Violent anger surrounds South African hostel

September 10, 1990|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Sun Staff Correspondent

SOWETO, South Africa -- An angry message has been spray-painted on a wall outside the Merafi railway station, where every day thousands of black commuters board trains and buses for the half-hour ride to Johannesburg.

"Death to Inkatha," read the large black letters. "Inkatha KillerNot Welcome. Inkatha Warlords Must Go."

The graffiti are a sign of the growing hostility in communitiearound Merafi station, where there has been sporadic warfare between the local residents and migrant workers from KwaZulu, stronghold of the Inkatha political movement.

The residents live in simple match-box style houses that abut thMapetla Hostel compound, a stark group of red brick barracks-type buildings constructed for migrant workers who leave their wives and children in the countryside.

Both the hostel area and the surrounding houses are scarrefrom conflicts of recent weeks, when regiments of armed men from the hostels met in hand-to-hand combat with men from the neighborhood. Windows have been smashed in virtually every house along Mabalane Street in front of the hostel and Moroka Street on its southern edge.

The hostel's windows, too, have been shattered along its MorokStreet side, some when a Molotov cocktail was tossed into the hostel late one night. The entire compound is surrounded by a high fence topped with sharp circles of "razor wire," giving the area the look of a concentration camp.

"One of the biggest problems you face is this bloody fenceThese guys are basically trapped," said Max Mosselson, a Johannesburg lawyer whorepresents Inkatha. "The design of these hostels is trouble."

Mr. Mosselson drove to the Mapetla Hostel after fighting erupteThursday at the railway station and found himself in the middle of two angry crowds gathered on either side of the fence.

Hundreds of Zulu hostel-dwellers stood in front of their barracksbrandishing sticks, sharpened steel rods and homemade shields made of tin sheets or garbage-can tops. Across Mabalane Street stood a crowd of local residents, mostly supporters of the African National Congress, who grew angrier as the day wore on.

Each group accused the other of instigating the violence, aneach side said the police were harassing its members but not their opponents. No policemen were present as the two sides stared each other down across the wire fence, but two dark-green army tanks occupied a grassy strip between the hostel and the neighborhood.

At one point, a hostel-dweller arrived outside the compound in commuter minibus and was dragged from the vehicle by neighborhood men before he managed to escape.

After that, small groups of hostel-dwellers, many wearing reheadbands to identify themselves as Zulu warriors, began advancing toward the fence to counterattack. The white Johannesburg lawyer, who said he was not accustomed to playing the role of township peacemaker, moved from group to group advising the Zulus to move back toward their barracks.

On the other side of the street, the residents charged thahostel-dwellers attacked the train station that morning, then returned to the compound and feigned innocence. "When the police leave, Inkatha comes out and attacks," one bystander said.

"Inkatha is jealous," said Thomas, a 20-year-old high school pupil"Our key comrades have got the opportunity to talk to the government. Our comrades are appearing on television. That's why they are jealous."

Thomas was repeating a charge made constantly, but with a bit more sophistication, by ANC leaders, whose supporters are known as comrades. They say the Inkatha movement, led by Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is causing trouble in the townships in an effort to sabotage negotiations under way between the white government and the ANC.

In a development that supported the charge that the Zulu-basegroup is stirring up trouble, police arrested 136 Inkatha members after a major clash in the township of Sebokeng Tuesday. Those arrested included an Inkatha youth leader and spokesman named Themba Khoza. Witnesses said he was distributing AK-47s from the trunk of his car at a Sebokeng hostel.

The ANC has played the most prominent role so far idiscussions with the government, while Mr. Buthelezi stands on the sidelines appealing to ANC leader Nelson Mandela to sit down and meet with him. ANC loyalists say the Zulu leader is fomenting trouble in the townships in an effort to force Mr. Mandela into a meeting.

There has been bad blood between the two groups for morthan a decade and bitter fighting for four years in Natal province, Mr. Buthelezi's home base. But the fighting did not reach townships around Johannesburg until last month, when the first of dozens of townships erupted in bloody factional warfare. Virtually all of the fighting has involved migrant-worker hostels with a large population of Zulu workers.

L The men at Mapetla Hostel said they were Inkatha supporters.

want to see these hostel-dwellers moved from this place," said Thomas. "They must go to their homelands because they don't want to live with the people here. They assault you. Nowadays they don't just assault you. They kill you."

An older man named Ali looked angrily across Mabalane Streeat the hostel-dwellers behind the fence. "Look at them with their weapons," he spat out.

The hostel-dwellers on the other side said they had no intentioof leaving the townships and going back to the homelands. They said they needed work in the city to support their families back home.

"We are going to die here," said Longweni Mthuthuzeli, middle-aged hostel-dweller whose wife and children are in KwaZulu. "We were born in South Africa. This is our country," he said as several dozen men nodded agreement that they would not be chased away.

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