Black-vs.-black fighting tears S. African township

April 04, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

ALEXANDRA, South Africa -- A nasty little war is raging over the dirty streets of this black township, which the people here are starting to call Beirut.

All week long, the streets were barricaded with massive stones and burning cars. Shots rang out from behind the barricades as battles raged between two warring groups.

Most days, the air was black with tear gas, fired from camouflage-painted police tanks that rolled through Alexandra's narrow streets.

Schools were closed. Shops were closed. Residents spent much of the week in running street battles or behind closed doors. Thousands have fled their homes.

"We're tired of this. We can't go back to that place," said Jacob Dibetso, who is living as a refugee in an abandoned school less than a mile from his home.

"That place" is Alexandra's war zone, the heart of a territorial dispute between South Africa's two most powerful black political organizations. The dispute is being waged only minutes from wealthy neighborhoods of Johannesburg, where the gunfire of this impoverished township can be heard throughout the night.

Township residents say they are being chased from their homes by armed Zulu men in a bloody plot by the Inkatha Freedom Party to extend its political turf.

"The Zulus said everyone must move out. They said this is their area now," said Thabitha Mannyoni, 18, who fled with her mother.

"They said I should give them money for an Inkatha membership," said Sheila Mitani, who works as a street sweeper. "Otherwise, they said, we should vacate the place."

Inkatha leaders claim that their followers are targets of the African National Congress, which they say has promoted a culture of violence in the townships over the past decade as part of its campaign against apartheid. They say the violence is now being turned against the ANC's political rivals.

"The reason the ANC is attacking Inkatha is because Inkatha is powerful," said Humphrey Ndlovu, a regional Inkatha leader. "We are not fighting. We are defending ourselves."

Both sides have resorted to open warfare and brutality in the past two weeks since the township exploded over attempts by Inkatha to march through town with spears and shields in a funeral procession for one of its members.

On Wednesday, a schoolboy was shot to death as he passed a migrant workers' hostel that Inkatha controls. The next day, a mob of community people tried to burn a man to death because he was believed to be an Inkatha member.

"Welcome to Beirut," said Tokyo Sexwale, a regional ANC leader. "This is a nightmare. We can't do this to our people."

The battle over Alexandra is part of a surge of black township violence that has rocked South Africa for two years. Thousands of blacks have been killed at the very time the country is moving toward a democratic government.

The coincidence is so alarming that many black leaders believe that a sinister hand is manipulating the violence. They say covert security forces that were used in the past to repress black South Africans are now being used to sow chaos.

"I think its part of the strategy of the government to destabilize the black townships, to create fear and suspicion within the community," said Richard Mdakane of the Alexandra Civic Organization, which generally supports the ANC.

But some analysts believe that a different legacy of apartheid is haunting the townships now.

"We're talking about a society which is devastatingly volatile," said Graham Simpson of the Project for the Study of Violence, an independent research group.

"We're having to live with the legacy of a system that was premised on divide and rule. Virtually every political grouping has an affiliated military wing. That's one reason people talk about the Beirut scenario."

He said that Inkatha had deployed thousands of regiments in the townships to protect Zulu migrant workers and is using the migrant worker hostels as military bases.

Township residents in general and Alexandra residents in particular see the hostels as a major source of their current troubles.

"They perfectly reflect the legacy of apartheid -- denial of family life, macho men operating without the restraints of a family," said Mr. Simpson.

During the early years of apartheid, the hostels were built by the government near industrial areas to house thousands of migrant workers from rural areas who were prohibited by law from bringing their families into "white areas."

The men were considered "temporary sojourners," although most had lived for decades in the urban areas, providing cheap labor for the mines and factories of white South Africa.

Now they are outcasts in black communities, where young "comrades" have risen to power, after battling the government in the streets for more than a decade in a campaign to make the townships ungovernable for white authorities.

The two forces -- rural Zulus and urban youths -- were bound to clash.

Many analysts also agree with ANC leaders that some elements within the white security structures might be fueling the conflict because of opposition to political change.

"Forty years of ideology doesn't just go away," Mr. Simpson said.

But many people believe that much of the violence will go away and the climate in black townships will improve when South Africa's political transition is complete and life begins to stabilize.

Until then, "the daily lives of those people is far worse than it's ever been," said Brian Currin, chairman of the Human Rights Commission, an independent monitoring group. "I don't think it ever was as bad as it is now."

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