The tall police officer barked an order and a burst of gunfire spat into the crowd of blacks on a dusty soccer field. There were screams of terror and pain as people trampled one another in frantic efforts to escape.
Eleven persons died and 30 lay seriously wounded in the incident three months ago in a black squatter camp called Winterveld, northwest of Pretoria -- one of several incidents of shooting by police in nearly two years of racial violence in South Africa.
What made Winterveld different is that the police officer who gave the order to shoot was himself black. Moreover, the assault occurred in a territory administered by blacks, the nominally independent tribal "homeland" of Bophuthatswana.
Brig. Andrew Molope, 41, who was divisional commissioner in charge of the police at Winterveld, testified this week to a commission investigating the incident. His account offered a glimpse into the mind of a black policeman caught in a no-man's land between rebellious black youths and the white South African authorities whose influence seems to pervade the black "homelands" they have created.
"I am certain there is not a single person in Winterveld who considers me a threat," Molope told the inquiry in tones of rising urgency not reflected in his stern, frozen face. "I really work very well with the people."
But the tall, powerfully built man arrived in a bulletproof BMW at the heavily protected courthouse where the commission is meeting.
In South Africa, black police have been the target of many attacks in the countrywide civil conflict. Denounced as "collaborators with the apartheid system," they have been ostracized by their communities, and had their homes and cars firebombed. Twenty-four have been murdered. In many cities and towns, black policemen and their families are now housed in fortified compounds removed from the segregated black residential areas.
Molope, however, belongs to a powerful black security elite established in recent years after South Africa declared four tribal "homelands" independent states.
After serving as a low-ranking South African policeman in provincial towns for 20 years, Molope, who joined the police at age 17, was promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Bophuthatswana in 1977, the year the homeland was granted nominal independence.
Questioned by lawyers representing the families of the Winterveld victims, Molope repeatedly denied statements by local residents that the crowd of between 10,000 and 15,000 had gathered on the soccer field to demand that police release detained children. He said trouble had been deliberately stirred up that day by the Congress of South African Students, an organization of black schoolchildren banned by Pretoria last year.
He said he ordered the crowd to disperse when he established that they did not have official permission to hold an open-air meeting. Such meetings had been banned in the homeland because of the widespread racial unrest.
When the crowd ignored the order, Molope said he instructed his men to fire tear gas, but the people surged forward and threw gasoline bombs -- which did not ignite -- stones and other missiles at the police.
"I realized that the lives of my men were in danger, that my life was, too, and I gave instructions that the police should use their firearms," Molope recalled.
Molope said that after the shooting, he instructed his men to arrest the persons lying on the ground. "As the police moved in, some got up and fled. I counted eight corpses," he said.
Witnesses, including some members of the Bophuthatswana Defense Force who were there, have testified that they saw police assaulting members of the crowd after the shooting, but Molope denied this.
He said he had been trained in methods of crowd control and the handling of unrest situations while he was in the South African police, and that he had followed these guidelines at Winterveld.
Molope revealed that within a month of the shootings he was promoted from colonel to brigadier and given a top job at police headquarters. He told the commission he saw this as a public demonstration of confidence in him and approval of his decisions at Winterveld by the homeland's president, Lucas Mangope, who is also the minister of law and order.