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World Perspective | MILITARY

South Africa's New Army Chief Leads Troops Into Battle--on Home Ground

July 25, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The new chief of South Africa's armed forces, Gen. Siphiwe Nyanda, is not even two months on the job, but he is already leading troops into a battle zone.

Unlike his apartheid-era predecessors, however, the country's first black military leader is not cutting his combat teeth in neighboring countries. His maiden operational command is at home in Richmond, a timber and agricultural town in KwaZulu-Natal province where at least 30 people have died in political violence this month.

"It is not the kind of job we would see as our primary function, but given the situation and the crime rate, it is something we have to live with," said military spokesman Col. John Rolt. "If you look at history, most militaries deployed internally take a major knock image-wise. It is almost like declaring war on your own people."

The violence in Richmond is criminal and political, not military, but with the death toll mounting, gun-wielding soldiers in armored vehicles are being greeted by terrified residents as saviors instead of invaders. Local police efforts to deal with the bloodshed have been so ineffective that government officials have threatened to transfer most of the police force out of town.

Last weekend, as 17 of the dead were being laid to rest, five more people were killed, including a family of four executed in their home. In earlier incidents, a young mother, her 3-year-old daughter and the town's deputy mayor were among those gunned down. Residents have become so fearful that only 17 of the 400 pupils at Richmond's Huba Secondary School showed up for classes when the new semester began this week.

"I have gone to the mortuary, and I have seen people with cracked skulls, others shot in the mouth, while the others' stomachs had been ripped apart," President Nelson Mandela said during a visit to the town, which is about 300 miles southeast of Johannesburg. "I have seen people's brains spilled all over. This is the brutality to which people are being subjected."

So far, about 100 troops are patrolling Richmond's troubled streets. Nyanda said more are probably on the way. "We are considering deploying a specialized defense force unit to Richmond, but this all depends on our financial resources," he said.

The new round of killings comes against a backdrop of political violence in KwaZulu-Natal that has deep roots in South African history but has decreased considerably since white rule ended in 1994.

An estimated 20,000 people died in the late 1980s and early 1990s in fighting between members of Mandela's African National Congress, or ANC, and the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party. The black-on-black warfare was secretly encouraged by apartheid security forces, who supplied weapons to Inkatha in the belief that the conflict served the white minority regime.

Since taking power in 1994, the ANC has made great efforts to settle its differences with Inkatha followers. Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi is the home affairs minister--even though his party does not belong to the ruling alliance--and there is much speculation that he will become deputy president after next year's elections. He has even filled in as acting president in Mandela's absence.

Relative calm prevails in most of KwaZulu-Natal. But in a new twist to a familiar story, the political conflict in Richmond has shifted from the Inkatha party to the United Democratic Movement, the country's newest political party, which includes disaffected former ANC members among its top leadership.

The new political schism is very personal: The Richmond leader of the United Democratic Party, Sifiso Nkabinde, was thrown out of the ANC last year after being accused of being a spy for the apartheid-era police. At the same time, he was charged with the killings of 16 people but, to almost everyone's surprise, was acquitted in April, returned home and took up his new party post. It wasn't much later that tensions between supporters of the ANC and the United Democratic Movement heightened and the flurry of killings began.

Nkabinde denies any connection to the killings and says the ANC is jealous of his popularity. But Mandela and other ANC leaders blame him and rogue elements within the police for fomenting the bloodshed in hopes of destabilizing the country ahead of the 1999 elections.

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