The Dark Hours Before The Dawn Of Democracy – The Helderberg Tavern Massacre

Last Updated: 23 March 2022By

30 December 1993

Extracted from my upcoming book:


The Tales Of The

Gentle Spearman of the Tattooed Warriors at the Ford of the River Craw

It was a miserable, dark and wet day in the late autumn of 1993 when I was ceremoniously thrown out of Valkenberg Psychiatric  Hospital after being there for two weeks.
“You’re just a drug addict,” the psychiatrist stated bluntly and coldly, “we treat people with mental health issues here and are not a drug rehabilitation centre.”
“What,” I exclaimed in a bitter exasperated voice, “there are three other drug addicts in the group therapy session you have just dragged me out of.”
“They have mental health issues,” he declared in a voice dripping with disdain.

I was stung by his words. It was like he had slapped me in the face and trampled on my troubled soul. A raging torrent of torments from my childhood and teenage years come gushing forth out of the depths of my being.
“I have had mental health issues all the effing days of my life,” I screeched at him.
“You must leave immediately,” he said in an icy dismissive tone and turned away unable to meet my enraged glare.”

The nurse grabbed my arm and pulled me away, her kind sympathetic eyes calming me down,
“There is nothing you can do or say, they have made up their minds about you,” she said in a soft kind voice, “so it’s best you just leave before they call security.”
I took a deep breath and nodded, steeling myself to leave in the rain with nowhere to go.

By the time I got to the gate, the rain had ceased and the sun was coming out. Running along the fence of the hospital was a road and then a wide grassy bank of the Liesbeek River. So I decided that I would stay right there on that grassy bank. I walked along the bank to the corner of the hospital property where the grass gave way to bush. I broke some branches off the trees and made a small boma which would be my home.

As I settled in around sunset for the night, my stomach rumbling with hunger, I heard a voice calling out by the fence of the hospital. I peered out over the branches of my boma. A patient from the nearby ward was standing there. When he saw me peering at him he gestured to me to come to the fence. Upon arriving, he handed over his supper wrapped in a paper napkin to me with a grin on his face. I will never forget that face or the gesture of kindness. As he disappeared into the dusky evening, I returned to my makeshift home to eat the sacrificed meal with tears in my eyes.

And so every day I would get up and walk up into the suburb of Observatory. There, I would wash cars in the parking lot of a small shopping centre for my daily bread and daily Pharmacy visits for my daily drugs. As usual, wherever I have been in South Africa, the pharmacists in the two nearby pharmacies would sell me Codeine and Ephedrine cough mixtures without so much as a raised eyebrow.

(In my book, I deal with the medical ethics of doctors and pharmacists in some detail. It is also why I think the psychiatrist was eager to get me out of his hospital because the drugs I had been using for well over a decade were all supplied by medical practitioners and I had started talking about that in therapy sessions).

I would also go walking through the nearby suburb of Rondebosch. There I would stop at the high walled gated properties and ring the gate intercom. Usually, it was a lady who answered with a hello, and I would respond poetically, “hi, I am walking round and round the Rondebosch, looking for a car to wash!” in my most cheerful voice. Usually, the response would be “no thanks, sorry”, but there were a few who would let me in to wash their cars.

Around two weeks later, whilst I was sitting by the river and smoking a joint, a black man came up to me. I immediately noted his troubled face and tearful eyes. I invited him to sit and passed the joint to him. He told me he was a Zulu man and had to flee out of Gugulethu where he tried to stay in fear of his life leaving all his possessions and Identity document behind. He had thought that in the new South Africa that everyone was free to live where they wanted and so he had come to Cape Town.

I was both sad and angry that at the very dawn of a new democracy there was still such hatred and fear among the people of the land. And here was a Zulu man like a fish out of water among a sea of Xhosa men. My thoughts wandered back to the ’80s when I, a white man, lived on the streets of the most politically violent city in the country, Pietermaritzburg. Homeless, I would sleep in parks and bushy areas around the town. Many times I would arrive at a place to sleep and find Zulu men nearby. Most often they would call out to me, share their food and tell me to sleep nearby and they would keep me safe. Quite often I would sit there with them smoking dagga and burst out singing the Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo song “Homeless”. They would grin and join in the singing as we were sharing the same circumstance.

So I told the man he could sleep in my camp. He stayed for a week. Then one day he said he was going to try and find his ID at the place he had stayed. He never came back. I had the awful feeling that he was no longer alive.

December came and the Christmas season started. Along came two patients who were discharged from the hospital across the fence. First, there was Owen, aged in his late fifties. He had been a successful writer in his younger days before the alcohol got to him. He had a magnificent beard, wore glasses and spoke the most exquisite Queens English with a matching accent. The other was a fearful schizophrenic named Paul, who never spoke much at all.

