Mysterious violence No easy explanations for township conflicts in S. Africa

July 08, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The closer you get to the violence rocking the townships on the southeast edge of this city, the more elusive the cause seems.

From far away, the picture is much clearer. Katlehong and neighboring Tokoza erupted in brutal fighting late last week that has left close to 100 dead.

The round of violence started just after April 27, 1994, was set as the date for South Africa's first non-racial elections.

The Inkatha Freedom Party, whose base of support is in the Zulu tribe, does not want that date. Almost all the residents in the township's so-called hostels -- essentially male-only migrant labor camps -- are Zulu.

So when violence flared once again between hostel dwellers and township residents, it seemed clear that it was a case of the Zulu Inkatha supporters attacking the ANC-aligned township residents, a demonstration of the type of trouble they can cause if the country goes forward with an election.

Or was it?

No easy conclusions

Few people who live in these townships, whose streets are littered by day with the remains of barricades manned by youths at night, seem willing to come to such conclusions so easily.

"Two women were killed close by to where I live," said Khulidile Skosana, a 43-year-old woman sitting on the lawn of Katlehong's Natalspruit Hospital.

"I was scared. That is why I came here," she said.

She was one of the hundreds of people who have fled their township homes, coming to a few makeshift refugee camps. At night, the hospital opens two clinic waiting rooms so that people can sleep inside, out of the chilly winter weather in this place where the seasons are the reverse of those north of the equator. During the day many return to their houses, coming back to the hospital again at night.

"We don't know who is doing the shooting," said Nozizwe Ndaba, 33, Ms. Skosana's neighbor on the hospital's dried out grass.

"We don't even know what to say about it."

Inside the hospital, victims tell similar stories of mysterious violence. Sixty-year-old John Tshbalala said he was sitting in his house Saturday night when several men came in and began firing. He said he has no idea who they were, but now he has a broken arm and leg from bullet wounds.

Johanes Sibija, 24, was in the middle of a group of taxis Saturday-- the van-type vehicles that take township residents to and from the cities -- when a man appeared and began firing. Mr. Sibija said his companion was killed, but he fled, escaping with a serious wound to the groin.

"It's a difficult problem," Faith Mashiloane, acting regional coordinator of the National Peace Committee, said of trying to restore peace to Katlehong and Tokoza.

"The announcement of the election date did not start this," she said. "Everybody is trying to politicize this, but it's got nothing to do with politics.

"Hostel dwellers feel they are threatened by the residents, and the township residents think they are threatened by the hostel dwellers," she said. "It is a war which has been happening for a long time."

Origins of distrust

The origins of this distrust are many. There are the long-standing tribal enmities, especially on the part of the Zulu, who see the restoration of the Zulu kingdom as the true path to glory for a post-apartheid South Africa.

Add to this a class conflict between the more affluent township people who live in houses, however modest, and those in the hostel who live in dormitory-type accommodations.

Then add the genuine political differences between the ANC and Inkatha, as well as the exploitation of the instability by a criminal element fueled by high unemployment, and you have a complicated recipe for violence.

But one other element emerges again and again in discussions with people in Katlehong -- the taxis.

Hauling people back and forth to jobs and shopping and other business in Johannesburg in these vans crammed with people is one of the most lucrative businesses in black South Africa. Bloody gun battles between rival groups seeking monopolies in various townships are fairly common.

One such war was fought in Katlehong in 1990. The winner was a Zulu group. Though many think the current wave of violence goes back to a shooting incident in May when an ANC march went by the entrance to the Tokoza hostel, there are indications it might have its origins in that taxi war.

For one, a major casualty of this violence has been taxi service as the drivers have refused, and been barred from, serving the townships.

Taxi stories

For another, the rumors that always seem to fuel these incidents can be traced back to stories about taxis. The hostel-dwellers claim that people speaking Zulu were taken off of taxis and killed. The township residents repeat reports of taxis picking up people and delivering them into the hostels, where they are killed.

Sello Nkhi, a social worker for the city council of Katlehong, said there has been a constant level of violence since the 1990 taxi war.

But then there is the genuine question of what caused the simmering violence to come to a headline-grabbing full boil just as the election date was announced.

Leaders of the two parties have been more than happy to go public blaming each other for the killings. In front of the Tokoza Hostel, two men who lived there gave the straight Zulu line.

"This violence is caused by members of the MK," said Simon Mchu, 38, referring to the ANC army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, by its initials. "They came into the hostel Friday night and attacked us."

Back at the hospital, a visit by top ANC officials was just in time for the evening news.

Out on the lawn, Jaina Ncakasi, 33, quieted her 3-year-old daughter, smiling as she watched journalists question the refugees.

"I was smiling because I don't know how else to react to what life has become here," she said. "When I saw you people, I thought you were here to bring us answers. But instead you ask the same questions we do."

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