Black rivalries turn Boipatong into battle zone

July 05, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

BOIPATONG, South Africa -- As the sun goes down, the barricades go up in this dusty little township, revealing the battle zone that Boipatong has become.

Tree trunks and stones are dragged to the entrance of virtually every dirt street, making it difficult for attackers to come by car or truck.

The boys of the township, known locally as "comrades," become the watchmen for the community. They put down their schoolbooks and take up rocks as weapons for their all-night patrols.

"We don't have guns. We want guns for protection," says Peter, a 16-year-old high school student who would not give his last name.

"And we want the police to move away. We will protect ourselves," he says, reflecting the deep distrust of police among township residents.

For nearly two years, the comrades of Boipatong and a half-dozen other black townships in this industrial region known as the Vaal Triangle have been locked in a deadly battle with a rival group housed in a migrant worker camp about a mile from here.

The comrades are mostly members of the African National Congress, though some support the more radical Pan Africanist Congress. The migrant workers, mainly Zulu tribesmen from rural areas, are linked to the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Their fight is a struggle for supremacy between two different black worlds.

One is the traditional, tribal world embraced by Inkatha, whose followers attend rallies dressed in animal skins and bones. The other is the modern world of South Africa's urban townships, which have been on the front lines of the anti-apartheid campaign.

The conflict reached one of its worst points June 17, when more than 200 men marched into the township armed with spears, clubs and guns and murdered at least 46 people in their sleep.

Police say the attack was carried out by residents of the Inkatha-dominated migrant workers' camp, known as KwaMadala Hostel. In Zulu, the name means the "place of old men," but the comrades down the street say it is a place of gangsters and murderers.

At KwaMadala, where the workers live in a fortress-like encampment, Inkatha leaders plead complete innocence and say that the police tortured several of their fellow Zulus to obtain false confessions.

"We totally deny these allegations," says Mtwana Vanana Zulu, the top Zulu leader at KwaMadala, who strides through the hostel shouting orders at residents. He blames the ANC for the massacre and says that the ANC had been intimidating people for years.

"It is because of the attitude of the Communists. They are always treating people like that," he says, referring to the ANC's alliance with the South African Communist Party. "It's obvious this attack was planned by the ANC to achieve its own aims."

Mr. Zulu says that the ANC needed an excuse to call off political negotiations with the white-minority government and that the massacre provided them with that excuse.

ANC President Nelson Mandela has charged that the massacre was carried out by Inkatha members assisted by state security police. As a result, talks on a new democratic constitution have ground to a halt.

The story of violence in the so-called Vaal Triangle is a tale of destruction and death. The region, about 40 miles south of Johannesburg, has been in a state of war since July 22, 1990.

Inkatha held its first political rally there on that day in the nearby township of Sebokeng, an ANC stronghold. Twelve Sebokeng residents were killed as Inkatha members marched through the township after the rally with sticks and spears.

"Those people are wild," says Peter, a thin-limbed youth whose words come tumbling out like an anxious child's. "They are wild. If we don't kill them, they will kill us. And they are killing women and children."

He speaks from experience. Among the victims of last month's massacre was his cousin, a young woman killed in her bed while Peter and other family members cowered in the next room.

But township youngsters also speak of their own violent steps to "discipline" residents aligned with Inkatha or to retaliate for attacks attributed to Inkatha members.

The disciplinary steps include burning the offender's house to the ground. They also include burning people alive.

Two people were burned to death in the township on the weekend before the June 17 massacre because the comrades believed they were Inkatha supporters and spies.

"These people are perpetrators. They are always guilty," says Peter, expressing the intolerance that has grown out of years of war.

In the two years since Inkatha's bloody introduction to the Vaal Triangle in a move to expand its influence beyond the Zulu-dominated Natal region, more than 500 people have died on both sides of this political battle.

The Human Rights Commission, an independent monitoring group based in Johannesburg, says that there have been eight massacres in the Vaal since the mid-1990 incident, resulting in 196 deaths. More than 6,000 people have died in nationwide political violence during that period.

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