S. Africa Unrest Seen Out of Control : Violence Called Worst in Decade; Police Appear Powerless
The unremitting violence in South Africa appears to be passing the point where peace can be restored simply through concerted police action and limited political, economic and social reforms.
The unrest that began nine months ago over the continued exclusion of the country’s black majority from political power under a new constitution has grown to the most serious in a decade--and, some contend, the worst the country has ever faced.
It now encompasses the whole range of black grievances, all rooted in South Africa’s apartheid system of strict racial separation but not confined to political issues. President Pieter W. Botha last week described it as “a spiral of frustration, aggression and conflict” among the country’s 25 million blacks.
What began with a few black protests against the white minority regime has grown over the months to such widespread and intense violence that many of the ghettos where South Africa’s 12 million urban blacks live seem almost to be in a state of civil war.
There are now frequent attacks on blacks seen as collaborators of the system, bloody battles among rival black political groups, clashes between migrant workers and townspeople of the communities where they are housed and revenge murders under the cover of political unrest. The stoning of buses carrying black workers to the city and home again occurs almost daily as does the looting of black-owned shops and brutal assaults on their owners as “capitalists.”
Additionally, roaming gangs of unemployed, out-of-school youths, angry and alienated, have made many black townships dangerous for their own residents.
“Our people cannot bear this war that apartheid is unleashing even among ourselves,” said Murphison Morobe, acting publicity secretary of the United Democratic Front, a coalition of 650 anti-apartheid groups. Aggrey Klaaste, a columnist on the black newspaper Sowetan, wrote last week, “Fires are getting fiercer.”
More Deaths Than ’84
At least 353 people, all but two of them black, have died in the unrest since last December, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations, and probably 10 or 15 times that number have been injured. Since January, 214 people have died, more than in all of 1984, according to the institute, whose figures are conservative.
“Violence is on the upswing and the situation more polarized than it has ever been before. . . . Black anger will remain volatile for much longer than it ever has before,” Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, chief minister of Kwazulu, the Zulu tribal homelands, told his legislative assembly last week.
The Botha government, he said, must pursue reforms far more boldly and quickly if unrest is not to grow and violence is not to become a permanent element of political life here.
Even on relatively quiet days now, two or three persons may be killed and 20 or more injured in the more than 40 incidents of unrest that police record around the country.
Events that would have horrified almost everyone last September--political rivals burned to death after being doused with gasoline, high school students avenging an insult by murdering a shopkeeper, pitched battles between township residents and migrant workers that leave two dozen dead, the murder of two men and the stabbing of a third in a soccer league feud--today shock no one.
‘Medium of Expression’
“The causes of the violence are many, but its impact on people is their further brutalization,” said a black Catholic priest in Soweto, Johannesburg’s sprawling black sister city. “Today, almost anything can set off an explosion of rage. . . . The fabric of our society has been shredded, past constraints have slipped away and violence is becoming the medium of expression.”
Despite the peace efforts of black clergymen and anti-apartheid groups, more blacks have been killed in the last two months’ unrest by other blacks than by authorities attempting to maintain order in the townships, according to the Institute of Race Relations.
“The principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth is becoming widespread as the only way to hold one’s own in a violent environment,” said Prof. T. J. Van Heerden, a criminologist at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. “People are looking less for alternatives, for solutions, and more see violence as the only way out.”
Black attacks on whites have also increased. Scores of white motorists have been stoned as they have passed near black townships. A nurse was pulled from her car and fatally beaten by a group of black youths near Johannesburg. An automobile mechanic was set on fire in Uitenhage near Port Elizabeth in eastern Cape province. Black holdup men justify their crime with political slogans as they rob whites.
On Brink of Conflict
“Both black and white communities are rapidly but unavoidably being brought closer to the brink of violent conflict,” said Eric Mafuna, an American-educated black marketing executive. “It is a matter of time before the township-confined violence and civil disorder spill over into white neighborhoods.”
Six months ago, such observers as the Rev. C. F. Beyers Naude, the general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, began to think that the conflict in South Africa might develop into a “Northern Ireland situation,” with long term but largely containable political violence between whites and blacks.
Now, the outlook, at least in some areas of the country such as eastern Cape province, may be for a “Beirut situation.” Naude and others fear that the violence is feeding upon itself and growing beyond the ability of the white government and of the black community to control it.
“We have to recognize clearly that in certain parts of the country we now have a situation of civil war,” Naude said in a recent interview. “We are in a situation of insoluble conflict for the time being, where white resistance and black demands have created such a wide gap that it is difficult to bring them together without a period of crisis and conflict, which very regrettably would include bloodshed.”
Although Naude’s prognosis may still be disputed by many here as exaggerated and apocalyptic, pessimism is growing over the government’s ability to check the violence before it becomes endemic.
Alan Paton, author of “Cry the Beloved Country” and, at 82, still the liberal conscience of English South Africans, said in a lecture here last week that the escalating violence could only be checked by the elimination of apartheid and by sweeping political reforms that both ensure black rights and protect the white minority of 4.9 million.
