends in KwaZulu/Natal and bring safety and security to citizens. All of us are at one regarding the responsibility government has, to save lives, by dealing with all perpetrators of violence, irrespective of the parties to which they claim to belong, and to ensure free political activity.

Cabinet expressed its appreciation of the plans underway to improve the security situation in this Province. The Executive Deputy Presidents, the Minister of Home Affairs and I will form an inter-departmental working group to liaise with the Province and relevant structures on some of the concrete steps being taken.

I also wish to reiterate what I said at the Senate last Thursday, that the country is going into a robust local government election campaign. It is in the nature of democratic politics that parties will emphasise their differences rather than the many areas of agreement.

What we should not allow this moment to undermine, is our commitment to South Africa, to the constitution and the Reconstruction and Development programme. Nor should anyone be tempted to believe that they can use violence and intimidation to get their way. South Africa has changed; and anyone who uses unlawful means will bear the full consequences of their actions.

Madame Speaker;

We have raised all these issues frankly and in a spirit of responsibility, hoping that, from this debate, we shall all build one another and together build a bright future for our country and its people.

The tradition that the ANC has established from its foundation - wherever possible, to seek peaceful solutions to problems - remains. It is even more relevant today, when the nation as a whole has identified key issues on which to work together. Whilst we remain firm in our determination to stamp out violence and anarchy, we shall equally not retreat from the course of dialogue.

From the cabinet meeting this morning, we are confident that the problems in KwaZulu/Natal shall be resolved without any major complications, especially if we get the co-operation of patriots from the ranks of all political parties.

Thus shall we deserve the mantle of leadership accorded us. Thus can we get on, even more purposefully, with the task of building a better life for all.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation