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He Calms Conflicts, Saves Lives : For a S. African Bishop, Peace Mission Never Ends

November 27, 1987|MICHAEL PARKS | Times Staff Writer

SPRINGS, South Africa — Even before Bishop Simeon Nkoane had finished morning prayers with his staff, his small office here was filling with people, people with almost overwhelming problems, people for whom he represents hope in the midst of South Africa's continuing crisis.

Samson, a student leader, was sprawled on a couch, barely conscious, apparently suffering from what friends called another of the "seizures" that have afflicted him since his prolonged detention by police earlier in the year. What can be done for him? the friends asked.

Patricia, 23, an activist from the coastal city of Port Elizabeth, was looking for refuge. She said that conservative vigilantes are trying to kill her and other militants. Can Nkoane find her a safe place to stay?

Xoliswa Falati, a community leader from Kwathema, the black township on the outskirts of Springs, 25 miles east of Johannesburg, had come into the office to warn that tensions were again rising there, that residents were angered by the security forces' tougher policing and that suspected government collaborators and police informers could become the targets of renewed political violence. Would Nkoane intervene?

A half-dozen black youths, determined to realize their slogan of "Liberation now!" and ready to set the world on fire to end apartheid, had accompanied Falati from Kwathema. Could Nkoane talk with them, counsel them?

More calls for help came from outlying communities--from Bethal, where police have cracked down hard on black militants; from Leandra, where black vigilantes have driven many youths out of town; from Standerton, where rival black groups have been feuding; from Daggakraal, where 45,000 residents may again be threatened with confiscation of their land and incorporation into a tribal homeland. Can Nkoane come?

"What can we do?" says Nkoane, a suffragan bishop of the Anglican diocese of Johannesburg. "We must help where we can. Each of these calls for help is enough to make you cry. The pain is so heavy. Yet, we must not give in to despair. Perhaps we cannot do so much, but we cannot throw up our hands in frustration. . . . As Christians, we must act in hope."

Throughout the turmoil of the last three years, Nkoane has been on a never-ending peace mission, and in the process he has become one of the country's most important and influential religious leaders.

He has intervened dozens of times to calm confrontations between the police and black communities, he has saved the lives of suspected informers about to be killed by angry mobs, he has rescued youths pursued by right-wing vigilantes.

"Often it was touch-and-go for us," he recalled during a recent interview in Springs. "At the funerals (for unrest victims) and many other very emotional meetings, the feelings ran so high that strong men quailed. . . . What fearful times we live in!"

Peaceful Change Sought

Despite the reduced level of violence in most of the country in recent months, Nkoane is as caught up as ever in the South African crisis. He works to resolve the often bitter conflicts within the black community, attempts to make whites aware of black determination to achieve full political rights, helps black youths through a crisis that affects them most of all and urges people to maintain their faith in God and hope for the future.

"I am hoping we can promote not just peace but peaceful change," he said. "Change will come--it must come--and it is important for the people of this country that it come as quickly and peacefully as possible. . . . I fear there will be more violence, greater violence, and I grieve because of it." He continued:

"The country seems to be on a political plateau today. The unrest has subsided somewhat, but it probably will rise again. I don't see how the government can say that stability has been restored when it needs the army to enforce its rule and has done so little to respond to the people's demands.

"Things are quieter, yes, but not settled down. I just hope that, when the crunch point comes, it won't be too fierce."

Unrest Moved East

The large area that Nkoane oversees for the Anglican church has been one of the most troubled in the country over the last three years. The black ghettos around Johannesburg's eastern suburbs were among the first to erupt in anti-government protests in 1984, and the unrest moved progressively east, eventually reaching even remote country towns.

"Every day, we hear of things--the shooting of a youth, the bombing of an activist's home, the disappearance of a community leader, an attack on a union organizer--and so we know that not only do the problems persist but that the government is dealing with them in the same way," Nkoane commented.

"There may be more trouble here than, say, Soweto because the whites here are more right-wing and so there are more confrontations when some blacks, especially the youth, refused to be kicked around. . . .

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