Escorted by dozens of army troops and election monitors, candidates from President Frederik W. de Klerk's ruling Nationalists and four other parties brought their political campaigns to the rutted roads of this violent "no-go" black squatter camp on Wednesday.
But less than half an hour later, too frightened even to deliver their three-minute speeches, the candidates piled into armored personnel carriers and were driven back out of town, past an angry, jeering crowd of African National Congress supporters.
And Operation Access, the fledgling effort of the Independent Electoral Commission to force the national campaign into South Africa's most troubled, violence-prone spots, suffered its first defeat, reflecting the shadow of political intolerance that hangs heavily over the run-up to this country's first free elections.
"When you see people suppressing other parties' right to be heard, it almost makes you want to cry," said Bob Mabena, coordinator for Operation Access in the Phola Park region, as he rode one of the army's armored vehicles in retreat. "We were ambushed."
Xolani Gumede, a 23-year-old black man and the National Party's candidate, added: "It's a sad turn of events. Two weeks before the election and we still have this kind of attitude. We've still got a long way to go."
The confrontation in Phola Park, an often violent ANC stronghold of more than 30,000 people southeast of Johannesburg, was a blunt reminder here of the growing levels of intimidation that have characterized the campaign for the elections, set for April 26-28.
It also indicated clearly that a strong current of intolerance runs among supporters of Nelson Mandela's ANC, the likely winner of the elections. And that has caused many in South Africa to begin questioning the ANC's often-stated commitment to democracy.
Even as the candidates were fleeing Phola Park, Tony Leon, a Democratic Party leader, was being hounded from a stage at the University of the Western Cape by ANC supporters who drowned out his speech, hollering, "To the gate! To the gate!"
"It's time the ANC leadership accepted that its ranks are swelled by noisy and intolerant thugs, and took measures to educate its supporters on the meaning of democracy and free speech," Leon said.
Later, at a news conference in Pretoria, De Klerk's National Party accused the ANC of a "massive intimidation campaign" that has jeopardized free elections. And an electoral appeal panel in Pietersburg on Wednesday ordered the ANC to stop interrupting National Party meetings and intimidating the party's supporters in northern parts of the country.
Japha Chuwe, national coordinator of Operation Access, said the commission will continue to escort candidates into "no-go" areas, many of which have been created by ardent ANC supporters. But Chuwe and other officials were clearly disturbed by the Phola Park incident.
"You have the right to speak and the right not to listen," said Chuwe, interviewed as the candidates drove past the shouting, waving residents, many carrying ANC campaign posters. "But you don't have the right to prevent others from listening."
For the candidates, the day had begun optimistically. Dressed mostly in sport coats and ties, with party buttons pinned to their lapels, they said they had accepted the electoral commission invitation to participate in Operation Access in hopes that they could campaign, however briefly, in Phola Park and neighboring Thokoza township.
Those communities, long flash points for violence, have been relatively calm since army troops replaced police in the region. But campaigning by any party other than the ANC has been impossible.
Asked if the black-based Pan-Africanist Congress had an office in the region, Mosothe Petlane, the party's 26-year-old candidate, just laughed. "It would be burned in less than five minutes, my friend," he said.
Similarly, the National Party, dogged by the legacy of apartheid created by De Klerk's predecessors, and even the liberal Democratic Party had been afraid to campaign there. But party representatives thought Operation Access might give them the chance to carry their message to township residents.
"I have a wife and kids, and I don't want to jeopardize their future by campaigning there," explained John Barrington, 48, a white businessman representing the small Federal Party. "But I'm here today because I want to do something to help their future too."
Gathered in one van on the drive to Phola Park, the candidates held a loud, impromptu and friendly political debate. Then the convoy drove slowly through Thokoza and the candidates, remaining inside vans, delivered their brief messages over loudspeakers. Most promised better housing and living conditions for residents, who lined the road where hundreds have died in internecine fighting over the years.
"If you want to get out of your shacks, vote PAC," Petlane said over the speakers.
William Mnisi, the Democratic Party candidate, promised new houses too. "And we'll see to it that people get a living wage," he added.
A few spectators shouted "Go away!" but most, like Dora Mamphati, who emerged from her house with her eight children to watch, listened quietly. "This is a good thing," she said. "I watch the candidates on television, but I like this campaigning."
But when the convoy arrived at Phola Park, a militant shack settlement where Winnie Mandela's firebrand politics is warmly embraced, the mood changed. Several hundred ANC supporters were waiting and grew angry when they learned that the ANC had turned down its invitation to join the convoy and that National Party candidates were present.
"They said that this place was created by apartheid and that there was no way they could allow the National Party or any other party to campaign here," Chuwe said.
Told by army officers that their safety could no longer be guaranteed, the candidates chose to leave without making their speeches.
"This is just a symptom of the problems we have when one party has gained control of an area," said Helen Suzman, a respected liberal South African and member of the electoral commission. "We are trying to break that down. We don't want any 'no-go' areas."
Added Barrington, the Federal Party candidate, "What happened today was a disgrace to democracy."