Soweto's white police chief: `Change is coming'

I am just a policeman, not a politician,'' says Brig. Jan Coetzee. His steady eyes, blue-gray like his uniform, almost support the stereotype. But Brigadier Coetzee is more than just a policeman. He is the white chief of police for black Soweto -- a point man in South Africa's bid to contain the racial violence of the past 17 months. Last summer the government declared a state of emergency in Soweto and 35 other trouble areas.

Soweto, in official parlance, is a ``township.'' But the word is inadequate to describe the country's largest concentration of blacks; row after row of small, mass-designed workers' houses carpeting the countryside about 10 miles southwest of Johannesburg. South African law bars almost all blacks from living inside Johannesburg.

Among the black youth spearheading political unrest in Soweto, Coetzee is a symbol of a racial system they abhor and with which they increasingly see little room for compromise.

Coetzee faces the new year convinced that Soweto -- and its nearly 1.5 million black residents -- are at a political crossroads.

In a recent interview in his office on the edge of Soweto, he said he has no doubt violence will continue, and that his small, nearly all-black police force will remain a prime target. Nearly a half dozen black policemen have been killed in Soweto over the past year. Some two dozen have had their homes damaged or destroyed. Others are denounced as ``traitors'' by fellow blacks.

Brigadier Coetzee sees the unrest as ``part and parcel of a total communist onslaught against the Republic of South Africa.''

Of the aim of the black-perpetrated violence, he is certain: ``It is to make the system unworkable, and the country ungovernable.''

Yet, he is convinced the effort has failed in Soweto. His task, he feels, is to crack down hard on those who turn to violence, while striving ``not to damage the support we have found from the majority of the blacks.'' One test of this bid, which he calls ``walking the tightrope,'' lies four days away.

There has been pressure from inside Soweto to end a black school boycott that has lasted almost two years.

The Soweto Parents' Crisis Committee favors a return to school Jan. 28, though it backed students' unwillingness to return on the official opening date for school, Jan. 8. Under the state of emergency, Coetzee notes, his police could have started arresting truant students Jan. 8. And, on at least one earlier occasion, the police chief did precisely that, angering Soweto's blacks by the detention of a large number of student-age youth. But now, says Coetzee, ``we are more or less marking time in the hope that the school situation will normalize by the 28th of the month.''

After contacts with the parents' committee, he has tried to scale down arrests of Sowetans under the emergency laws.

``At present,'' he says, ``there are 17 in detention under the emergency regulations.'' And five more blacks were in jail for other security charges.

Coetzee clarifies, however, that his efforts to keep arrests down have not kept confrontations at bay.

Two days before Christmas, an angry crowd congregated at the funeral of a Sowetan killed by ``security forces'' -- a reference to Coetzee's policemen and the nearly 1,000 troops sent in by the Pretoria government as support under the state of emergency.

``There was a lot of violence at the funeral,'' admits Coetzee. Five civilians were injured when his men moved in to restore order.

Early this year, one of his men shot and killed a youth who, according to Coetzee, was about to hurl a hand grenade. More recently, militants opposing an end to the school boycott have stepped up arson against buses or delivery trucks in Soweto.

``There have been some 20 such incidents a day,'' Coetzee says. And, a couple weeks ago, a man was injured in the head by a policeman ``who fired a tear-smoke bullet'' as a crowd moved in on a delivery bus during one incident of unrest.

But Coetzee says that, generally, ``we are still using a minimum of force to quell the violence.'' The rule, he says, has been to use ``crowd control'' weapons like tear-smoke cartridges and sneeze powder.

``When someone throws a petrol bomb at us it is usually from the rear of a crowd. . . . Obviously we could try to open fire on him. But we do not. How many innocents would we kill if we acted that way?''

Coetzee, who assumed his post as Divisional Commissioner of Police for Soweto in 1984, says he feels sometimes as if he is ``fighting a war with birdshot and tear smoke.'' The insurgents, he says, have scored successes.

``We do,'' he says, ``find difficulty in recruiting black policemen here.''

Most of his force is drawn from blacks elsewhere in South Africa.

Figures released last week, moreover, show that some 50 people have been killed in Soweto since declaration of the state of emergency.

But Coetzee says the violence is the work of a minority, mostly members of Soweto's nearly 250,000-strong school-age population.

Among these youth, he says, there are at most 30 ``trained terrorists'' who have at least indirect links to the exiled leadership of the African National Congress. Pistols?

``I doubt there are as many as 20.''

Much of the violence has involved clubs, knives, iron rods, or stones.

Another ``at most 5,000'' Soweto youths have been involved in acts of violence in the past year, Coetzee estimates. As for others who sympathize, ``not more than 20,000.''

``Most of the community -- most of the 1.4 to 1.5 million blacks here -- support us,'' he declares.

He says the unrest has ``definitely not'' managed anything like a general breakdown in public order -- despite the fact that his own force consists of only 1,400 to 1,500 police. He says of these, about 1,150 are black. Coetzee feels the battle gripping Soweto is one he cannot afford to lose.

Is he speaking as ``just a policeman?''

No. He says, ``Now I am speaking as an individual, as a South African. As an African,'' recounting that his Dutch forebears arrived here with the first Afrikaner settlers some three centuries ago.

He does not see himself as fighting for whites and against blacks.

Asked what he thinks South Africa will look like at the turn of the century, Brig. Jan Coetzee pauses. Then he replies:

``Change must come. Change is coming. It is only a question of time, I think, before we will have universal suffrage.''

After another pause, he says: ``For that change to come, you don't need revolution. Revolution will help neither blacks nor whites.''

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