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By Motsane Getrude Seabela, Curator Anthropology, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

March 1985 is considered to be a period when tensions in Uitenhage townships (Eastern Cape Province) reached boiling point. The police had reported between 8 and 10 March, 23 incidents of arson and 18 of stone-throwing, causing damage estimated at R220 000. During a visit to Uitenhage, the Minister of Law and Order, Mr Louis le Grange with the Commissioner of Police, General Johann Coetzee were told “soft weaponry was no longer effective for riot control purposes. On 14 March, the so-called ‘Order Group’ consisting of Uitenhage’s most senior police officers, decided to take “stronger action to regain control’’. From 15 March, police patrols were no longer issued with teargas, rubber bullets and birdshot; instead, they were given heavy ammunition. As a result, the police killed six militant black youth. The funeral of four of the six was to be held on Sunday 17 March and subsequently, a stay away was called for Monday 18 March as part of the ‘Black Weekend’. The police had reported that three petrol bombs were thrown at a police vehicle in Langa during that weekend and that they shot and killed a young man. The Black Sash accompanied by their leader Ms Molly Blackburn burst into the Uitenhage police station on the morning of 17 March where a youth, Mr Norman Kona, was being tortured by police. She ensured that assault charges were brought against the police officers responsible. 

On the morning of 21 March 1985, a large group of residents gathered at Maduna Square in the township of Langa in Uitenhage. From Maduna Square they marched up Maduna Road, towards KwaNobuhle to attend the funeral of a person who had been killed by the police a week or two before. “The funeral had been banned by magisterial order made under the provisions of the Internal Security Act 74 of 1982”. A week before the funeral, Captain Goosen of the SAP applied for two different and conflicting orders relating to funeral prohibitions. The applications were both granted and as a result confused the dates on which the funerals were to be held. Thus many people were unaware of this ban. The crowd was met with the police blocking the road into the centre of Uitenhage with two armoured vehicles. They ordered the crowd to disperse. When the crowd failed to comply immediately, police opened fire on them, fatally shooting twenty. The first shot may well have been fired in panic, but thereafter R1 bullets and SSG shots were fired into the marchers, reportedly killing more than 20 people and injuring 27, some very badly. Most of the slain marchers were shot in the back. This slaughtering of black people came to be known as the Langa massacre.

Both international and internal pressure mounted on the Apartheid government and subsequently, it appointed a commission of enquiry, chaired by Mr Justice Donald Kannemeyer, to ascertain the circumstances that led to the massacre. The commission found evidence of a shoot-to-kill policy that emanated from the office of the Commissioner of Police, and a central finding of the enquiry was that the police were not properly equipped for crowd control duties. They had been supplied only with lethal equipment and were thus not able to apply the principles of minimum force: for them, it was all or nothing, with no way of applying levels of force less than deadly force. Here there was evidence that also emerged that the police, ‘’who had claimed to have been attacked by the crowd, had placed stones among the dead, dying and injured to manufacture their defence”.

The police opened fire on a crowd of funeral-goers on the 25th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. This was the first mass police killing in a year which was marked by other “massacres” in Queenstown, Mamelodi, Winterveld and Alexandra.


  • Bekker, J. 1987. 31/ J07/ 87. Police admit liability for the Langa massacre. Mail & Guardian.
  • Plasket, C. 2006. Human Rights in South Africa: An Assessment. Obiter. 27 (1): 1-2.
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