De Klerk flees angry crowd in township S. African police fire on protesters, killing at least 1

June 21, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Staff Writer

BOIPATONG, South Africa -- President F. W. de Klerk was run out of this angry black township yesterday by thousands of shouting residents who called him a murderer and blamed him for the massacre of their relatives and friends last week.

Police later opened fire on the unarmed protesters, killing at least one man and injuring at least a dozen others.

The scene compounded the horror of Boipatong, whose 15,000 residents are gripped with anger, confusion and grief over the slaughter of 40 people in their sleep Wednesday night.

It also recalled the days before the political reforms of the past two years when white policemen often gunned down unarmed black protesters.

A presidential aide said Mr. de Klerk came to Boipatong, 40 miles south of Johannesburg, "because he wanted to show his concern and the concern of the government at the situation." The president, making a rare visit to a black township created under apartheid, planned to speak with relatives of Wednesday's massacre.

But more than 3,000 residents chanted "Go Away. Go Away," as they followed Mr. de Klerk's car down Bakoena Street, where most of the massacre victims were slain. Some carried hand-lettered signs saying, "De Klerk is a killer" and "De Klerk you are not welcome in Boipatong."

One man pressed close to the president's tightly shut window and held up a sign that said, "To Hell with de Klerk and his I-F-P murderers, dog." I-F-P referred to the Inkatha Freedom Party, a rival of the African National Congress (ANC), which is locked in negotiations with the government over political reforms.

Township residents are convinced that police played a role in the Wednesday night massacre, along with Zulu-speaking migrant workers affiliated with the Inkatha Freedom Party. Boipatong is an ANC stronghold.

The residents blame Mr. de Klerk for not controlling his police forces, and they became increasingly angry as police tanks rumbled through their narrow, dirt streets, clearing away barricades before the president's arrival.

When the president came, he was escorted by eight tanks full of rifle-toting police, which caused emotions to run even higher.

At one point, 20 policemen came out of the tanks, surrounded Mr. de Klerk's car and trained their guns on the crowd.

"Shoot us. Kill us," the crowd chanted in defiance. It was a scene that suggested what would come later in the afternoon.

Mr. de Klerk never left his car. He sat silently, his face grim and ashen. He was accompanied by Minister of State Gerrit Viljoen and Law and Order Minister Hernes Kriel.

"People don't want to see the police here. They don't want to see de Klerk. Because they are the ones killing our people," said Thembi Ngwenya, a 38-year-old woman who lives near a tin shack where four people were slain during the massacre.

"This community does not need him because our people have already been murdered. Women and children. It's de Klerk's forces that murdered the people," said Ernest Sotso, an elderly ANC activist.

The ANC called Mr. de Klerk's visit to Boipatong a "cynical public relations exercise." It called on the government to set up a relief fund for victims of the massacre, fire local police commanders and thoroughly investigate the massacre.

"We demand action, not de Klerk's crocodile tears," an ANC statement said.

About 200 armed men swept through the township late Wednesday, slashing, stabbing and shooting innocent people in a mindless attack that ranks as one of the worst single incidents of violence in South Africa's recent history.

Residents say the men came from the migrant workers' hostel across the highway from Boipatong. The hostel is a stronghold of the Inkatha Freedom Party, whose members have been involved in numerous clashes with ANC supporters since 1990.

Police, who have consistently denied ANC charges of collaboration with the Inkatha supporters, said they searched the hostel yesterday and recovered more than 200 spears and axes. They said they were determined to conduct a thorough investigation into the massacre.

After Mr. de Klerk's car sped from the township, there were several tense standoffs between police and shouting residents.

During one confrontation, a row of officers dropped to their knees, aimed their rifles and fired at retreating protesters. When the smoke cleared, more than a dozen people lay bleeding on the ground. At least one man died.

Mr. de Klerk had made only a few visits to black townships, and yesterday's trip was to a township wracked by the chronic violence that has claimed 8,000 lives since he took office in 1989.

At a news conference after leaving Boipatong, Mr. de Klerk said he would not allow the country to fall into anarchy and he hinted that he might reimpose a state of emergency, such as the one lifted two years ago when he began his reform program.

"It will be a very sorry day if we are forced to go back to a state of emergency," he said. "We may have to look beyond the present measures to maintain law and order and to uphold the safety of all South Africans."

Mr. de Klerk said the protest against him seem well planned. But it seemed to build only after tanks and helicopters converged on Boipatong before the president's arrival. Placards were being hastily lettered even after he arrived in the township, and the crowd swelled as the president's convoy moved through the streets.

Later, Winnie Mandela told a rally in Boipatong, "The government does not want peace and stability in this country."

She asked the residents what they needed, and they shouted "AK-47s" -- the assault rifle that symbolized the ANC's guerrilla campaign against the government, which has been suspended since August 1990.

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