JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Something is happening in South Africa that has rarely happened before: The police are being forced to answer charges that they slaughtered innocent blacks.
In an extraordinary public forum, a half-dozen black witnesses have come forward this month to charge that police were present and in some cases played an active role in one of the most horrible massacres here in recent times.
The investigation of the Boipatong massacre of June 17, when more than 40 people were slain in their homes, has had a profound impact on the image of police and on the idea of police accountability.
"It marks a new phase in the way people look at the police and the way police are willing to look at themselves," said Jodie Kollapen of Lawyers for Human Rights, which monitors human rights abuses across the country. "We have never seen such an in-depth inquiry into the conduct of police."
It also marks the first time there has been a parade of witnesses giving detailed testimony implicating police officers in atrocities that can in no way be linked to maintaining law and order.
For more than two years, black political leaders have charged that police forces are involved in violence against black communities aimed at weakening their political organizations. But never before has there been concrete evidence to support those charges, which have always been rejected by government officials.
Police officials have consistently called on the African National Congress to present evidence of police abuse if they have it. Now it is being presented in graphic detail, sometimes by people whose families were slain in front of their eyes.
The forum for this extraordinary parade is the Commission of Inquiry into Violence, headed by Richard Goldstone, a widely respected white judge. The commission, appointed by President W. de Klerk, held eight days of hearings this month and is scheduled to hold more later in the year.
So far, testimony has come from a black policeman who lives in Boipatong, a gas station attendant who summoned police during the massacre but was ignored, a carpenter on his way home during the massacre, a factory worker, a woman whose mother and brother were hacked to death, and a woman who said her 3-year-old niece was hacked in the head after a group of black and white men burst into her shack.
The black policeman, Ntietsa Xaba, testified that he was threatened by white officers after he came forward to say he saw a police armored vehicle accompanying armed men through the township during the killings.
Police have arrested almost 100 blacks, migrant workers from the Zulu tribe, who have been accused of carrying out the massacre against people in the township who are supporters of the ANC. No whites have been arrested, although dozens of Boipatong residents insist they saw whites during the attack. Police officials say there were no officers in the area until well after the attack occurred.
In the midst of the Goldstone hearings, police said they had accidentally erased 13 hours of radio calls that might have shed light on what they knew and when they knew it.
The erasure led critics to ask whether police were bunglers or butchers.
The Goldstone hearings came on the heels of a report by a British law enforcement expert, Peter Waddington, who said the South African police were incompetent and their investigation of the Boipatong massacre "woefully inadequate." He suggested that police didn't take the investigation "as seriously as they claim."
"If these obvious failures are in any way representative, then they suggest that the SAP [South African Police] is an unaccountable police force," he wrote.
"Perhaps after decades of enforcing apartheid laws, the SAP must learn afresh how to cultivate relationships and adapt their tactics in order to achieve public acceptability," he said.
The Goldstone hearings also came after a leading South African pathologist, Dr. Jonathan Gluckman, said police were out of control and killing an average of one black suspect a week. Seven people have died in police custody in the two weeks since Dr. Gluckman issued his statement.
The weight of reports, testimony and accusations against the police has put them under more pressure than ever before, and some observers hope it will lead to dramatic changes in the 100,000-strong police force.
One of the main problems is the role the police played in South Africa before Mr. de Klerk's reforms began in early 1990.
"Police had to carry out the apartheid policies. They were politicized from Day One," said Mr. Kollapen, the human rights lawyer. "They were never the protectors of blacks."
Instead, police were given free rein to enforce apartheid by any means necessary and to repress dissent among the black population. They have long been considered enemies by blacks in the townships, where police over the years have been known to fire on black protesters with little or no provocation.
Mr. Goldstone conducted a one-man inquiry into such a shooting two years ago, when 11 demonstrators were killed by police in the township of Sebokeng, near Boipatong. He found that the shooting in that case was unprovoked.
The investigation into the 1990 Sebokeng shooting was one of the first serious probes into police conduct against blacks. But that case involved policemen who acted incorrectly in the line of duty and could claim to be trying to uphold the law.