“The time is short, I know, and these times are grave,” Paton told his mostly white audience, “but either we make up our minds and wills to travel the hard road ahead, or we relapse into despair, and if we relapse into despair, we ought to get out of South Africa as soon as possible.”
Confessing his “deepest gloom” since the 1976 Soweto riots that left at least 575 dead nationwide over a year’s time, Prof. Hermann Giliomee, a University of Cape Town political scientist, said of the present situation: “The problems all look intractable. The government seems unable to restore stability, either through massive repression or thorough reform. The police and army cannot deal with the disturbances except as firemen, putting out the worst flames but leaving the embers to smolder on.”
Outlawed Group Blamed
The government views the violence as part of the announced strategy of the outlawed African National Congress to make the country ungovernable and to thwart the process of gradual reform in order to foment a black revolution. The growing black-versus-black violence, according to senior government officials, is due to sharp conflicts between the radicals proponents of this strategy and its more moderate opponents.
Increased police and troop deployment in troubled areas, some of which now look like they are under military occupation, does not appear to have prevented the spread of violence or significantly reduced its intensity. A member of Parliament from the ruling National Party commented, “Containment is about the best we can hope for in the short run. . . . And we pray that it gives us the time we need for reforms.”
But tighter discipline since the fatal police shooting of at least 19 blacks March 21 at Langa, outside Uitenhage, seems to have resulted in fewer deaths as a result of police actions. Now there are massive operations with military support in which townships are cordoned off for a day while house-to-house searches are conducted for those suspected of organizing protests or for weapons.
“The police strategy now seems to be calculated shows of force in townships and liberal use of tear gas if necessary, but the avoidance of conflict,” said a field organizer for the United Democratic Front in Port Elizabeth. “Although their presence is still provocative, there haven’t been any more Langas, thank God.”
‘Culture of Violence’
Van Heerden, the University of South Africa criminologist, said that many of the government measures to curb unrest are probably adding to the growing “culture of violence” in the townships.
“We have reverted to the old policing style where those who oppose the system are enemies,” he said, criticizing the extensive deployment of armored cars, troops in helmets and camouflage uniforms and the displays of massive force as “creating a war atmosphere.”
Senior police officers have complained recently that their efforts to deal with unrest are hampered by the rioters’ tactics, including the use of women and children as “human shields,” the absence of suspected leaders from the front lines of most protests and the increased attacks on police, particularly the township homes of black policemen.
The police crackdown on the United Democratic Front, the Azanian People’s Organization and other anti-apartheid groups also appears to have failed to reduce the unrest. Sixteen of the front’s top leaders will be tried shortly on treason charges, several others have been detained under South Africa’s strict security laws and the front’s meetings and those of 28 affiliates have been banned in 18 magisterial districts of eastern Cape province and near Johannesburg.
Black community leaders say these measures have actually increased the violence because the front and its affiliates are unable to organize meetings in troubled areas to restore discipline among their members. The recurrent fights between front affiliates and those of the rival Azanian People’s Organization are largely attributable to these problems, they say.
At the same time, the government’s recent political, economic and social reforms--many of them going far to reduce apartheid and perhaps preparing for its eventual end--have done little to assuage the anger of blacks, who dismiss them as “cosmetic changes” or “too little, too late.”
New Measures Cited
Sam de Beer, deputy minister of education and cooperation, said the government is putting together a package of further economic, social and educational measures that “will go a long way towards removing black grievances.” But, he added, it cannot act because of the current unrest in black townships.
Thus far, the fundamental black demands for full political rights have not been met by the government. President Botha has offered to discuss the issue with moderate black leaders, but he has ruled out a one-man, one-vote democracy, a federal system composed of white and black provinces or adding a chamber to represent blacks to the present tricameral Parliament.
“Within the black community, the growing insistence on full political rights in a unitary state is rising all the time,” Naude commented. “A politicization on the part of black youths, especially in the townships, has increased so dramatically in the past few years that they, for example, are no longer satisfied with purely educational reforms. Their target now is to obtain political power and political control. They have discovered that without that power, those education reforms make take years, even decades.”
Violence Taking Root
This impatience brings violence, Naude said, and this new “cultural violence” is now taking root in the black ghettos and will not be easily eliminated.
Mafuna, the black marketing and public opinion specialist, does not see most of the violence as organized but says that blacks increasingly regard it as “an effective tool in drawing attention to our problems (but) not overthrowing the state.”
“The violence is not as purposeless as it may seem, because even if it is not focused, it is one instrument that both the South African government and the world understand,” Mafuna said.
That leads him to believe that it may soon spread outside the black townships to white areas.
“An outside world accustomed to violence won’t be shocked by the burning of local (black) schools and buses, " he said, “but only by an escalation of violence focused outside the townships on white offices, factories and suburbs.”
And criminologist Van Heerden said: “The youths are dictating in the townships today. Violence has become a power symbol to them. When you show the quelling of a riot in Uitenhage (on television), you are showing that violence can be used to achieve something.”