1994 Bophuthatswana crisis

The 1994 Bophuthatswana crisis was a major political crisis which began after Lucas Mangope, the president of Bophuthatswana, a South African bantustan created under apartheid, attempted to crush widespread labour unrest and popular demonstrations demanding the incorporation of the territory into South Africa pending non-racial elections later that year.[10] Violent protests immediately broke out following President Mangope's announcement on 7 March that Bophuthatswana would boycott the South African general elections.[11] These escalated into a civil service strike and a mutiny in the local armed forces, which was complicated by the arrival of right-wing Afrikaner extremists ostensibly seeking to preserve the Mangope government.[12] The chaos lasted about four days before the president bowed to pressure and agreed to allow participation in the upcoming elections.[11] However, Mangope once again reversed his decision. The South African Defence Force (SADF) responded by deposing him and restoring order on 12 March.[11]

1994 Bophuthatswana crisis
Part of the internal resistance to apartheid

Map of Bophuthatswana (red) within South Africa.
Date11 March 1994

Opposition-SADF victory

Incorporation of Bophuthatswana into North West Province


 South Africa

Commanders and leaders
Lucas Mangope
Constand Viljoen
Jan Breytenbach
Douw Steyn
Eugène Terre'Blanche
F. W. de Klerk
Georg Meiring
Volksfront: 4,500[3]
AWB: 600[4]
Security Forces: 10,000[5][6]
Casualties and losses
Volksfront: 1 killed[7]
AWB: 4 killed, 3 wounded[8]
BDF: 50 dead, 285 wounded[9]

The Bophuthatswana Crisis highlighted the deep unpopularity of the Mangope government and the bantustan system among most of its residents.[12] It has been remembered largely for the televised shooting of three Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) militants by a black police officer. This proved to be a public relations disaster for the AWB and demoralised the movement, which was then intent on preserving white minority rule.[13]

Historical background

A product of territorial apartheid, Bophuthatswana - popularly nicknamed "Bop" by her nationals - accepted nominal independence in 1977 from South Africa's Nationalist administration.[14] The second national unit to reach the status of a bantustan with limited but hypothetically increasing powers of self-rule, Bophuthatswana adopted as her governing document an act drafted by the former Tswana Territorial Authority under South African guidance.[15] South Africa was adamant that elections should take place as early as 1972, but there were no political parties in the new region. This changed rapidly with the ascension of Kgosi Lucas Mangope, who founded the Lekoko la Setshaba sa Bophuthatswana (English: "Bophuthatswana National Party"). Mangope targeted rural votes and carried an easy majority in the new parliament.[15]

Although Bophuthatswana was not recognised as a unique entity by any foreign state, an estimated two million Tswana lost their South African citizenship accordingly.[14] The 1977 Constitution made it a self-governing democracy inside the Republic of South Africa, with an area of jurisdiction spanning six black-populated districts of the designated Tswana area. Excluded were zones earmarked for white persons encompassing much of the capital and industry.[14]


Under Mangope's rule, political freedoms in Bophuthatswana deteriorated. Opponents of the state were subject to banishment, arrest, or extrajudicial harassment. The African National Congress was also considered an illegal organisation.[14] Nelson Mandela's release in 1990 and F.W. de Klerk's subsequent negotiations towards ending apartheid opened up the possibility of reincorporating the fragmented bantustans into a unitary South African state. Although all tribal homelands ceased to exist in 1993 under an interim constitution, Mangope remained committed to the principle of Bophuthatswana's "independence".[15] Tswana voters were appalled; opposition mounted but remained subject to escalating repression. Human rights groups complained that citizens were barred from attending voter education programmes and only Mangope loyalists enjoyed the right to assembly.[3]

On 1 January 1994, de Klerk restored South African citizenship to Bophuthatswana residents but balked at the notion of removing its government from power. Mangope agreed to convene with representatives from the Electoral Commission of South Africa yet refused to consider participating in the upcoming non-racial elections. A commission member subsequently warned that "...his [Mangope's] intransigence made confrontation inevitable".[14]


