Violence shows how far off new South Africa is Black strife kills 1, injures at least 19

March 27, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

ALEXANDRA, South Africa -- It was a scene from the old South Africa come back to haunt the new.

A crowd of angry young blacks lined a half-dozen large rocks along an intersection leading into this strife-torn township and then pushed a yellow Volkswagen into the middle of the street. Moving expertly and in unison, they rocked the car until it flipped onto its side, completing their unsightly barricade.

A police armored vehicle, known in the townships as a "hippo," came roaring toward the barricade and crashed into the front of the car. The Volkswagen spun sideways, and the hippo continued down the street at high speed and went screeching around the next corner.

Another tank quickly appeared, filled with young white men in riot gear who shot tear gas into the air. The smoke sent the crowd scatteringinto the back streets of Alexandra until the air cleared and they emerged to fight again.

Police firing tear gas and birdshot clashed all afternoon with angry black residents of this squalid little township yesterday, only a few miles from the richest white neighborhoods in Johannesburg.

It was one of the worst such confrontations in years. By the time it was over, one man was found stoned to death. Police reported that 19 people were injured. Others here said the number was probably closer to 100.

But the clash didn't start as a clash between blacks and white police. It began as an attempt by black residents to reclaim their garbage-strewn streets from thugs operating in the name of a major black political organization, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

Alexandra, a filthy and festering spot on the edge of Johannesburg, is a tragic battleground in the nationwide war between South Africa's largest black political groups.

It is a microcosm of all the maladies facing black South Africa: poverty, unemployment, desperately inadequate housing, shockingly poor municipal services and violence.

"The white people in Johannesburg and in South Africa are ignorant of how black people live," said Mary Ntingane, assistant general secretary of the Alexandra Civic Organization. "We are living in poverty, while our labor is spent to improve their areas."

Despite its proximity to wealthy white areas, and although it has existed since 1905, the black township doesn't even have a proper sewage system. Most homes have no electricity and no running water. Residents use communal toilet areas, where there are rows of blue portable toilets. Until last year, when the portable toilets were installed and other municipal improvements were made, they used buckets. There was only one paved road in the township of 300,000.

Violence erupted here in February 1991 when Inkatha tried to establish a presence in what had been a stronghold of the African National Congress.

The rivalry between the two goes back to the days when the ANC was banned and in exile while the Inkatha remained in South Africa and its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, was viewed as something of a collaborator with the apartheid government. Now the two disagree over the type of government there should be in South Africa after power is given to the blacks. The ANC wants a unitary central government. The Inkatha supports strong regional governments because that would preserve its power in the Zulu region.

Township residents here say they have been terrorized by Inkatha for more than a year as the organization seeks to claim new political turf. Thousands have fled their homes in fear and are packed into churches, schools and meeting halls where they feel safe from violence and intimidation.

Some are living under tents in back of the town hall, which they say they prefer to being terrorized in their own homes.

They say many of their homes have been taken over by their tormentors, who now control a large migrant workers hostel in the township and a surrounding settlement of shacks.

"The community has been held in terror by Inkatha," said Rex Grant, a white doctor at the Alexandra Health Center. "Families have been living in fear."

"People are afraid of Inkatha. They have a tendency of killing innocent people," said Richard Mdakane of the Alexandra Civic Organization.

At refugee centers around town, people tell of thugs identifying themselves as Inkatha going from house to house demanding that residents join the group and looting the houses of those who refuse.

"They said if we were not Inkatha we were ANC," said an elderly woman who fled to the local town council building, where she is living under a car port built for municipal vehicles. "They shoot people, and they steal."

More than 2,000 Alexandra residents are living as refugees inside the township, according to municipal authorities.

The residents planned a march through the township yesterday to demand the closing of the migrant workers' hostel, saying it has served as a base for several hundred armed Zulu men to launch attacks on the community.

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