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As Apartheid Ebbs, Black Violence Grows : South Africa: A whisper away from a long-dreamed-of 'liberation from apartheid,' blacks slaughter each other in unprecedented conflict. Why?

August 26, 1990|Charlene Smith | Charlene Smith is a South African journalist

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — There had been an uneasy standoff all day between Soweto residents and Inkatha hostel dwellers perched on a nearby hillock. Then one Inkatha man crouched and residents saw "a long gun."

There was a crack and 23-year-old Emmanuel Sifiso Mabilisa fell to the ground. Richard Mosia, 29, reached down to help the slightly built young man. As he did, the crowd behind him yelled "look out!" Twisting around to face the hill, he was hit by a bullet that plunged into his left shoulder and exited through his back. Mosia fell dead.

Sifiso, bleeding profusely from a stomach wound, crawled past the fleeing, panic-stricken crowd of about 100 residents and slumped against a gate. Residents fled past my car like frightened animals before fire. A youngster ran up and begged for transport to the hospital for "someone who has been shot." Youth cleared away rock barricades in the road as a young man ran toward me with Sifiso's limp, blood soaked body.

He was dead on arrival at the hospital. As a 9-year-old child, he had peered through the curtains of his home when the 1976 student march against inferior education passed his house, minutes before the first shots of the 1976 Soweto uprising were fired. Sifiso was one of the doomed generation.

His mother, Rachel Mabilisa, wept as she recalled that after that she sent her son to boarding school far from Johannesburg, he returned six months ago and was seeking work when he died.

In 1976 the shots were fired by police against black schoolchildren protesting their inferior education. Now the shots are fired by black migrant laborers, members of the Zulu cultural and political organization, Inkatha, against the black residents of Soweto.

The fighting between Inkatha and those it perceives to be members of the African National Congress and its affiliates began four year ago in Natal, the eastern province on the Indian Ocean.

That conflict has claimed more than 4,000 lives. More people, almost all black, die in one year in Natal than have died in the civil war in Beirut or in two decades of the Northern Ireland conflict. It has created almost 100,000 refugees.

The "war" moved up to the Johannesburg area a month ago. On July 22, after an Inkatha rally in Sebokeng, 28 people, mostly township residents, were killed.

The following week two men were shot dead at a hostel in Johannesburg for refusing to join Inkatha; Soweto residents were attacked by Zulu-speaking men at a rail station. It began jumping like a brush fire from township to township. In Kagiso almost 30 people died. In an orgy of violence in East Rand, outside Johannesburg, Inkatha hostel dwellers attacked a squatter community; 143 people died in a single day. By week's end, 60 more were dead. In the first three days of fighting in Soweto last week, 78 people were killed. Three weeks of fighting have seen more than 600 die--South Africa's worst outbreak of violence.

A whisper away from their long-dreamed-of "liberation from apartheid," black South Africans are slaughtering each other in unprecedented conflict. Why?

Some say tribalism. Conservative whites have long warned tribalism would resurface if white rule went. There were claims that in some areas Zulu impis (war parties) said they wanted to kill Xhosas, because Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, the ANC's two top leaders, are Xhosa--the rest of the ANC is a disparate mix of all black nationalities as well as whites, Indians and people of mixed race.

Although the armchair theorist may believe tribalism is a factor, it is apparent to eyewitnesses that the Inkatha does not ask a person's tribal origins or political affiliations before they kill. Mabilisa's and Mosia's families are both Ndebele--a tribe that is peaceful to the point of cowardice.

Others claim white policemen are aiding and abetting Inkatha. Conservative whites, in particular, have long admired the Zulu, ironically because they resisted white domination in the 19th Century more militantly than any other tribe. Certainly the police are refusing to disarm Inkatha as members march in huge phalanxes through townships with spears, pangas (long sticks with scythes at one end), fighting sticks and concealed firearms.

People have also questioned Inkatha's access to arms. They appear to have access to AK-47s, R-1s (South African military-issue automatic weapons) and South African military-issue grenades. Some weapons are probably bought in Natal, where bandits of Renamo, who have plagued nearby Mozambique for years, have been apprehended selling AK-47s to warring factions in Natal. But suspicions linger on among township residents.

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