Violence in townships shatters attempt at family life for many South Africans

May 14, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

SOWETO, South Africa -- The police radio crackled last Thursday with a report of an explosion in the Mapetla section of Soweto, where a distraught young couple had come face to face with the horror of township violence.

A homemade bomb had been hurled into their tiny front yard just outside the living room, shattering a picture window and disrupting the pattern of their lives.

"My wife was trying to prepare food for the kids. We had to run for cover into the back of the house," said Mike Megani, who moved last year to this neighborhood across the street from the Merafi Hostel for migrant workers.

"I feel our lives are in danger here. We must move out of this place. I can see that they are going to attack us again," said Patience Megani, a petite woman who stood in the cold night air with her baby daughter tied to her back while policemen examined the rubble in the front yard.

For residents of Soweto, the teeming black township with an estimated population of 3 million, life has been tense and unpredictable since a wave of violence began last year. For those who live near the big migrant worker hostels, which have been the flash points for fighting between rival black groups, life has often been a nightmare.

"We want to move away from the hostel to a peaceful place," said Mrs. Megani. "The first attack on the house was last year when Inkatha started to fight. They wanted to burn it. I don't know how we survived."

Mrs. Megani said she and her husband were politically neutral, supporting neither the Zulu-based Inkatha movement nor the African National Congress.

"It doesn't matter if you sympathize with the ANC or Inkatha," she said. "Your life is in danger. We don't know what to do."

Supporters of the two groups have clashed in dozens of townships, killing more than 3,000 people since July. Much of the fighting is ignited when Zulu migrant workers emerge heavily armed from their hostels to meet what they perceive as a threat from the ANC.

In the Dube section of Soweto, far from the Megani home, police responded to another gasoline bomb attack on the same night. That explosion outside the home of Diholo Diholo, who lives across the street from the Dube Hostel, left a pile of glass and bricks in his front yard. It also left Mr. Diholo, a local radio announcer, angry and confused.

"Soweto now has become really unpredictable," he said nervously as his wife, Sophie, stood shivering against the house. "We've been living with these guys, the hostel guys, for quite some time. And we've been living in peace. Apparently, everything went wild last week after the rally. We don't know who to blame."

Fighting erupted around Dube Hostel when Zulu residents returned from a May Day rally sponsored by Inkatha. More than 70 people died in Soweto over the week that followed, prompting police to impose strict new emergency measures.

Soweto riot police in camouflage uniforms went out on routine patrols Thursday, the first night of the new anti-violence measures, and found only sporadic incidents related to the factional fighting.

In the most volatile case, a group of Zulu migrant workers gathered outside the Dobsonville Hostel shouting war chants, waving sticks and making threats against the ANC.

"The people from ANC, they are coming to hit us," said the leader of the group, who never made it clear why he thought the ANC was coming. "The hostel is our house. These people from ANC, they want to hit us at our house," he said, waving his arms and speaking at the top of his voice.

The man, who did not give his name but identified himself as the "induna," or leader, met riot police officers when they rolled up to the hostel in a blue and yellow armored tank. He said people in the neighborhood had been harassing his men. He then told two reporters accompanying the police to "tell the ANC they must stop the nonsense."

The induna agreed to instruct his men to return to their rooms after Col. Pikkie van Vuuren assured him that police patrols would prevent an attack on the hostel. "If you can get the induna to agree, all the others will go along," said another officer.

Soweto's all-male hostels, built by the architects of apartheid, have been a point of bitter controversy in the township for decades. Community leaders called them breeding grounds for trouble. They complained repeatedly against the system that brings black laborers from the countryside into urban areas where they live apart from their families for up to a year at a time.

The ANC has called for the government to dismantle the hostels. The demand poses a threat to the Inkatha movement, which draws much of its support in the Johannesburg area from the hostels.

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