How God used a massacre to point an entire country to the gospel

russell powell
How God used a massacre to point an entire country to the gospel image

Survivors have relived memories and shared testimonies 25 years after the night that masked gunman burst into a service at St James’ Church in the quiet Cape Town suburb of Kenilworth, firing wildly and throwing grenades into the auditorium.

In a crime that shocked South Africa, four terrorists of a group calling itself the Azanian People's Liberation Army killed 11 members of the congregation and wounded 58 others.

Although they claimed they wanted to kill white South Africans, who they assumed were complicit with the apartheid policy, it was a mixed-race congregation that included Russian fishermen who were part of the church’s outreach to the Soviet fishing fleet. Many of the fisherman, who could not speak English, mistook the gunmen for actors in a church drama and were slow to take cover.

The carnage ended when a member of the congregation, who was carrying a handgun, shot one of the attackers in the hand. It is believed the group originally planned to roll petrol bombs into the building but left quickly when they came under fire.

A 25-year memorial was held at Kenilworth on July 25, addressed by Bishop Frank Retief – who was senior minister of the church at the time. St James’ was part of the Church of England in South Africa, now Reach SA.

Bishop Retief was not in the auditorium in 1993 when the shooting broke out, but arrived soon after. He spoke in a special 25-year memorial video, saying, “When I walked through that door and saw the bodies lying on the floor, and the pews blown up, and the groups of people huddled around each other – I cannot explain what was going through my mind.” The Rev Ross Anderson, who was leading the service when the gunmen burst in, probably saved lives by standing up and warning those who had not taken cover.

“They were still firing and lobbing hand grenades,” he said.

“I can remember thinking as I walked back up to the pulpit that I was probably about to die, because the moment I started speaking I would be identified, I'd be singled out and they would shoot me. But I didn't process it. I was so anxious about the congregation.”  

Survivor Susanna Manley was grateful for that warning. “It was only when I heard Ross say ‘Get down’ did I actually react,” she said.

Janet Gie was injured but survived. “In God's sovereignty if I hadn't ducked that split second when I went down, and because of Ross shouting to get down, I don't believe that I would be here,” she said. “The bullet [that grazed my back] would have gone straight through me.”

The Aftermath 

In the hours after the attack, and for weeks afterwards as the South African media put the church in the spotlight, Mr Anderson said the congregation’s attitude was remarkable: “The response was one of prayer for those who attacked us and even love for our enemy.”

The attack occurred during the transition to democracy, and the unrest that followed the lifting of apartheid.

“The message of forgiveness – if you go back and Google it – it was the message of the day. It took the country by absolute storm and it was a counterbalance to what was happening in the rest of the country. Bishop Retief

“God took one church, he put it through the fire, and then he put it on display. And as a result of that, the gospel was spoken to people in the furthest corners of this land.”