The African National Congress march that turned into a massacre Monday in the black South African homeland Ciskei was led by two Jews.
Ronnie Kasrils and Raymond Suttner of the ANC, together with South African Communist Party Secretary-General Chris Hani, led the march of about 50,000 people, which was aimed at ousting Ciskei’s military ruler, Brig. Oupa Gqozo.
Some 24 ANC protesters were killed and another 188 injured when Ciskei troops opened machine-gun fire at the demonstrators in the homeland’s capital, Bisho.
News reports from Bisho said Ciskei security forces opened fire when about 100 demonstrators, led by Kasrils, breached a corner of the border cordon and ran toward the soldiers.
Neither Kasrils nor Suttner, both of whom are affiliated with the South African Communist Party, was hurt.
Kasrils, one of the most colorful characters in the ANC, lived in exile for 27 years, with his base in London. Suttner, a lawyer and academic, was a political detainee for most of his young adulthood.
Kasrils returned to South Africa in 1990 when the ban on the ANC was lifted, to find that his temporary indemnity had been withdrawn by the South African government.
Nicknamed the “Red Pimpernel,” he was on the run inside South Africa for many months, branded as one of the four most wanted people of the ANC’s military wing, Umkonto weSizwe, of which he is a former intelligence chief.
When in hiding he met with journalists, took refuge in affluent Jewish homes and sent Rosh Hashanah cards to rabbis and Jewish leaders.
Kasrils grew up in the suburb of Yeoville, an enclave of religious Jews, where he had his bar mitzvah.
“Growing up during the war with all the talk about Hitler and fascism prompted me to ask my mother at a very young age why the Nazis were treating the Jews that way. I also asked whether that was not the way they were treating the Africans (blacks) here,” Kasrils told this reporter in a 1990 pre-Rosh Hashanah interview before his indemnity was withdrawn.
Kasrils, who has a penchant for chicken soup and kneidlach (matzah balls), says he is proud of his Jewish origins and “never in my life have I for a moment allowed anti-Semitic remarks to pass. I feel very strongly that Jews should relate to all forms of oppression and racism.”
Suttner, gentle and articulate, left the law school at the University of Witwatersrand to work full time for the ANC in education.
The tragedy in the Ciskei has caused international outrage, while in South Africa, political and public leaders are alternately placing the blame on the government, Ciskei and the ANC mass action alliance.
But most South Africans agree the violence represents yet another setback to a negotiated settlement in this country.
The ANC considers the government of Ciskei to be a puppet of the Pretoria government, and ANC leaders are blaming South African President F.W. de Klerk for the violence. ANC officials said they would not resume negotiations with Pretoria, broken off in June, until the president removes Gqozo from power.
Gqozo was a South African military officer who was chosen as Ciskei’s leader after a military coup there in 1990. At the inception of his rule there, Gqozo wooed the ANC and promised he would restore civilian rule to the enclave. Since then, he has sent troops to break up ANC meetings in Ciskei.