JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Black community leaders from Soweto charged Thursday that the fatal police shooting of at least 20 people this week was a "cold-blooded massacre." They warned that the sprawling black city outside Johannesburg is ready to "explode with anger."
But the government, accusing black activists of trying to prevent a return to law and order under the state of emergency, said the fierce clashes late Tuesday and early Wednesday were touched off by the ambush of a police patrol.
The government promised a public inquest to determine what happened, but it rejected calls for an independent judicial inquiry into one of the bloodiest incidents in two years of political violence here.
"This was an ambush to kill the police," Louis Nel, the deputy minister of information, told a press conference in Pretoria. "They had to react to defend themselves. Whether they acted correctly will be decided at the inquest."
Hacked to Death
The government's Bureau for Information put the official death toll at 21, including a Soweto city councilor hacked to death. But community leaders said they believe that as many as 30 people were killed by the police that night. The number of wounded was put officially at 98, but community leaders said more than 200 had received medical treatedment, largely for gunshot wounds.
"This was one of the darkest days in our history," the Rev. Frank Chikane, vice president of the Soweto Civic Assn. and a regional vice president of the United Democratic Front, said at a press conference here. "We are appalled and outraged by this cold-blooded massacre."
Murphy Morobe, the principal spokesman for the United Democratic Front, a coalition of anti-apartheid groups, warned the government that Soweto's 2 million people are "seething and boiling and about to explode with anger."
With Chikane, he called for an immediate end to the evictions of Soweto residents refusing to pay their rent in an anti-government protest, for the resignation of the Soweto City Council and for the withdrawal of troops from the area.
Mass Funeral Planned
The Rev. C.F. Beyers Naude, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, appealed to the government to ease the tension by allowing Soweto residents to "bury their dead in peace and dignity . . . (and) not to deny them this fundamental right, thus leading to further conflict." A mass funeral is being planned, Naude said.
Chikane and Morobe said that the trouble began when municipal officials, supported by the police, attempted to evict several families that had not paid their rent as part of a Soweto-wide rent strike, and that the police had used tear gas and shotguns to disperse people leaving a rent strike meeting.
After that, they said, youths set up barricades, which consisted largely of oil drums, wrecked cars, discarded furniture and burning tires, through much of western Soweto in line with "defense plans" meant to prevent the police from entering the areas.
Nel said that 12 policemen, patrolling the White City section of Soweto, had left their two armored cars to dismantle one of these barricades when a Soviet-made hand grenade was thrown, seriously injuring four of them. They then opened fire with shotguns and rifles, according to government accounts, and at least eight people were killed.
"It is correct under South African law to defend yourself against such a murderous attempt on your life," Nel said.
He said the other major incident occurred when policemen rescued a black motorist, believed to be a local official, besieged in his car by scores of attacking youths. "Police had to act to defend the driver," Nel said, "and his life was saved."
Chikane said, however, that local residents had told the Soweto Civic Assn. that police had attacked anyone on the street that night. "According to our witnesses, they switched on searchlights and shot at anyone who moved," he said. "One resident says they came into White City as if they were entering enemy territory, with their guns blazing."
Nel told newsmen that the real issue in the Soweto clashes was not the rent strike, now in its third month, but "the violent overthrow of the South African state."
"We are experiencing in South Africa a revolutionary onslaught by groups supported and supplied with weapons by the Soviet Union and even by some governments in the West," he said.
Soweto Called Hot Spot
For the past two weeks, Nel said, unrest had been increasing in Soweto to the point where as much as 60% of all incidents of violence reported each day occurred there, and he described this as "a desperate attempt" to frustrate the government's "very successful" efforts to restore law and order under the 11-week-old national state of emergency.
In Johannesburg, white and black students at the University of the Witwatersrand clashed with policemen Thursday afternoon. About 500 students had begun a march from one part of the campus to another along city streets when they were forced back. Stones were thrown at the police, who then charged the students, beating them with whips and firing tear gas. One student and three news photographers were arrested.
Two white students, one the leader of a group of campus conservatives and the other a suspected police informer, were pummeled, kicked and stoned by other students before they were rescued by university officials. A passing motorist nearly struck a group of students with his car, and when they turned on him, he fired a gun in their direction but apparently did not hit anyone.