Rusty Rivets, Sparkplugs Fired at Police : From Junk, S. African Youths Make Weapons

Times Staff Writer

Lucas counted out 20 rusty rivets, two at a time, into a plastic bag, and then added four old sparkplugs and a handful of medium-sized ball bearings.

His two customers gave him four rand, about $1.60, and slipped quietly out the door, after looking carefully up and down the street for police patrols.

“Good hunting,” Lucas called after them, laughing. “Get a couple of soldiers for me.”

As the racial unrest in Guguletu and the other black ghettoes around Cape Town has intensified, Lucas has become an armorer. He supplies some of the makeshift weapons the black and Colored (mixed-race) youths are using against South Africa’s security forces, which are among the most modern and best-equipped in Africa.

“We may not have guns yet, but we don’t have to fight the Boers bare-handed,” Lucas said, using what for blacks has become a pejorative term for the Afrikaner descendants of the Dutch farmers, or Boers, who settled here in the 17th and 18th centuries. “In a people’s war, there are other weapons--you make them out of whatever you have, and in time you take them from the oppressor himself.”


The rivets, sparkplugs, nuts, bolts and ball bearings that Lucas scavenges from scrapyards around Cape Town and retails at minimal prices are fired with tremendous force from slingshots and homemade catapults at police and army patrols. Youths try to lure the patrols into ambushes in the back streets of Guguletu and neighboring Langa, Nyanga and Crossroads.

The police have recently reported a number of injuries, several of them serious, from such projectiles.

“With these,” one of Lucas’ customers said, holding up a 2-inch-long rivet, “we can keep the Boers in their Buffels and Casspirs (armored cars). They know that if they get out they will get these in the head or the neck or the chest. They may not be as fast as a bullet, but they can take out an eye.”

To Prof. Mike Hough, director of the University of Pretoria’s Institute of Strategic Studies, this sort of activity marks “an important, albeit frightening, transition” in the year of unrest here.

“We are moving from the weapons of riot, of anger expressed in spontaneous violence, to the weapons of war, primitive as they are,” he said. “People are deliberately arming themselves for combat, though at a very low level and in very limited ways. And in making these preparations they are looking for weapons that are more effective, more sophisticated. . . . This resulted, of course, from the escalation and spread of the violence, but in turn it will bring a further escalation because, quite clearly, the security forces will respond.”

This development should also be seen, Hough said, as a step toward “the people’s army, people’s war concept” promoted by the outlawed African National Congress.

Over the past 25 years, African National Congress guerrillas have conducted an intermittent terrorist campaign, directed mostly at police, military and other government facilities, but without much impact.

“Are we getting closer to the point where people are willing to take up arms, where the African National Congress would give them guns if it could get them?” Hough went on. “We are not yet near that, but we are closer.”

At funerals for black victims of the unrest, one hears people chanting an increasingly popular “liberation song,” which goes: “Lead us, lead us, Tambo, give us guns to kill the Boers.” It is addressed to Oliver Tambo, the African congress president.

“We have just begun to use our ingenuity,” said Lucas, 27, the Guguletu armorer, who declined to give his surname for fear of arrest. “The important thing is not what we can turn into weapons--almost anything can be made lethal--but our will to fight. You can see that will when someone goes against a Casspir with all its armor and the Boers with all their guns inside and he has only a petrol bomb in his hand. When this will is developed and strengthened, then we will be ready for guns, and when we are ready for guns, we will have them.”

Few Guns Used

Guns have been used by rioters here only rarely so far. A few shots were fired at the Crossroads squatter camp in February, some others in the Indian community of Lenasia outside Johannesburg, perhaps two shots in a black township near Port Elizabeth. The police have picked up some guns, mostly pistols, in their house-to-house searches in black townships.

“The sale of guns to blacks is severely restricted,” a police spokesman in Pretoria said, declining as required by police rules to be quoted by name. “The reasons should be quite obvious after the past year. Those blacks who need guns for protection--shopkeepers, members of the community councils and, of course, black policemen--are given permits. . . . I would guess that about 95% of the licensed guns in South Africa are held by whites.”

At the end of last year, 986,334 people had gun licenses, permitting them to own up to 12 weapons each; 120,558 new licenses were issued last year, and this year requests for permits are reported to be running about 30% of that figure.

“Restricted ownership of guns is only part of the answer as to why blacks have not used firearms so far,” Hough said. “Another factor has been the success of the security forces in finding the arms caches of the African National Congress before the weapons could be distributed and used. Grenades and limpet mines have gotten through the net, but not large quantities of guns, at least none that we have seen.”

Rock a Lethal Weapon

The most common weapons used by blacks in their clashes with the police are still stones and bricks, which are found in abundance along the streets of almost every black township. Many township youths reach down for a rock almost automatically when a stranger pulls into their street.

“A well-thrown rock can be as lethal as a bullet,” a senior police officer said after a week’s duty in the troubled East Rand townships outside Johannesburg. “And when 10 or 12 hit a car at once it is like machine-gun fire. . . . A half-brick is perhaps the favorite weapon for size and hardness, and what they can do to the human skull is too horrible really to talk about.”

