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COLUMN ONE : Rule of Law Eludes New S. Africa : Apartheid is over, but a culture of violence lingers, police abuses remain widespread and reforms come slowly. Still, attitudes are changing in battle-weary townships.

October 04, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KATLEHONG, South Africa — It was an astonishing sight, even in the new South Africa.

Three white policemen, symbol of the worst of apartheid, were driving an armored vehicle in Radebe, one of the most dangerous "no-go zones." It was deserted but for burned-out shops, bullet-riddled homes and the sad debris of years of township war and neglect.

Suddenly, a dozen black men emerged from an alley. In the van, Sgt. Willie Naude grabbed his rifle and peered out a gun port. He tensed for an attack.

Then it happened: The group smiled and waved. The surprised police waved back and stopped. A lanky youth with scars on his face walked up.

"Always, when we see police before, we run away," explained Abel Mbena. "Now we don't want a misunderstanding. Things have changed."

Warrant Officer Danie van der Berg grinned. "It's kind of amazing. People say it's nice seeing the police."

Five months after a historic election ushered in South Africa's first black-led government, attitudes are changing in battle-weary townships where police were the enemy and urban war was a way of life.

Trust is still tenuous. Many police oppose reform, and many militants reject the rule of law. But the new constitution requires community policing, and blacks are starting to provide what long seemed impossible--oversight of the long-hated police.

"In my whole lifetime, I only went into a police station when I was being arrested," laughed Sipho Tshabalala, a dapper 49-year-old insurance broker who heads the new Katlehong community policing forum. Convicted of sabotage, he served eight harsh years on Robben Island with a far better-known prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

Now president, Mandela is being feted this week in New York and Washington. From Wall Street to the White House, he hopes to persuade skeptical business leaders that it is safe to invest in South Africa.

But law and order is elusive back home. Political violence fell sharply after the election but is rising again. And murder, rape, carjacking and most other reported crimes are at record levels.

Even police aren't immune: 189 officers have been killed so far this year, half since the election. Last year, 271 were slain.

The legacy of apartheid is largely to blame. Paramilitary police enforced injustice and bigotry for decades and ruthlessly repressed dissent with a network of informers and vicious anti-riot squads.

Top officials sanctioned assassination and other terror tactics to maintain the authoritarian state.

The anti-apartheid struggle, in turn, led to a culture of violence and contempt for the rule of law. Self-styled vigilante squads took over townships, targeting rivals and police and forcing thousands of families to flee. Consumer boycotts and strikes were used as political weapons.

The result is a nightmare like Katlehong, a bleak, treeless township on the East Rand outside Johannesburg. Most of the estimated 500,000 residents live in matchbox homes, dilapidated migrant hostels or squalid squatter camps. Unemployment is rampant, schooling is dismal, violence is endemic.

Katlehong last year racked up 1,058 homicides, the highest murder rate in South Africa. Most victims were shot or burned to death in the bitter political and criminal wars that racked the ghetto.

Los Angeles, by comparison, had 1,076 homicides in a population more than seven times as large.

But Katlehong has only one police station. And the 319 uniformed officers--including dispatchers, clerks and other posts usually held by civilians in the United States--share 15 vehicles and one incoming phone line.

The phone is always busy, complained Meverett Koetz, a community activist. "And people are dying."

Such problems are typical. Although most crime is in townships, 80% of the police stations are in white areas, home to only 15% of the population. And while 60% of the patrol force is nonwhite, nearly every officer is white.

Even worse, brutal police abuses are still widespread. The Independent Board of Inquiry, a church-backed human rights group, is investigating more than 100 alleged torture cases since the election just in the Vaal Triangle, a cluster of townships south of Johannesburg.

"Torture is routine," said Sally Sealey, the board's senior researcher. "It happens every single day. It's the only way police know to investigate and get confessions. It's the same in the new South Africa as it was in the old."

Torture is no longer official policy, of course, and police insist they are cracking down on misconduct. But like many things involving police here, ending abuses remains more a goal than a reality.

Ultimately, the government plans to merge the 115,000-member South African police with the country's 10 other police services, a widely disparate array of segregated forces from the former black homelands.

Sydney Mufamadi, minister of safety and security, has pledged that the new, 130,000-member force will function as a "legitimate and popular police service," with heavy emphasis on community policing in high-crime areas.

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