Civil Service strike

In February, the executives of fifty-two Bophuthatswanan ministries formed the so-called "Mmabatho/Mafikeng Crisis Committee", initially to address their role in the post-election period. When it became apparent that Mangope would continue to oppose territorial integration for the near future the committee went on strike.[14] Since Bophuthatswana was set to be disestablished by the South African government on 27 April, they demanded their wages - and civil service pensions - well in advance of that date. Lacking treasury funds, Mangope simply issued no response.[3] This alarmed the Bophuthatswana Police, which joined the strike immediately. Anarchy ensued and troops were deployed to restore order. Despite their efforts mass looting became widespread as appliances or furniture worth hundreds of rand began disappearing overnight.[3]

By Wednesday, 9 March, authority had imploded. Striking staff seized the Bophuthatswana Broadcasting Corporation and took Mangope's son Eddie hostage, students boycotted classes at Mmabatho University, and the civil servants were joined by thousands of others demanding incorporation into South Africa and the right to campaign for the election.[16] When the security forces failed to take action, widespread disorder ensued. Businesses in Mmabatho, including the lucrative Mega City Shopping Centre, were looted or razed. A desperate Mangope made the decision to call on outside forces for assistance in restoring order.

On 8 March 1994, the president invited General Constand Viljoen, head of the right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront, to a meeting of his chief ministers in the Bophuthatswana Defence Force, national police, and intelligence services. It was agreed that Viljoen would use the Volksfront's militia to protect key locations in Bophuthatswana if the situation deteriorated. Parliament was empowered call on Viljoen's assistance sooner in the case of a forcible re-integration. Mangope initially made it clear, however, that he would not tolerate the Volksfront's more extremist ally, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, being present because they were a violently racist organisation. Viljoen was regarded as a more moderate white leader, and was respected as the former head of both the South African Army (from 1976 to 1980) and the entire South African Defence Force (from 1980 to 1985).

AWB involvement

By 10 March, the situation was only worsening and President Mangope was advised to leave Bophuthatswana for his own protection. He promptly left his country via helicopter at two o'clock on Thursday and flew to safety in Motswedi. Later that afternoon, a group of anti-Mangope policemen presented a petition to the South African ambassador, Professor Tjaart van der Walt, calling for Bophuthatswana to be re-integrated into the republic against their president's wishes. By late afternoon virtually all law enforcement authority had broken down and the military was left with the responsibility of maintaining order.

Following more protests and increasing rumors of ANC supporters massing on Bophuthatswana's established borders, Mangope asked Viljoen and the Volksfront to immediately assist in keeping the peace. The Afrikaners were hastily rallied and mobilised, under the command of retired South African Defence Force Colonel Jan Breytenbach. Led by one of Breytenbach's lieutenants, Commandant Douw Steyn, a large Volksfront force mustered at the Mmabatho Air Force Base early on 11 March.

Meanwhile, the South African Defence Force prepared to intervene, ostensibly to protect South Africa's Bophuthatswanan embassy and the lives of their nationals in the bantustan. Unwelcome AWB paramilitaries called in from Ventersdorp and the Western Transvaal (especially Witbank and Rustenburg) were also advancing. Their largest contingents took up positions near Mafikeng and Rooigrond, respectively.

That evening, Colonel Antonie Botse was displeased to see AWB leader Eugene Terre'Blanche and the Volksfront commandant together at the air base, insisting that the former remove his supporters immediately. Jack Turner of the Bophuthatswana Defence Force reiterated Botse's request but Terre'Blanche insisted that Mangope had requested his presence. Turner was concerned that his troops and the local black civilians would panic when they saw AWB personnel, due to Terre'Blanche's established reputation as an extremist. Terre'Blanche finally agreed to leave Bophuthatswana, and his men ordered to remove all AWB insignia from their uniforms.

