Strife flares in township in changing South Africa

November 23, 1990|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

KHAYELITSHA, South Africa -- Mike Mapongwana sits in the front room of his spare little house talking about the night a group of men bombed the house and killed his wife.

The ceiling is new, the walls have been whitewashed, glossy linoleum squares cover three-quarters of the concrete floor, and glass panes have been replaced in two windows that face each other across the room.

The assailants opened fire from outside both windows as Mr. Mapongwana and his family lay asleep Oct. 17.

His wife, Nomsa, was hit as she leaped from bed, but Mr. Mapongwana grabbed the children, ages 7 and 3, and shoved them under a table in the kitchen, where they waited for the barrage to end. A homemade bomb came hurtling through one of the broken windows, and the ceiling went up in flames. The attackers jumped over the back fence and fled.

Mr. Mapongwana recalls the scene as he sits in one of several kitchen chairs scattered around the front room, which serves as living room, dining room and bedroom for his family. Two sleeping mats lean against a wall, and blankets are piled high on a chair that folds out into a narrow bed.

The kitchen and bathroom across a small hallway are the only other rooms in the house, which looks like dozens of other little houses in this black township on the Cape Flats, a sandy flatland region about 20 minutes from the scenic beauty of Cape Town.

Homes such as the Mapongwanas', though small and simple, are nicer than most in Khayelitsha. Thousands of tin-roofed shacks line dirt streets throughout the township, a 7-year-old shantytown area where most of the 300,000 residents have no running water or toilets in their homes.

Mr. Mapongwana, 45, has been at the forefront of battles with town officials for better services and more rental housing. As chairman of the Western Cape Civic Association, he has led a boycott by citizens who refuse to pay rent or fees for the meager services they receive from the town authorities: Water lines run through parts of the township so residents can get water from taps alongside the streets, and municipal garbage trucks pick up trash and waste.

But garbage is piled high in the township now because the

trucks are not making their rounds. Ten of them have been destroyed with homemade gasoline bombs since Mrs. Mapongwana was killed. A black town official has been hacked to death and burned by a mob. The white town clerk, who is administrative officer for the township, has received death threats. And the town offices were bombed one night recently.

In the aftermath of Mrs. Mapongwana's killing, local activists planned a protest march on Oct. 25 to deliver a petition calling for the resignation of the mayor and town council. Authorities refused to grant permission for the march, and police were dispatched to stop it. At least seven people were killed when police opened fire on the crowd of 10,000 after giving them two minutes to disperse, according to witnesses.

Mr. Mapongwana and other activists blame town officials for the attack on his home, and pamphlets have been distributed in the township naming them as Mrs. Mapongwana's murderers.

"I am a threat to them because I am leading a majority of people in the Western Cape region," he said of the local officials, adding that he had been the target of another attack earlier this year. "I was attacked on the seventh of March by the councilors. I was addressing a meeting, and they were in the meeting. . . . They missed me with eight bullets. There were four of them."

The earlier attack, which was covered by local newspapers, took place at a town meeting in view of a room full of people, some of whom were injured, but no one has been charged.

Town Clerk Graham Lawrence said Mr. Mapongwana was unable to identify his assailants at a police lineup, but Mr. Mapongwana said he knew them by name. He also said police did not schedule the lineup until October, seven months after the shooting took place.

He called the black town council members "puppets," who "just listen to what the man is telling them." He said they came to office in an election where only a small minority of people voted, and many of those under threat that they would lose their shacks if they didn't.

He calls Mayor Mali Hoza an "illiterate. . . . That man can't even read and write. So what does he know about local government? He does not know anything. He has got to take everything from the town clerk. He's just a puppet. He's an illiterate. He has never been to school. And yet he's there, according to the South African government, to lead the people."

Mr. Mapongwana, who once worked in the rent office of another Cape township, said the council is "an apartheid structure. So there's no way we can accept this." The civic association wants the council replaced with a "non-racial" structure elected without the artificial racial divisions imposed by South African laws, which the national government is now dismantling.

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