Many locations, places that have often been points of confrontation in the past, are permanently stocked with piles of stones and bricks, said another police officer, in Zwide, outside Port Elizabeth.

“At first, I thought the kids must be piling them up in advance,” he said. “But then I realized that after each incident there were more than before, because they were accumulating, much like pebbles will pile up on certain parts of the beach. I tried to get the road maintenance people to clear them away, but they said these areas were too dangerous for them to enter.”

More Firebombs

As the violence has escalated in the last three months, increasing use has been made of firebombs--gasoline-filled bottles with an ignited wick of newspaper. They are intended to explode in a ball of flame after they break on contact, but often they do not, either because the glass is too strong or they were not thrown with enough force.

This device was known as a Molotov cocktail during World War II, when Russian partisans used it against German tanks. Here it has been hurled not only at the armored cars used by policemen and soldiers on patrol but at buses, private cars and delivery trucks.

The firebomb has been used as well in attacks on government facilities, ranging from schools and post offices to administration buildings and police stations, and on the homes of black local officials, policemen and others seen as government collaborators.

In areas where the two-month-old state of emergency gives the police what amounts to martial-law authority, regulations prohibit the possession of gasoline except in the tank of a motor vehicle, but clandestine siphoning of gasoline is widespread. Not long ago youths in the East London township of Duncan Village forced a police car to stop and were going to siphon gasoline from it when the policemen dispersed them with shotgun fire.

Worse Trouble Expected

“The trouble we have had so far is nothing compared with what may be coming,” said a merchant in Athlone, a Colored suburb that has been the scene of many clashes in the past month. “How do I know? Simple. I just count the number of (soft drink) bottles going out that are not returned.

“The kids are mobilizing, organizing. The first few rounds of trouble were more or less spontaneous--nobody planned them--but what comes next will have been prepared. They are gathering cases of empty bottles, 25-liter cans of petrol, boxes of catapults and all sorts of other things. Is this anything less than preparation for a war?”

The extent of such preparations for a kind of low-level urban guerrilla warfare has been evident in recent clashes with the police here and in other black and Colored townships outside Cape Town.

Materials for flaming barricades--old tires, telephone poles, old cars, discarded furniture, building materials--have been collected and prepositioned at points where an effort is made to keep the police out of the townships. Hidden in back yards or alleyways, these materials are quickly pulled out and set on fire before the police can intervene.

Deadly Necklace

Tires, collected from garages and scrapyards--the owners dare not refuse the youths who want them--are also used for “necklace” killings of suspected informers. The suspect is caught, sometimes stoned, and then a tire--the necklace--is placed around his shoulders and he is doused with gasoline and set on fire.

“How does it happen that these tires are at hand when a so-called informer is to be killed?” said a local official in Kwathema, a black township about 35 miles east of Johannesburg. “Quite clearly, we are now facing a radical, revolutionary organization, which is using the grievances of our people and is mobilizing them for what can best be described as urban guerrilla warfare. How else can you explain their preparations?”

Another anti-police measure is known as the “Cape clothesline.” Lengths of barbed wire, usually cut from fences around government buildings, are prepared beforehand so that they can be strung quickly across the streets at the height of a man standing in an armored car. The wire is hard to see, and it can decapitate a man in a fast-moving car. Columns of armored cars are now preceded by a vehicle with steel uprights to snap any wire that might be encountered.

Defensive preparations are becoming common in advance of anti-apartheid demonstrations in Cape Town and the funerals that have become political rallies in black townships throughout the country.

Protective Clothing

Colored youths have taken to wearing two or three heavy knitted caps, or the checked Arab headdress favored by Palestinians, and extra shirts and trousers as protection against police whips. Some blacks have made a sort of body armor out of old inner tubes, to ward off rubber bullets and birdshot fired by the police.

Few people go to any of the major funerals without several large bandannas that can be used as protection against tear gas, which is often used to disperse mourners as they leave the cemetery. The bandannas are dipped in pails of water that most householders leave along the edge of the road, originally so that funeral-goers could wash their hands after a funeral, a tribal custom, but now used to combat tear gas.

Terrorism has become more common. There have been more than a dozen hand grenade attacks in the Cape Town area this year, mostly on homes of local black and Colored officials, killing a teen-ager and wounding several persons, including a Colored deputy minister and the commander of the police riot squad. There have also been more than 30 bomb explosions, mostly in Durban and Johannesburg, that are presumed to be the work of African National Congress guerrillas.

According to the Institute of Strategic Studies at the University of Pretoria, there have been 84 terrorist incidents in which grenades, mines and military assault rifles have been used so far this year, compared with 44 for the whole of 1984.

Not Yet ‘Real War’

“We still have to distinguish, however, between the terrorist incidents and the riot-unrest incidents,” Hough said, “because they are different in origin, in character and in execution. These distinctions may be fading, but we have not crossed yet into a real urban guerrilla war.

“At this stage, the African National Congress and the Soviet Union, which supplies its arms, do not appear to want to make weapons freely available for everyone here. They probably believe that the level of political mobilization is not yet sufficient for such a major step--they might, for example, lose the initiative to people in the townships who are not theirs--and undoubtedly they know that the security forces would respond with large-scale retaliation the minute they find themselves coming under fire from rifles and not catapults.”