Saturday, December 30, 2023

Heidelberg Tavern Massacre

We'd passed the tavern on the same night
   but decided to go somewhere with more color
We woke in the morning to hear on the shortwave radio
   about an overnight massacre

As a good journalist,
   Mum grabbed her microphone and tape recorder
As a journalist's son,
   I made sure to grab my notebook and camera

No breakfast, we made our way to the scene
   from the university guest house
Checking the maps, we parked the rental car
   as close as the police allowed

The news didn't make for the best start
   to tomorrow's New Year
Ominous really, indeed,
   the country was in a state of suspended fear

It wasn't how we were planning to spend our short vacation
But the journalistic impulse is a lifetime occupation

Then again it was South Africa, forever on the verge of doom
There were elections planned in April, 1994 loomed

Heidelberg tavern massacre Cape Town

The BBC didn't have anyone in Cape Town,
   no boots on the ground
For things had not been as heated there as in KwaZulu-Natal

But now we could see the commotion,
   the heavy police presence
Flashing lights, weapons everywhere,
   and the sounds of sirens

Truth be told, it really felt as if we were in the middle of a war
Darn it, I had run out of film.
   Luckily, I spied a convenience store

Walked in briskly and asked what kind of film they had
Noting that I preferred Fuji but would gladly take Kodak

Taken aback, the shopkeeper,
   it felt as if I was integrating the shop
Ah right, should have known better,
   they'd never served black people before

The way he was startled, as if I had come in the wrong door
Was in the wrong place, an affront, and sullying his shop floor

It was so over my head.
   Had they really never been ordered around by my kind?
Well anyway, their countrymen would soon be doing the same,
   it was about time

"Where are you from?",
   a latter-day attempt at small talk over the counter.
"I'm on holiday, Sir. Came from the States.
   But I'm originally from Ghana."

"Ghana." "Yeah, West Africa."
   Rands proffered gingerly, patterns of exchange
I picked up water and a Twix bar.
   I told the owner to keep the change

Dad used to regale us with stories
   about his cohort of African diplomats
Integrating New York right after independence.
   This country was a throwback

I loaded the roll of film,
   would the memories I'd record be paparazzi gold?
Well it was South Africa, 1994 beckoned.
   Who knew what life would hold?

heidelberg tavern massacre - mum

Mum had already walked up beyond the security cordon
Her microphone a kind of spear that opened all doors

Looks of grudging respect from the soldiers and police officers
Badged as she was as a live representative of the foreign press

There was a local journalist on the scene
   who seemed to appreciate a colleague
It's not everyday that this kind of carnage
   comes to your quiet streets

It was only as she drew nearer
   that it struck me that it was a near miss
That it was only a matter of luck
   that we weren't yesterday's victims

This was the enlightened part of town
   where races supposedly mingled every day
Surprising really that the tavern would be singled out,
   a real case of dismay

An hour away, Khayelitsha had been rough,
   but this was quite different
This was the day, I guess,
   that Observatory had lost its innocence

Elsewhere, of course,
   Buthelezi's people and the ANC were going at it
That was the background of disquiet
   that was giving most of us fits

True, there were rumors of the apartheid death squads,
   the rearguard action
By and large however, on the ground
   there was a lot of empty posturing

Albeit we were learning the vocabulary of bloodletting
The country at large becoming connoisseurs of necklacing

But this was a terrorist attack plain and simple
Shooting up a bar out of some misguided principle

Students and others winding down the year
   with music and alcohol
Left for dead, maimed or injured,
   and now a cautionary symbol

   it's not that I'd discounted her war stories about being shot at
   even as I was well aware of journalists' occupational hazards

This was the new South Africa
   whose leaders were lawyers who spent time debating
At inordinate length, the finer points
   of the mooted constitutional provisions

heidelberg massacre - mum inspects damage

"It's bad." Onlookers murmuring, sidewalk symphony
"It's bad. They seemed to have shot up outside."

