Law Text Culture


August 5, 1998: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is holding an amnesty hearing at the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg. The hearing is a continuation of one held in May, concerning the events now remembered as the Shell House incident.2 In March 1994, security guards from the African National Congress headquarters at Shell House, an office building in the middle of Johannesburg, fired their guns at a large contingent of Zulu marchers, some armed with "traditional weapons": cow-hide shields, sticks, clubs, spears.3 Eight marchers died, and the guards have applied for amnesty. A witness, one of the marchers, is being quizzed on what happened. Mr. Mhlaba, in dark trousers and a bright blue team jacket, wearing glasses with a gold trim, is being questioned as to the meaning of the chant amandla! ngawethu! uSuthu! uSuthu!, which he is asked to utter, with accompanying gestures, before the members of the Amnesty Committee. Since official record-keeping is in the form of a transcript, the Chairman, Justice Hassen Mall, must summarize what he has witnessed: let it be noted that the witness chanted with raised fist, taking two steps forward and then one step back for each chant. The fist will have held a stick or a spear: ubhoko, umkhonto. The lawyer cross-examining Mhlaba on behalf of the guards has several questions in this regard. Isn't this a war chant? No, it is not a war chant; as he has said, it is the praise uttered, according to tradition, when you are going to see a king or a chief; the word uSuthu is part of the name Mangosuthu. The chant amandla! ngawethu! comes from Zulu tradition. It means power - to us. The lawyer, who professes to know nothing about Zulu culture or tradition, insists: isn't uSuthu! a cry of warriors going into battle? Mhlaba tries another tack: I have never heard of warriors going into war chanting. When you go into war you do not make a noise. If you make a noise, the enemy will know where you are coming from. The lawyer returns several times to the same line of questioning, as if to confirm a prearranged passage of reasoning: Zulu therefore warrior therefore killer therefore ANC guards acted in self-defense. The right cultural explanation will be his first premise. As "native informant," Mhlaba has only to provide it in order to vindicate the guards and implicate himself. I sit in a cold pew, earphones on, hearing both Mhlaba's testimony, which is in Zulu, and the simultaneous translation into English. There are a few others in the church, mostly black, most also wearing earphones. Also sitting there are two black policemen, who, in spite of their regulation blue caps and jackets, are visibly cold. It is a relief afterwards to reemerge into the warm winter sunlight.