S. African violence tries would-be peacekeepers

September 10, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Faith Mashiloane admitted that it was tough to come to work at her Peace Committee office in the suburb of Germiston yesterday morning.

The afternoon before, 21 people were killed in a rush-hour attack on a Germiston-area taxi stand packed with blacks waiting for rides back to the violence-plagued townships of Kathlehong and Tokoza.

"I feel like going away," she said. "When things like this happen that you can't help, you feel useless."

The killings followed what has become a fearsome pattern in South Africa: the eruption of major violence in conjunction with a major development at the negotiations for a democratic South Africa.

It is a pattern that makes Ms. Mashiloane think that in trying to keep peace in her troubled region, she is not fighting against black factional violence but against the so-called "third force," some sort of mysterious operation with links to some of the powers that be who are trying to hold onto that power by derailing the negotiation process.

The latest attack came the day after the negotiators reached an agreement on the Transitional Executive Committee (TEC), a quasi-governmental apparatus that will essentially run South Africa in the months leading up to the first multi-racial elections April 27.

Kathlehong and Tokoza erupted after the announcement July 2 of the election date and again after the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party walked out of the talks in a dispute over regional powers.

Twelve whites were killed in an attack on a church in a Cape Town suburb the day before the first draft of an interim constitution was unveiled.

So, when the TEC was approved, the country awaited the next incident. It didn't have to wait long. Witnesses said about 10 attackers, armed with various weapons, including AK-47s, mowed down the commuters. Twenty-three people were injured.

Less than two hours later, two more people died and three more were injured when a minibus taxi came under attack as it neared the Kathlehong township.

The killings came less than a week after South Africa had exulted in a celebration of Peace Day, a five-minute noontime silence organized by the National Peace Committee. It was hailed as a resounding success, supported by thousands of people of all races in towns and townships across the country.

In Kathlehong, supporters of the African National Congress and Inkatha, whose disputes are often blamed for the violence, shook hands. Youths piled onto the often-despised police vehicles and drove around the township chanting for peace.

"I know that Peace Day meant something to those people," Ms. Mashiloane said. "All the time, I hear from people who want us to do more things like Sept. 2."

Her point was that violence like Wednesday's is the work of a handful of ruthless people.

"These are professional killers," she said.

It was a view supported by eyewitness descriptions of the assault as an organized operation. The 10 attackers arrived in two minibuses, and began to fire indiscriminately into the people waiting at the stand, signaling to each other with whistles. When they finished, they piled into their two vehicles and sped off.

"This was not Zulu violence," said Ms. Mashiloane, referring to the charges by ANC members that pro-Inkatha Zulus do much of the killing.

"There were none of their traditional weapons, no spears," she said. And the killings did not follow the pattern of much of the ANC-Inkatha township fights, which seem to be based on territory.

One possibility is that the assault might have been linked to a taxi war, often-bloody disputes between owners of rival black taxi lines. But the sheer number of dead puts it on a much larger scale than previous taxi war incidents.

"I think the only explanation is that these killings are orchestrated by the government using black people to do the shooting," Ms. Mashiloane said.

"When I say the government, I do not mean the National Party that is negotiating for a future South Africa. I mean the elements in the government who are scared of the changes, who do not want South Africa to have any new face at all."

The killings were denounced by all major political figures, including President F. W. de Klerk, whose government offered a reward of around $100,000 for the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

But rarely are there arrests in these massacres. Despite legions of witnesses, these heavily armed men seem to disappear, something that only adds fuel to the fires of those who believe in the third force.

Whatever her frustration, Ms. Mashiloane said that she believes her efforts at the Peace Committee are not in vain, that they have kept the situation from becoming even more violent than it is.

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