There had been an uneasy standoff all day between Soweto residents and Inkatha hostel dwellers perched on a nearby hillock. Then one Inkatha man crouched and residents saw "a long gun."
There was a crack and 23-year-old Emmanuel Sifiso Mabilisa fell to the ground. Richard Mosia, 29, reached down to help the slightly built young man. As he did, the crowd behind him yelled "look out!" Twisting around to face the hill, he was hit by a bullet that plunged into his left shoulder and exited through his back. Mosia fell dead.
Sifiso, bleeding profusely from a stomach wound, crawled past the fleeing, panic-stricken crowd of about 100 residents and slumped against a gate. Residents fled past my car like frightened animals before fire. A youngster ran up and begged for transport to the hospital for "someone who has been shot." Youth cleared away rock barricades in the road as a young man ran toward me with Sifiso's limp, blood soaked body.
He was dead on arrival at the hospital. As a 9-year-old child, he had peered through the curtains of his home when the 1976 student march against inferior education passed his house, minutes before the first shots of the 1976 Soweto uprising were fired. Sifiso was one of the doomed generation.
His mother, Rachel Mabilisa, wept as she recalled that after that she sent her son to boarding school far from Johannesburg, he returned six months ago and was seeking work when he died.
In 1976 the shots were fired by police against black schoolchildren protesting their inferior education. Now the shots are fired by black migrant laborers, members of the Zulu cultural and political organization, Inkatha, against the black residents of Soweto.
The fighting between Inkatha and those it perceives to be members of the African National Congress and its affiliates began four year ago in Natal, the eastern province on the Indian Ocean.
That conflict has claimed more than 4,000 lives. More people, almost all black, die in one year in Natal than have died in the civil war in Beirut or in two decades of the Northern Ireland conflict. It has created almost 100,000 refugees.
The "war" moved up to the Johannesburg area a month ago. On July 22, after an Inkatha rally in Sebokeng, 28 people, mostly township residents, were killed.
The following week two men were shot dead at a hostel in Johannesburg for refusing to join Inkatha; Soweto residents were attacked by Zulu-speaking men at a rail station. It began jumping like a brush fire from township to township. In Kagiso almost 30 people died. In an orgy of violence in East Rand, outside Johannesburg, Inkatha hostel dwellers attacked a squatter community; 143 people died in a single day. By week's end, 60 more were dead. In the first three days of fighting in Soweto last week, 78 people were killed. Three weeks of fighting have seen more than 600 die--South Africa's worst outbreak of violence.
A whisper away from their long-dreamed-of "liberation from apartheid," black South Africans are slaughtering each other in unprecedented conflict. Why?
Some say tribalism. Conservative whites have long warned tribalism would resurface if white rule went. There were claims that in some areas Zulu impis (war parties) said they wanted to kill Xhosas, because Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, the ANC's two top leaders, are Xhosa--the rest of the ANC is a disparate mix of all black nationalities as well as whites, Indians and people of mixed race.
Although the armchair theorist may believe tribalism is a factor, it is apparent to eyewitnesses that the Inkatha does not ask a person's tribal origins or political affiliations before they kill. Mabilisa's and Mosia's families are both Ndebele--a tribe that is peaceful to the point of cowardice.
Others claim white policemen are aiding and abetting Inkatha. Conservative whites, in particular, have long admired the Zulu, ironically because they resisted white domination in the 19th Century more militantly than any other tribe. Certainly the police are refusing to disarm Inkatha as members march in huge phalanxes through townships with spears, pangas (long sticks with scythes at one end), fighting sticks and concealed firearms.
People have also questioned Inkatha's access to arms. They appear to have access to AK-47s, R-1s (South African military-issue automatic weapons) and South African military-issue grenades. Some weapons are probably bought in Natal, where bandits of Renamo, who have plagued nearby Mozambique for years, have been apprehended selling AK-47s to warring factions in Natal. But suspicions linger on among township residents.
The ANC and Inkatha have, through the press, flung allegation and counter-allegation at each other. Both refuse to admit that each side may carry some blame. Mandela refuses to meet Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, the head of Inkatha, who claims such a meeting would stop the violence. In March, Mandela told a meeting of 150,000 people in Natal to "throw your arms into the sea." He has been ignored. Buthelezi, who claims Inkatha is "nonviolent," has made no similar call for disarmament to his own people.
Chris Hani, chief of staff of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), said last week that "egos have to be buried"--a call that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
While it seems clear that Inkatha is to blame for some of the worst violence, there is no doubt that, fueled by rumor and fear, the ANC has also staged preemptive strikes against Inkatha. The day after Mabilisa died in my car, I returned to the same area of Soweto. Householders were fleeing the area with pathetic bundles of their belongings to become the first of Soweto's refugees.
But there were also angry-faced young men, some little older than 14 or 15, carrying machetes, sticks and boxes full of Molotov cocktails to strategic locations under the hill, waiting for another attack. "Those are our boys, they are protecting us," a proud mother said.
Another who was leaving her home asked, "Why did they do this to us? I am not political. What does Inkatha want?"
There is a danger that if this violence continues, there will be no liberation for South Africa, even though it may be constitutionally attained. Nothing enslaves like fear and conflict. If sanctions go and South Africa manifests endemic violence, as it is now, no investor will touch this country. Poverty, already critical, will worsen. The ranks of the 6 million unemployed will swell--feeding frustration and more conflict.
There are a few short-term, and some longer-term, solutions that need to be implemented immediately--not only to stop the violence, but to prevent more outbreaks. The police must disarm all who openly display weapons. So far they have refused to disarm Inkatha members, saying "it is part of the Zulu culture to carry weapons." Two years ago, extreme right-wing whites were disallowed, by government decree as part of the then-State of Emergency, from openly carrying weapons.
In an interview, the ANC's Hani claimed that if a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or "MK," as it is known here, carried a weapon openly, "he wouldn't even be arrested, he would be shot on the spot by the same police who refuse to take action against Inkatha."
Hani admits the current conflict is straining ANC's commitment less than a month ago to suspend the armed struggle. Many young cadres want to fight to stop the conflict. Certainly, many township residents are confused and angry as to why MK has not come to their aid.
Peace forums have been created in warring townships, and police consult with various factions including the ANC, Inkatha, the Pan-Africanist Congress and other organizations in attempts to stop the violence. President Frederik W. de Klerk should extend this to a national level, and have leaders of all organizations--not just ANC and Inkatha--meet to resolve the violence. That should satisfy Buthelezi's demand without making the ANC feel it is being "blackmailed with violence" into recognizing the widely despised homeland leader.
The police are proving a thorn to the negotiations process. For 40 years they have enforced apartheid; now they have to show a tolerance few have. For 14 years ANC supporters have been their enemy; now within a rapid six months, they are expected to protect and befriend these same people.
In the mid-1980s black policemen were forced to flee the townships. Many were killed, their homes burned and their families threatened as part of an ANC-backed strategy to make the townships "ungovernable." There is no more despised profession in black communities than the police. However, as liberation approaches and reconciliation becomes an essential prerequisite to peace, black communities will urgently--and for their own safety--have to rehabilitate black policemen back into their communities.
Anti-apartheid organizations, including the ANC and its affiliates, have to get away from the knee-jerk response of blaming the police for every ill, and of saying the government is responsible for ending the conflict.
If the ANC and other black groups cannot see their own culpability and responsibilities in the conflict, South Africa's hope for a just peace seems increasingly distant.