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20 Die as Unrest Invades Urban South Africa

March 29, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Fierce gun battles and other political violence raged in skyscraper-lined streets here Monday, turning the commercial heart of the country's most important city into an urban war zone a month before democratic elections.

The downtown shooting sprees, which left at least 20 people dead and scores wounded, erupted after thousands of spear-carrying Zulu nationalists marched and danced through the central business district to protest South Africa's first all-race elections and to demand a sovereign Zulu state.

The day's carnage was an ominous turning point in the bloodstained march from apartheid to democracy. The chaos marked the first time that the ethnic fighting and political terror that have ravaged impoverished black townships for years have spread into downtown Johannesburg and paralyzed the bustling center of Africa's strongest economy.

At least eight Zulus were shot to death and nine were wounded in a narrow street beside the headquarters of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. ANC spokesmen said security guards had fired into the crowd from ground level to stop them from storming the office. But witnesses said the protesters were only marching by when at least three ANC guards opened fire from a first-floor balcony.

Shortly afterward, police said, a wild 20-minute gun battle erupted in a small park in front of the main library, where thousands of Zulus had massed.

Confused police and numerous marchers fired pistols and assault rifles in all directions after shots seemed to come from a sniper in a high-rise tower, and the rattle and boom of warfare echoed down the glass and concrete canyons.

Three other people were shot to death at the Carlton Center, an upscale shopping mall under a well-known luxury hotel. And one man's horrible death was grimly recorded for television when he was repeatedly hit in the head with a brick as a mob cheered.

The midday, mid-town violence clearly showed how explosive South Africa remains, despite four long years of preparations and negotiations for the April 26-28 elections to finally end white minority rule and inaugurate a government elected by the long disfranchised black majority.

President Frederik W. de Klerk and ANC spokesmen said they deplored the nightmarish scenes of violence but insisted that the election would not be delayed despite the demands of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which organized the march.

"There can be no excuse at this critical stage in the political process for provocative and potentially violent actions, such as we have seen today," De Klerk said in a statement. "It not only endangers the elections and reform process, but the very fabric of society."

A European peace monitor who witnessed the shooting was even more pessimistic. "This is just the start," he said. "Now it gets very bloody."

ANC regional leader Tokyo Sexwale also warned that the day presaged further violence. "Our information is (that) a similar type of operation will take place shortly before the election so the voting can be declared null and void," he said.

Rivalries between ANC and Inkatha factions, fueled by ethnic tensions between Xhosas and Zulus, the two largest tribes, were blamed for 4,000 deaths last year. According to a recent judicial report, at least some of the Zulus were armed by police officials aiming to destabilize the country to prolong white rule.

The shooting here mirrored an upsurge in violence in Natal province, the Zulu stronghold, where Inkatha and ANC-supporting Zulus have stepped up a low-level war. More than 150 people have been killed in the last 10 days.

Hundreds of Natal-based Zulus were bused into the black townships around Johannesburg over the weekend to attend the march and rally. More than a dozen people were reported killed and more than 200 wounded in the townships overnight and early today around the workers' barracks where the Zulus are concentrated.

According to witnesses and reports here, marauding groups of Zulus abducted passengers from minivans used as taxis, fired on passing commuter trains, bombed an ANC office and burned homes, shops and vehicles in tense townships across Soweto and the East Rand. More violence was expected in response to the day's shootings.

The first groups of armed Zulus began parading in downtown Johannesburg by 7:30 a.m., chasing pedestrians, tearing up ANC posters and menacing drivers. Marchers presented a fierce image: Most carried painted goatskin shields, waved spears or clubs and wore headgear made of leopard pelts.

Thabo Mbeki, ANC national chairman, told a news conference that senior police officials had agreed Sunday afternoon to set up roadblocks to keep armed protesters from approaching the ANC offices. "Clearly the roadblocks were not set up," he said.

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