What happened at Crossroads?
On 18 February 1985 a riot broke out at Crossroads. Eight people were killed and a few hundred injured during clashes between protestors and the police. Between 25 May and 12 June 1986 around 60,000 people were forcibly removed from their homes in squatter camps at Crossroads and its immediate neighbours.
What was Crossroads?
Crossroads, one of the larger 'informal settlements' or 'squatter camps' on the outskirts of Cape Town, was first settled in 1975. By some strange quirk of fate it had been given the status of an 'emergency camp' by the Cape Town judiciary in 1979, and was therefore immune to the wholesale clearances which took place in similar shanty towns across South Africa following the Soweto uprising (16 June 1976).
By the mid 1980s Crossroads, and the squatter settlements neighbouring it, had a population of over 100,000. Unfortunately for the government it was immediately under the flight paths of Cape Town's international airport and was particularly visible to the white elite, and visiting journalists.
Why did people live in shanty towns like Crossroads?
Despite the poor conditions of informal settlements in South Africa, there was a significant advantage, such as work and access to health services, to be gained from living near large towns and cities.
For example, in rural areas, especially the homelands (or Bantustans), the infant mortality rate was around 300 per thousand (3 out of every ten, or 30%), whereas the mortality rate in Soweto, official townships, and the informal settlements around Cape Town (eg Crossroads) was down to approximately 40 per thousand (4 in 100, or 4%). Note that the equivalent infant mortality rate for whites in South Africa at that time was just under 1%.
Those who had the opportunity to live in Cape Town townships (or similarly in Soweto) were likely to be in employment, have some from of housing (ranging from shacks in informal settlements, to brick built houses in Soweto), and have access to a higher level of health care and education than those in rural areas. The incentive to live, even in places like Crossroads, was immense.
What caused the riot at Crossroads?
Crossroads was one of several informal settlements on the Cape Flats area outside Cape Town. The Cape Town authorities were attempting to relocate residents to a new township, Kayelitsha, further out from the city. The squatters, mainly from the Transkei and Ciskei homelands refused to move. Barricades were thrown up, cars set alight, and rival gangs fought openly in the 'streets'. The police moved in with rubber bullets and tear gas.
Why did this happen at Crossroads?
Political control in Crossroads was an example of the Apartheid government's policy of contra-mobilisation:
"In the South African context, contra-mobilisation was used to organise and support 'moderate blacks' to oppose the revolutionary movements. Of necessity, it was a covert strategy - concealing the hand of the state as provider of logistical, political and financial support - and making use of 'surrogate' forces. Hence, the state would not be seen to be involved in the conflict and violence between groupings and the resistance organisations." (para. 555, Vol 2 Chap 3, TRC Report.)
The person selected for this in Crossroads was Johnson Ngxobongwana. Ngxobongwana had evolved from being a local warlord to a strong political voice in Crossroads. As chairman of the ward committee he had built up a popular following, and acquired a retinue of local thugs, known as witdoeke (white-cloths) for the white headbands they wore for identification. Unbeknownst to most people he also had 'unofficial' sponsorship from South Africa's Apartheid government and its security forces. Ngxobongwana was able to use these resources to eliminate rivals in the area, as well as marginalise women's groups and youth groups. Ngxobongwana's witdoeke carried out gang warfare against the Comrades and other groups.
What happened next at Crossroads?
Over the next year Ngxobongwana extended his power and, with the backing of South Africa's Apartheid government, arranged for his witdoeke to clear the surrounding squatter camps. Between 25 May and 12 June 1986 60 people were killed, countless houses were burnt and approximately 60,000 people made homeless. On 12 June 1986 President PW Botha declared a State of Emergency to halt the mounting violence being caused across South Africa by "revolutionaries supported by the African National Congress." Despite media depiction of this as 'black on black violence', the scale of destruction at Crossroads revealed the state's involvement in vigilante groups and destabilisation operations. Many of the witdoeke were made kitskonstabels ('instant constables') in South Africa's security forces in the late 1980s.
The TRC concluded that: "The commission finds that the origins of the conflict lay in historical rivalries and political differences between different groups and an increasing tendency to resolve such differences by violent means. However, these conflicts would not have resulted in the scale of violence and destruction without the permission, facilitation and endorsement of the security forces." (p. 306, Vol 2 Chap 3 TRC Report.)