We widened the boma and they both moved in. Throughout the holidays we all went to wash cars. In the spirit of Christmas, people were very generous. We were all trying to work for money rather than begging and even those who did not want their cars washed gave to us willingly. We all shared the work and shared the money. Late every evening we would go to a restaurant where they would give us all the food that would be thrown out and unused. So we were jolly through the season, well-fed and with ample supplies of alcohol for Owen, pharmaceuticals for myself and sweets for Paul who seemed able to consume vast amounts of sugar with absolutely no side effects whatsoever.

Christmas day was a miserable affair. Our paltry income had dried up in the days before Christmas. We had very little to eat. I walked the streets of Observatory, alone with my dismal thoughts, tormented by the delightful aromas of Christmas fare coming from the houses I passed by. At last, the day was over, we all went to sleep that night, hunger pangs filling our stomachs.

The next few days were some of the hardest I had ever endured as a homeless vagabond. Surrounded by a world filled with food, we were slowly starving. Nothing seemed to go our way, no one seemed to care, even the restaurants turned us away.

I will never forget Wednesday the 29 December 1993 for two reasons. The first reason was that someone gave me R 200 for washing his car in the shopping centre parking lot. So we had enough to buy food, drinks, drugs and sweets for Paul. That night we went to sleep around 10 pm in our established positions, Owen near the entrance of the boma then Paul in the middle and I at the closed end.

I woke up to the sound of Owen’s voice. I turned over to look in his direction. In the glow of the street lights, I saw a well built black man crouched over Owen. He was wearing a military-style greatcoat. In his hand was a pistol pointed at Owen’s forehead and he stared silently down at Owen who was mumbling something in a fear strangled voice.

I slowly sat up. He turned his face towards me but remained crouched over Owen with the gun pointed to his head. I started speaking to him in a soft and calm voice although my heart was leaping about in my chest. I told him we were homeless street people, with only a few belongings, that he could take anything we had. He stared at me, silent and cold, his face devoid of any emotion.

Time seemed to have come to a standstill, we all seemed frozen in place. Owen, with the barrel of the pistol against his ashen forehead, had his eyes closed. With my thoughts racing away, I wondered if this profound atheist was praying. Paul seemed to be in a catatonic state, a place that the psychotic go when overwhelmed by reality and there was the man and me staring at one another. I said nothing else, there was nothing else to say and he had not spoken a word.

I had known many Zulu men in Pietermaritzburg when it had the reputation as the political violence capital of South Africa in the mid-’80s, violent men partaking in the struggle against a ruthless regime. Their faces were always filled with emotion, their eyes filled with fire. This man’s face was lifeless as if he had lost his soul somewhere. He resembled the cold-hearted statue of Cecil John Rhodes just up the road with his stony unblinking stare at the world he so heartlessly ruled. This man, I realised was beyond hatred. We were merely cockroaches to be squashed without a thought.

Suddenly he stood up, I heard the metallic sound as he uncocked the pistol before he buried it into his coat. With a last look at me, he walked off into the night. Owen sat up and began muttering dark things as anger slowly replaced his terror. Paul gradually came out of his catatonic state and as usual, said nothing. None of us could sleep for the rest of the night. Our safe spot here on the edge of the grassy banks of the Liesbeek river had been transformed into a place of danger.

The next day, after getting some sleep after dawn we went back to the business of washing cars. Somehow the people of Obs had got over their Christmas stooge mentality and back to their natural generosity. The next day was New Year’s eve and we had a lot of earning and saving to do for it to be a better celebration than Christmas past.

So we got back to the camp and began to worry whether we would get another surprise visit in the night and decided that we would take turns to keep watch. I was rather sceptical that Owen would willingly do his bit and I was sure that Paul would forget pretty quickly why he was awake and promptly go to sleep.

And then we heard the gunshots somewhere in Observatory lasting a minute or two and then silence for a few more before the wailing cacophony of sirens filled the air. Police vans and cars were both racing towards and some away from the centre of Obs. One came down the road along the fence of the hospital and screeched to a halt when they noticed us in our boma. With torches on us, they realised we were homeless people and asked if anyone had come down this road and when we replied in the negative they turned around and raced off back towards the suburbs before we even had the chance to ask what happened. We barely slept at all that night.

The next day we learned that the Helderberg Tavern was attacked. Four people lost their lives and others were injured. Everyone in the neighbourhood was in a state of shock and grief. Angry voices could be heard in the streets whilst others threw their hands up in despair. That evening in Obs the New Year celebrations were subdued, the streets were mostly empty, everyone seemed to have gone elsewhere or stayed at home. The restaurant had plenty of food to give away as the new year of democracy dawned.

But that is not the end of this story just yet and also much more to the picture than meets the eye. The following Wednesday night, the 5 January 1994, is another Wednesday night I will never be able to forget. The night is etched into my memory down to the finest details. Like the previous Wednesday night with the man and the gun incident we went to sleep quite early.

I awoke to hear Owen shouting out “Hey, stop hitting me!” Like in any such situation, the adrenaline kicked in like a punch to the guts, things happened at a fast pace but in slow motion, as time seemed to stand still.

