Student helps monitor S. African peace pact

August 06, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Armed with the certainty of youth and orange "Peace Monitor" stickers on the sides of a Toyota Corolla, Robert Gaudet drives through the night toward one of the battlefields in the civil war being waged throughout this country in transition.

The barricade-strewn streets of Katlehong are a far cry from the placid Roland Park fields of the Friends School, from which Mr. Gaudet graduated in 1990. The violence in this black township on the southeast edge of Johannesburg even makes the area around New York's Columbia University, where he just finished his junior year, seem tame.

This is the place where Nelson Mandela told a restless crowd of about 8,000 yesterday that black leaders shared responsibility for the township carnage, but still put most of the blame on the police patrolling the townships, the army and the ruling National Party.

Violent death is the constant companion of everyone who lives in the township. But this is where Mr. Gaudet, 21, chose to be on his summer vacation when he accepted a human rights internship from Columbia's political science department and arranged to work at the Wits-Vaal Peace Secretariat.

The Secretariat is the Johannesburg area branch of the national group set up to monitor and enforce the National Peace Accord, an agreement signed two years ago by most of the country's political organizations promising a peaceful transition to the democracy.

That promise has been broken countless times, but no one blames the Peace Secretariat. Its monitors work tirelessly, putting themselves along the edges of demonstrations, getting between troublemakers and the police, separating potentially warring factions. They get little credit because, when they succeed, nothing happens -- the violence that makes the headlines is averted.

On a recent night, Mr. Gaudet worked at the Peace Secretariat's Joint Operations Communications Center, JOCC for short. Housed in a small building on the grounds of the Natalspruit hospital -- where each night many residents of Katlehong seek refuge from the killing -- the JOCC is another effort to replace fighting with talking.

Talking instead of fighting

Around the clock, the building is staffed by a representative of the Peace Secretariat, the police, an international observer, and one from each of two political factions -- the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) -- whose rivalry is blamed for much of the fighting.

If there is trouble anywhere in Katlehong or neighboring Tokoza, it is reported to this center, either via the telephone or a number of walkie-talkies in the hands of people in various parts of the vTC community. The police present would be immediately notified, their response witnessed, and the ANC and IFP would be on the scene to help dispel the rumors that often contribute to the bloodshed.

During Mr. Gaudet's two months in the country, he has learned that even in this time of tremendous transition, progress in South Africa comes in small steps.

"Just to have someone from the ANC and the IFP in the same room is remarkable these days," he said. "The fact that we'll all end up sleeping on this floor before the night is over, things like that can make a difference."

He also brings to the job a quintessentially American can-do enthusiasm. That's something rare in this country, where such exuberance has usually been ground away by the intractable differences that seem to appear around every bend in the long and winding road to democracy.

"I know the work we do here is not in vain because I see tangible results," he said. "I see people formulating tangible agreements. This JOCC is one example. And that gives us a way of dealing with the violence.

"The crises do seem to be increasing, they never seem to stop, but I think they would be even worse without the peace structures," he added.

During his internship, Mr. Gaudet has done a bit of everything for the Peace Secretariat, from writing a newsletter to locking arms with about 60 fellow peace monitors to keep a large group of Zulus from leaving a rally at a stadium and marching through Soweto.

The calls began to come in to the JOCC, burning houses in one neighborhood, another on fire somewhere else. Mr. Gaudet carefully recorded the information on a computer, then reporting it to the police who sat in the next room.

At 8:24, he noted that gunshots were heard not far from the

JOCC. At 9:12, he heard a rumor that a group planned to barricade a main road out of the township the next morning to track down some enemies who would be riding in the so-called black taxis, the minibuses that many black commuters use to get to and from work.

Patrols promised

The rumor raises the specter of a recent incident in which a taxi was stopped by gunmen who forced everyone out of the vehicle and executed the six passengers who said they were IFP supporters. Mr. Gaudet told the police about the rumor and patrols were promised.

Much of the night was taken up with a report of police harassment during a search for weapons in houses near a hostel.

Mr. Gaudet repeatedly asked the police to explain their actions.

"I do think I push the police harder than some other people would because I'm from America," Mr. Gaudet said. "A lot of people here seem to think they have no choice but to accept what the police tell them."

The young American has also drawn some conclusions of his own about the future of this troubled country. He does not think that a non-racial election will help diminish the violence.

"Right now, it's easy to focus on apartheid as the cause of all the problems," he said. "It is, in a way, but once that's eradicated, that doesn't mean all the problems will disappear. People have to learn how to express themselves politically. There's a lot of anger and frustration. People have to learn to battle it out with ideas . . . instead of with guns and violence."

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