During the evening of negotiations several civilians were injured by AWB forces, who fired upon looters and passersby alike.[17] Greg Marinovich, journalist and member of the Bang-Bang Club, stated that one AWB member present had remarked in Afrikaans, "Ons is op 'n kafferskiet piekniek" ('We are on a kaffir-shooting picnic'). In response, the predominantly black Bophuthatswana Defence Force, agitated by their superiors' inability to control the white gunmen, threatened to attack Afrikaner militias.

The AWB pulled out of the Mmabatho Air Force Base via column, leaving their Volksfront compatriots behind. Many of the personnel refused to remove their insignia and serve under Commandant Steyn as agreed. Driving recklessly through Mafikeng and downtown Mmabatho, some AWB fighters continued to shoot black citizens in the street, killing at least two.[18][19] Crowds of angry Bophuthatswana residents, some white, mostly black, eventually moved to block the convoy's way, chanting defiant slogans.[20][21] An Afrikaner with an automatic weapon fired several rounds over their heads to disperse the human roadblock.

The Volksfront Commando withdrew in a much more orderly fashion later that afternoon, accompanied by a military escort to avoid the general public.

Killing of Wolfaardt, Uys, and Fourie

Alwyn Wolfaardt pleads for his life.

The single most publicised event of the conflict was the killing of three wounded AWB members who were shot dead at point-blank range in front of journalists by a Bophuthatswana police constable, Ontlametse Bernstein Menyatsoe.

AWB Colonel Alwyn Wolfaardt, AWB General Nicolaas Fourie and Veldkornet (Field Cornet) Jacobus Stephanus Uys were driving a blue Mercedes-Benz W108 at the end of convoy of AWB vehicles that had been firing into roadside houses.[22] Members of the Bophuthatswana Defence Force returned fire and hit the driver of the car, Fourie, in the neck; another gunman, Wolfaardt, in the arm; and the remaining passenger, Uys, in the leg. Wolfaardt stumbled out of the car and brandished a handgun but was advised by the onlookers not to start shooting. A Bophuthatswana police officer relieved him of the weapon. Ontlametse Menyatsoe approached and spoke to Wolfaardt, asking if he was a member of the AWB. Wolfaardt confirmed this, reporting that they had been dispatched from Naboomspruit. He then pleaded for the lives of his two injured fellows. In response, Menyatsoe shot the three wounded men dead at point blank range with an R4, shouting angrily, "Who do you think you are? What are you doing in my country?" The killing was captured by the nearby journalists and broadcast worldwide.

Amnesty hearing

Menyatsoe was not charged with murder. He applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), on the grounds that the killings were politically motivated. The application was opposed by the Wolfaardt, Uys and Fourie families. At the hearing in August 1999, Manyatsoe was cross-examined by AWB leader Eugene Terre'Blanche. Menyatsoe stated that his emotions were raised by his seeing a wounded mother, who had been hit when the AWB had fired from their vehicles into a nearby crowd. According to other journalists dozens of paramilitaries had been firing into traditional houses along the road out of Bophuthatswana. Terre'Blanche pointed out that the three soldiers were wounded by the time Menyatsoe shot them and that they no longer posed any threat. Menyatsoe said that he acted on his own initiative because of the absence of a commanding officer.[23]

Menyatsoe was granted amnesty by the TRC.[24]


Whereas many Bantustan leaders and elites had entered their own parties into the first non-racial elections in 1994 or joined the ANC, Mangope and his supporters stayed out. However, in 1999 the United Christian Democratic Party, a continuation of the ruling party in Bophuthatswana, entered elections. The party remained a political force in North West Province, where most of the former homeland lies, until the 2014 elections, when it lost its last national and provincial seats.

See also

  • 1987 Transkei coup d'état
  • 1990 Ciskei coup d'état
  • 1990 Venda coup d'état


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