'Peace Day' lets S. Africa take break from violence Observance transcends race

September 03, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Johann Potgeiter stood in the door of a shoe store, presenting a contrast of conflicting images: In his hand was a menacing 12-gauge shotgun, but on his lapel was a ribbon showing his support for Peace Day.

Despite his weaponry, Mr. Potgeiter displayed an easy smile, something that came to the faces of many people on a day of demonstrations, both spontaneous and planned, in support of peace in this violence-wracked country where hundreds are dying every month on the road to black empowerment.

The idea, initiated by the National Peace Secretariat, was that everyone in the country would pause for five minutes of silence at noon yesterday.

It was supported by all major political groups except the white right-wing Conservative Party, which said it was part of a Communist, atheist plot to take over the government.

Early in the week, it was hard to tell if the demonstration would get anything beyond official support from a population that could be excused for being cynical about trying to confront thousands of violent deaths with a small piece of blue ribbon.

But yesterday in Johannesburg, those ribbons were on lapels and blouses everywhere.

And at noon, people flocked out into the streets, some adamant, some curious, but many joining hands in a show of support during the five minutes of silence.

Across the street from the city's courthouse, an older white businessman held the hand of a young black street vendor as they spread their line across a road, blocking the little traffic that was trying to pass during the five minutes.

Next to the courthouse, in front of the stern statue of Carl Von Brandies, the city's first commissioner of mining, and near a street vendor whose wares included a poster of slain Communist leader Chris Hani doing the toyi-toyi street dance, various

bystanders joined a group of department store employees, holding hands during the silence and then singing peace songs.

The streets did not fall completely silent, but traffic was noticeably down.

And when the five minutes were over, the city erupted in a cacophony of car horns as the sky was streaked by blue smoke trails from the Impala jets of South African Air Force's aerobatic team.

Mr. Potgeiter, a security guard who said he was carrying the shotgun because there had been a robbery that morning during a bank delivery, was wearing a pink ribbon.

"We ran out of blue," he explained.

"I saw unity this afternoon," he said. "It was quite surprising."

Nearby, in front of a small grocery, three female employees joyously hugged as they came from a demonstration in front of the headquarters of the African National Congress.

"We are happy. We are very, very happy," said Doris Manago, a resident of Soweto, the black township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. "We are so excited today, we love peace. Maybe this will help. We hope so."

Their employer, Jose Azevedo, also sported a blue ribbon.

"This should happen every day," he said. "I don't know if things will work out or not. I hope it does."

Nearby, ANC President Nelson Mandela emerged from the back door of his headquarters and was surrounded by a throng of students who had spilled out of their school to celebrate the day.

"I think this is going to help because people are beginning to realize it's time to unite our country," said 16-year-old Wilhema Makgopela.

Similar scenes were played out across the country.

State President F. W. de Klerk ordered that flags be flown at half staff.

The first black Miss South Africa, the recently crowned Jacqui Mofokeng, joined several other celebrities in a march through Katlehong, one of the most troubled townships in recent months.

The South African cricket team, playing a televised one-day match in far-off Sri Lanka, stopped for a minute of silence at noon South African time.

Cape Town was reportedly at a virtual standstill at noon while celebrations broke out in many nearby black townships.

In Durban and Pietermaritzburg, Inkatha and ANC leaders linked hands at noon.

The two towns are the biggest cities in Natal, home province of the Inkatha Freedom Party whose turf battles with the ANC are blamed for the bulk of the deaths.

But Willy Villet couldn't see what all the celebration was about.

A 54-year-old farmer from Natal on a two-day visit to Johannesburg, he said he had heard nothing of Peace Day and just wandered outside to see what was going on.

"You will never get peace," he said. "It's not possible. Between the whites and the blacks, it will never be such a thing as peace. We live on our side, and they live on their side."

And Mr. Potgeiter was not letting go of his shotgun.

"I don't think things are going to go smoothly," he said. "I think we're going to have something close to a civil war."

But for a day, the upraised fingers forming the V of the peace sign replaced clenched fists at political demonstrations.

Perhaps most surprisingly, on the morning of National Peace Day, police reported no deaths in the townships overnight.

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