The bizarre black homeland government of Bophuthatswana, one of the strangest creations of apartheid, appeared close to collapse Thursday night after four days of raucous strikes, running street battles and scattered gunfire in the tiny capital.
Thousands of chanting, cheering protesters celebrated by looting shops and burning and stoning vehicles in the dusty streets of Mmabatho after local radio reported that the autocratic president, Lucas Mangope, had fled by helicopter. His whereabouts could not be confirmed.
But Mangope clearly had lost control, since his once-feared police and military forces were crumbling in the face of demonstrators' demands that the nominally independent homeland be reincorporated into South Africa and its voters be allowed to take part in the country's first free, all-race elections next month.
Mmabatho was quiet by midnight, residents said, with police manning roadblocks around government buildings and hotels.
But early today, South African army troops took up positions at the South African Embassy in Mmabatho.
At the same time, armed white extremists streamed into Bophuthatswana. There were no immediate reports of clashes.
Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha said the troops had been sent in because of unrest Thursday and the deployment of white rightists. Botha, in a statement released early today, said their main mission was to protect embassy staff and their families but that they also were on hand "to maintain law and order and to protect South African citizens and their interests should the situation deteriorate."
Almost everyone in Mangope's civil service, from firefighters to teachers, honored a general strike Thursday to protest his repressive policies. Shops were shuttered, offices closed. And senior members of his handpicked administration had deserted the smoke-filled, embattled capital.
By late afternoon, hundreds of local troops and police had joined the uprising, allowing students to climb atop armored military vehicles and defiantly wave flags in support of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
Two people, including a policeman, were reported killed and more than 70 injured in clashes this week. At least 37 were wounded Wednesday by police firing buckshot and tear gas in tense running battles through the streets.
International observer missions, who are flooding into South Africa for the elections, issued an appeal for peace. "We deplore the use of force and call on all concerned, and particularly the security forces of Bophuthatswana, to prevent further casualties and loss of life," said the statement, issued by the U.N., Organization of African Unity, European Union and Commonwealth observer missions.
Mangope has refused to take part in South Africa's historic elections next month. More important, he announced that he would not let other political parties campaign in his territory nor permit polls to open for the estimated 1.4 million voters in his nominal control.
Mangope, 69, insists his country is free and independent. But South Africa is the only nation to recognize it. He has ruled with near-dictatorial powers since the engineers of apartheid created Bop, as it is called, and nine other homelands and territories in the 1970s as a way of separating the races.
Bop became the most successful of the homelands, drawing rich revenues from platinum mines and gambling casinos at Sun City.
All the homelands are to be abolished after the April 26-28 election and reincorporated into South Africa, according to the interim constitution.