JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South African police clashed with right-wing farmers near the conservative town of Ventersdorp yesterday when the white farmers tried to destroy a black squatter camp with their trucks.
Police said two farmers were injured when hundreds tried to break through a police blockade protecting the squatters, who had moved back to land that was seized from them 13 years ago under apartheid laws.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok said police opened fire on the farmers when they defied police orders and tried to advance on the squatter camp in about 50 trucks.
Earlier in the day, 17 squatters were injured when a group of
white men in khaki uniforms, apparently members of the far-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement, charged the squatter camp. Witnesses said they destroyed several tin shacks and smashed property inside the shacks, then left before police arrived.
"They chased us away and hit us and broke all my things," Maria Lwana, one of the women in the camp told reporters at the scene.
Farmers denied that the khaki-clad group was part of their contingent, but a spokesman for the farmers said they wanted to remove the blacks "and return them to where they came from in Bophuthatswana," a black homeland created by the white-minority government.
The government has begun legal action against the squatters, maintaining that they occupied the land unlawfully last month. But the farmers -- complaining that the government has not moved fast enough to evict the blacks, and that crime in the area has soared since the 400 squatters moved in -- said yesterday that they had to take matters into their own hands.
"A number of people illegally occupied this area," said Ferdi Hartzenberg, deputy leader of the Conservative Party. "And a lot of damage resulted from that. People were losing property. So the farmers took action."
Police Maj. Ray Harrald said that since legal proceedings had already begun against the squatters, "it was totally unnecessary for anybody to take the law into their own hands."
"The South African police," he said, "have a duty to act against anybody who transgresses the law and will not hesitate to take appropriate steps to maintain law and order."
About 300 policemen and soldiers were dispatched to Ventersdorp, about 80 miles west of Johannesburg, after a large contingent of trucks was seen moving toward the Goedgevonden squatter camp late Friday night. Estimates of the number of farmers varied from 500 to 2,000.
After the incident, many of the whites gathered at a farm near the squatter camp. They denied that they had tried to demolish the camp, saying they wanted to remove the squatters peacefully. They also claimed that police shot at them without provocation.
The farmers met with Law and Order Minister Vlok and agreed not to take any further steps against the squatters until after the case goes to court on Thursday.
The incident was the most violent outburst so far this year over the emotional issue of land ownership. Emotions have run high among conservative whites since President F. W. de Klerk in February proposed repealing the apartheid laws that reserve 87 percent of South Africa's land for the white minority and that restrict blacks to townships and tribal homelands.
Following Mr. de Klerk's announcement, several black communities that lost land under apartheid said they would try to reclaim their old properties.