I sat up and in the faint street light saw a short black man with a Knob Kerrie in his right hand prodding Owen’s chest. As I sat up he looked at me. Almost as if recognising me, his face changed from inquisitiveness to an intense scowl. His stance changed from casual alertness to focused determination, like a predator about to pounce on its prey.

I scrambled to stand up and as I was rising I felt the stunning blow of being struck on the head. Although delivered with full force, as I was rising very fast the angle of the blow changed so that it skidded off my head rather than impacting full on. Still, with stars of light bursting in my eyes, I reeled back against the corner tree of the boma my hand instinctively reaching up to my head and then dropping down again bloodied. My eyes cleared and I saw the man, stick pulled back about to strike again. His eyes carried a glint of triumph, his scowl gone, replaced with a smirk of bloodlust that can only be seen by a victim on a killer’s face as they are about to kill.

My knees were trembling, my legs felt like they were about to collapse under me. I knew if I did not move, the next blow would kill me. As he launched the strike, I somehow found the strength to slip behind the tree and heard the slapping sound of the Knob Kerrie hitting the tree trunk. I scrambled through the bush until I got to the road under the street light near another tree.

I turned and saw him coming towards me, somewhat cautiously now as he was now in the light and the nearest hospital ward was about 20 meters beyond the fence. His face was filled with the murderous rage of a killer denied a quick kill. I ridiculously tried to break a branch off the tree. I quickly gave that up and was back peddling unsteadily towards the fence.

Suddenly I felt tired, dreadfully tired of it all, tired of my pathetic meaningless life. The years of drug addiction, destitution, homelessness, loneliness and hopelessness flooded my mind. Despair flooded my soul. All the struggling and surviving, the trying and failing and then trying again suddenly coming to this, being murdered by a demented killer on a road outside the Psychiatric hospital that threw me out a few months ago and just a few days after 4 others had been senselessly murdered by other madmen.

I stopped backtracking, my shoulder slumped in resignation. The shock and concussion along with the loss of blood still dripping down my face were taking their toll. The killer noticed the change and gathered himself for a final attack a triumphant ecstasy lighting up his face.

I said under my breath, “Jesus this is it”. I heard a voice behind me say “Call Out For Help!!!”
I called out “Help!” It came out like a strangled sob.

The killer was a mere four feet away with his stick gripped with both hands raised above his head. At the sound of my call, the expression on his face changed in an instant from rage to one of sheer terror. His face became pale, his eyes seemed like they would burst from his head. With a high pitched scream, he turned and fled down the road, shouting and screaming all the way.

I stood there swaying, absolutely astounded, totally amazed. It was beyond belief, I thought I was dreaming. I put my hand to my head and felt the warm fresh blood still seeping from the crack in my skull. I stumbled back the boma. Owen and Paul just stared at me in shock. I sat down and started shaking uncontrollably. Terrible dizziness and nausea came over me I saw the grass coming towards my face as I slowly keeled over. As the darkness of unconsciousness invaded my mind, I thought it strange to be delivered from death only to then die like this.

I regained consciousness in the early hours before dawn. Both Owen and Paul were sleeping. I gathered my few belongings, wrapped a t-shirt around my head and began the long agonising walk to Groote Schuur hospital. It took hours to walk there although it was not at all far. I frequently had to stop to rest.

The early morning risers gave way to taxis busses and cars. No stopped to offer help, and nor did I expect any offers. I got to the emergency, The staff were brilliant. The nurses plonked me in a wheelchair. I told them what had happened and they promptly added a “Nil Per Mouth” sign to the wheelchair and whisked me off to see the doctor. He cleaned me up, put a drip into my arm, shaved my head in the area of the would and proceeded to stitch it up whilst asking me questions before sending me off for a cat scan to determine if there was any bleeding into the brain as the skull was fractured.

When I returned with the scan, he was somewhat puzzled. I had a rather large round dent over a 10cm fracture, however, there was no bleeding into the brain whatsoever. He admitted me for 24-hour observation. I slept for most of it.

They discharged me the next day, a Friday. Someone had given me some money, I did not want to return to the boma. I caught a taxi to Wynberg and went to the police station. I told the Policeman my story and they allowed me to sleep in an open-cell for the weekend and gave me food.

I never went back to the Boma. I found a secure place to stay in Observatory sleeping on a porch. I heard that Paul was re-admitted to Valkenberg hospital, I don’t know what happened to Owen. I never saw either of them again. In the weeks that followed, I thought a lot about what had happened, trying to piece the puzzle together. All I could think was that the incidences were all linked. The man with the pistol was doing reconnaissance before the attack, looking for the best escape routes. He found us on one potential route. As I had interacted with him and had seen his face, he could have sent the short man to eliminate me.

I did see some footage of the Truth and Reconciliation commission of a shortish man who accused one of the commissioners of driving the getaway car in the Helderberg Tavern Massacre. He looked vaguely familiar, but who could ever be certain about such things that happen at night in such trying circumstances.