Johannesburg — The South African government is being charged by critics with partial responsibility for what exhausted relief workers have dubbed the ``greatest human tragedy'' in the history of Cape Town. Fighting between rival forces last weekend in the sprawling squatter camps outside Cape Town left more than 40 people dead and 30,000 homeless. Where 3,000 shacks once stood, there are now only smoldering ruins.
Officially, the fighting has been described as black-on-black violence or faction fighting. But, in the view of government critics, these labels mask the truth.
Many analysts say that the fighting was the result of a new strategy by the white government to engineer forced relocation of blacks by inciting violence that results in the destruction of black communities.
Despite the government's denial of this charge, there are widespread allegations that police were -- in the words of Ken Andrews of the opposition Progressive Federal Party -- ``active combatants involved in shack-burning and worse.''
Similar accusations, denied by the police and the government, were voiced yesterday by Alan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches.
The war in Greater Crossroads, as the squatter complex is known, is seen by political analysts as part of the wider struggle in the black community between conservative and progressive forces -- between black vigilantes, allegedly backed by the police and progressive, black anti-apartheid activists.
Crossroads's core area has a population of about 47,000, and three surrounding settlements contain a combined population of some 38,000. The recent fighting took place between armed bands from Crossroads proper and rival forces from the satellite settlements.
Crossroads proper falls under the control of ``squatter bosses'' whose rule is said to be dictatorial. These bosses reportedly make substantial sums of money by charging each family living under their jurisdiction a monthly rent. The three satellite settlements, on the other hand, are said to be under the control of more progressive leaders.
Roseberry Sonto, of the Cape Youth Congress, a progressive black youth group, charged that the war against the three ``progressive'' zones was started by the squatter bosses' ``corrupt vigilantes acting in concert with the police.''
While there may be debate about how the war started, there is no doubt that it ended with vigilantes on the offensive, burning shacks in the three satellite camps. The vigilantes won: All 3,000 shacks in the satellite settlements were razed to the ground.
Allegations of police support for the vigilantes were later made in affidavits submitted by refugees from the satellite settlements to the Supreme Court asking for an interim order restraining security forces and vigilantes from unlawfully attacking them. The refugees, now regrouping on the fringes of Crossroads, won that interim court order this week.
The Crossroads war is over temporarily, but two major problems remain. There is the immediate challenge of providing food and shelter to 30,000 homeless people. There is also the possibility of a clash over government plans to shift the homeless to the huge settlement area of Khayelitsha rather than let them return to the now-deserted camps. Khayelitsha is more than 25 miles away from Cape Town. For that reason, and because it is another stronghold of one of the Crossroads proper squatter bosses, it is unacceptable to the refugees.