SOWETO, South Africa — Six months ago, Nelson Mandela, the deputy president of the African National Congress, and President Frederick W. de Klerk set South Africa on what all hoped would be a course of reconciliation and democracy.
Yet the country's majority black community is now occupied with burying its dead, victims of an unbelievable eruption of violence during the past several weeks that has claimed more than 800 lives just in the black townships of the Transvaal.
The primary violence has been between ANC supporters and members of Inkatha, the Zulu political organization led by Chief Gatsha Buthelezi. There has also been seemingly random killing. Seven people died when commuters were fired on at a station, and another 26 blacks were killed when two gangs of men attacked a train going from Johannesburg to Soweto.
The fighting has been exploited by right-wingers in the white community and government security forces. Elements in the police, incensed by De Klerk's liberalization policies, are accused of stoking the violence and even arming factions as a way to "prove" that blacks are not ready to join in governing the nation. Circumstantial evidence points strongly at the participation of whites in some of the slaughter. It seems clear that some third force, whoever is behind it, is determined to turn the black townships into little Beiruts, and thus frustrate negotiations.
But nothing alters the fact that black political rivalries have been violently expressed since 1984, when supporters of the various factions intensified their efforts for territorial ascendancy.
The years of battle just between the ANC and Inkatha in Natal province are estimated to have killed 4,000 people. One-thousand more have died elsewhere, as ANC, PAC and Azapo supporters exterminated one another. The factions killed to defend themselves, killed to defend positions, or killed to conquer new territories of influence.
In August, the Inkatha-ANC blood bath spread to townships in the Transvaal, near Johannesburg. It was expressed in an explosion of old antagonisms between township residents and the primarily Zulu miners who live in dormitory hostels.
Township residents look down on hostel inmates, whom they consider to be country bumpkins. The miners resent their forced separation from wives in the homelands while township residents are allowed both their families and their livelihoods. Prostitution, much to the anger of township dwellers, is rife and local women are selling themselves to hostel inmates.
To add to these discords, streetwise township youths have no respect for traditions and customs important to the miners. When these youths, often the most militant faction in townships, called strikes and boycotts during the past few years, the hostel dwellers resented being ordered about "by children."
These old antagonisms have been reformulated in ANC-Inkatha terms, setting the stage for the worst black-on-black violence the townships have ever known.
The hostility was compounded by recent talks between the ANC and government, which pointedly excluded Buthelezi. Additionally, ANC supporters have been abrasive when dealing with political opponents in the black community. Because the ANC enjoys dominance in the townships, it has not consulted other groups on negotiations, or when it calls boycotts and strikes. Buthelezi and Mandela have failed consistently to agree on conditions for a face-to-face meeting.
With the leadership not talking, the foot soldiers have fought on, littering the townships and hostels with corpses to be hurled like logs onto government trucks and taken to mortuaries. The dreaded "necklace" killings, with victims often torched alive, have returned.
In an effort to stem the violence, the government imposed a curfew in several townships. Heavily armed police were strategically placed and given powers to search and detain suspects.
The ANC has justifiably protested the imposition of the regulations, since the government now effectively controls the townships and monitors political activity. But township residents do not look that far. All they desperately want is to live through the day. As far as these ordinary residents are concerned, black organizations must first stop their fighting before the police are moved out.
And this is the challenge facing our political organizations. They can succeed only if the democracy they preach is applied, even before liberation. This means that freedom of association must be a way of life in the townships. ANC, Inkatha, PAC, Azapo--all must compete in peace. If this is not done, the road to Parliament will be that much harder.