SEBOKENG, South Africa -- A funeral vigil for a local political activist turned gruesome yesterday when gunmen fired on hundreds of mourners outside the dead man's home, killing 37 of his relatives and friends.
The attack ended a period of relative calm in the black townships of South Africa's industrial heartland, where more than 1,000 people were killed in political and ethnic violence last year.
Witnesses said about 300 people were attending the all-night vigil for Christoffel Nangalembe, 28, a prominent activist with the African National Congress who was abducted and slain a week earlier.
ANC spokesman Saki Macozoma said that ANC activists, known as "comrades," had been engaged in a dispute with local gangsters and that the gangsters were thought to be responsible for Mr. Nangalembe's death and for the pre-dawn massacre at his home.
Bafuna Ncube, the dead man's cousin, said mourners were gathered inside his mother's four-room house and under a tent that had been erected in the front yard.
"Suddenly, we heard a car braking sharply in front of the gate. Then there were bullets," said Mr. Ncube, 18, who spoke to reporters at Sebokeng Hospital, where he was among 27 people admitted with serious injuries.
"There were a lot of gunshots. By the sound of it, I think they were using machine guns," he said. "Many people were down. Others were moaning and crying. Some were unconscious. Others were dead."
Tensions mounted in the township as hundreds of youths milled around outside the slain activist's home yesterday morning after the 2 a.m. shooting. By noon, the group had become an angry mob that set fire to the houses of two men suspected in connection with the massacre. The "comrades" then began moving searching for gang members.
"I foresee problems. The bodies are going to pile up here," said Father Peter Moerane, an Anglican priest affiliated with the South African Council of Churches. "Maybe after this incident there will be a recurrence of violence. After all, people are people. They have feelings."
Mandla Nangalembe, the dead activist's brother, said he had sought police help repeatedly without success in the week since his brother disappeared. He said he had also asked police to patrol outside his brother's home during the vigil because his family feared there might be trouble.
He said that there were no policemen present when the attack took place and that it took an hour for officers to arrive after they were telephoned about the massacre.
"It was futile to call the police," said Mr. Nangalembe, who added that his uncle and a cousin were dead now in addition to his brother.
Sebokeng, a black township 40 miles south of Johannesburg, has been the scene of conflict between police and activists for years. It was the site of an ugly confrontation last March when police fired on hundreds of protest marchers. A judicial commission later found that the shooting, in which 11 people were killed, had been unprovoked.
Last July, when clashes started in Sebokeng between ANC activists and members of a rival political organization, Inkatha, activists accused police of assisting Inkatha members in attacks on the ANC.
Police spokesman Col. Frans Mostert said a riot police unit had been posted outside the wake Friday night but had been withdrawn after mourners said they didn't want the police there.
He said the attack had been launched by an unknown group of men who threw hand grenades into the tent full of mourners and then fired on them with AK-47 semiautomatic rifles.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok later issued a statement calling the massacre "a most shocking and horrifying deed." He said the South African Police "would not rest until the killers have been tracked down."