She gestured for me to come past the police tape.
"Come, you're my photographer."

"It's bad." What a refrain
"Oh it's bad. Damn." "It's bad." A chorus of pain

"Three dead at least." "How many?" "Three at least"
"It's bad. We don't know if the others will make it."

"It's bad." "What a shame."
"No responsibility declared." No one to blame.

"I counted ten, oh god. What a scene, it's bad."
"They found a bomb, it could have been even worse."

"Bomb squad was here. It didn't detonate. It's clear now"
"They say... You don't want to see inside. Believe me, it's bad."

"Come closer, take some photos."
   Not quite as intrepid, I was staying behind the tape.
Unabashed, she came and lifted the tape,
   pulled me over to the front. "Go on"

"Right here in Obz". Afrikaner accent
"Terrorists. I can't believe it."

"They should clean up the blood. It's bad, it's upsetting."
The broken glass dispersed, shards everywhere.

"It's bad. Oh, it's bad. I tell you. It's bad"
"Station Road. Right here in Obz. Oh, it's bad."

"Who was playing last night?" "Josh... so sad."
"Is he okay? I wonder." "Oh, it's bad"

There was blood on the ground and this was the aftermath
"Oh, it's bad", I couldn't help but join in with the refrain.

heidelberg tavern capetown

It took hours to interview everyone and talk to the police
Bystanders and witnesses, shocked
   yet wearing that mask of normalcy

Later we went to SABC, to the main studio, to call in her report
Filed for the African service, and then filed another for Focus

We weren't sure how the story would go over,
   the party line from Bush House
The news cycle doesn't afford the complexity
   that a long report allows

This wasn't the kind of story that anyone wanted to receive
No hearts would be warmed
   by this tale of blood on New Year's Eve

We decided to not get the film developed.
   Her copy would have to do.
By the time we finished reporting,
   it was late afternoon

We'd been so caught up that we'd forgotten to eat
   and now we were hungry
Thankfully I remembered my Twix bar,
   the cheap snack came in handy

We drove past the tavern again
   on the way back to the guest house
Canceled any nominal plans for the night,
   we'd had more than enough

Back in our rooms, it was time for some quiet reflection
   We were shaken by our proximity to this unseemly action

Cape Town devoid of music, and turned into a place of hurt
Pain unbounded, the whole country holding its breath

The broken glass at the Heidelberg Tavern,
   death at the barrel of a gun
We would bring in the New Year very quietly that night,
   mother and son

heidelberg tavern cape town

Soundtrack for this note

The great guitarist Josh Sithole was holding court as ever at the Heidelberg Tavern on the night of the massacre. He was lucky to escape with his life but some of his audience, and someone from the next door checking in on what was happening lost their life. Casualties of a senseless deed.


Thirty years ago, I filled my notebook with some of the above impressions, I had yet to take everything in. I am still to write about the rest, what I later learned about the victims, the families and indeed the perpetrators. Having published my photos of the tavern online, I was often contacted as the legacy of the trauma was debated and processed over the years. All in good time, I suppose.


Lost in Obs is an artwork commemorating the tragic events.

See previously: Truth and Reconciliation

Next: Bound Together (a surprising aftermath)

I nominate this slice of life for The Things Fall Apart Series under the banner of The Rough Beast, which asks: who is writing the script?

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Writing log. Concept: December 31, 1993. February 3, 2022

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had a random flashback to watching Josh playing at Heidelberg in the late 80’s, and wondered what had happened to him. Some googling brought me to your blog. I never realized he was playing the night of the attack. Seems like he passed in 1999. There is not much online about him, and no images or videos of him playing the venue. I can still picture him playing guitar, with his wife (I think) sitting next to him. I seem to recall she was selling merchandise. Or maybe it was tapes of him performing. He seemed so humble, but incredibly talented. He was universally revered by the crowd. I wish there was more information about his back story. How did a black man in South Africa in the 80s build such a following amongst white people, playing mostly folk and 60’s music.