South Africans Protest Violence on Trains

Anti-apartheid groups plan to begin a week-long boycott of commuter trains Monday to protest the slow response by authorities to escalating violence on the Soweto line

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

EACH time Daniel Tsenase boards the 6 a.m. train to his home at the grim men-only Merafe Hostel in Soweto, he takes his life into his hands.

"I'm really afraid of traveling by train," he says. "I just say to myself everytime: 'God help me, please.' "

The line between the sprawling township complex of Soweto and Johannesburg has become one of the most dangerous train rides in the world.

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Even without the violence, taking the train from Soweto to Johannesburg is a grueling experience. The trains are in a state of disrepair. More than half the hydraulic doors are broken and almost all the glass in the windows has disappeared. In winter, commuters face icy winds that rush through the crowded carriages.

Mr. Tsenase is a security guard on night shift at a mining company south of Johannesburg. Like many other black commuters, he travels by train because he cannot afford the bus or taxi fare.

Tsenase says he feels like a helpless bystander in a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge that has turned South Africa's black townships - and even the trains that link them with the cities - into "killing fields."

Since the first major train massacre in September 1990 - when 26 people were killed and 100 injured - many commuters have abandoned the trains and turned to taxis despite the greater cost.

Anti-apartheid groups plan to begin a week-long boycott of the trains Monday to protest the slow response by the authorities.

Following a seven-day sit-in by community leaders at the administrative headquarters of the rail authority, Spoornet, police yesterday announced plans to deploy a combined force of more than 1,200 men on trains, at stations, and along railway lines May 6. Spiraling violence

Since the beginning of the year more than 130 commuters have been killed - either shot, stabbed, or hacked to death - and 235 injured in about 130 attacks on trains and stations.

The four-month death toll already exceeds that of the previous 18 months when about 100 commuters were killed and nearly 500 injured in 34 attacks.

A recent study by a civil rights group, the Independent Board of Inquiry into Informal Repression, found that the train attacks may be carried out at random rather than targeted at any specific group.

"It is possible that the attackers' motives are nothing other than the inducement of sheer terror," the report said.

The study noted that upsurges in the train violence - as with other township violence - usually occur before and after major turns in the multiracial negotiating process for political reforms.

It found that most of the attackers are Zulu-speaking, and all of the 20 or so arrested so far have claimed to be members of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Another pointer to Inkatha's involvement is the fact that attacks often take place close to Zulu-dominated men-only hostels where the attackers frequently seek refuge.

The report concludes that the attacks could also be part of a more sinister "third force" in the South African security forces bent on sabotaging the negotiation process by using the cover of Inkatha and its hostels to launch terror attacks on commuters. First major attack

Anna Maleka, an office assistant in downtown Johannesburg, will never forget the fateful day of Sept. 13, 1990 - the first major attack in the current train violence.

"It was my birthday and I was traveling to work on my usual coach," she says.

"Suddenly I noticed there was blood on my arm but I did not realize I had been shot. Chaos erupted on the carriage. I was close to one of the doors and tried to throw myself off but one of the attackers blocked the door and stabbed me in the back."

Mrs. Maleka was one of the more fortunate victims. Today she has a scar from a bullet wound in her arm and a stab-wound in her back. She says she will never set foot again on a train from Soweto.

"I will never forget the terror of that day as long as I live," she says.

Before dawn breaks at the busy New Canada junction on the outskirts of Soweto, squads of 15 uniformed policemen board the trains at random to search for dangerous weapons and offer reassurance to terrified commuters.

But the authorities have been slow to react to the spiraling violence, and commuters seem suspicious about their role. Although 20 suspected attackers have been arrested over the past two years, not one has been brought to trial.

"When it is white people who are killed there is immediate action," says Daniel Motswane, a clerk who works for a pension fund in the city. "The government doesn't care what happens to black people. They [sic] don't want to let go of apartheid. They want the black people to suffer before they get equality."

Capt. Thys du Plessis, station commander at the New Canada police station, is not surprised to hear Mr. Motswane's view of the authorities. He knows mistrust runs deep.

But Captain Du Plessis tackles the awesome job of trying to make the trains a safer place for commuters with an infectious enthusiasm and a sensitivity toward those he is seeking to protect that is unusual in a white policeman here.

"Security for these people has become a life-or-death issue," he says, surveying a formidable array of homemade knives, spears, and clubs confiscated from passengers by his police units. "I understand everything they do and I know there has to be a change of attitude on our part."

Du Plessis concedes that the first few massacres on the trains were politically inspired.

But the police captain suggests that the violence has developed a territorial dimension, as commuters with group affiliations - tribal, political, and religious - stake out their territory on the same coach each day. Clashes occur when commuters board a coach dominated by a group they do not belong to.

Several black commuters claimed that the police had abandoned the policing of trains after the political changes two years ago, when the De Klerk government lifted the ban on anti-apartheid political parties and began to rescind the laws that sanctioned racial segregation.

These commuters say the police are, at best, indifferent about the infighting between different anti-apartheid groups and, at worst, eager to encourage it.

Even so, black communters seem to have far more trust in the presence of a black police unit led by a white policeman than one led by a black policeman.

"People are beginning to respond to the larger police presence on the trains at peak hours which is when most of the attacks take place," Du Plessis says. "It is a matter of building up trust. We tend to board the same coaches each day. Initially they were wary of us but now they have started to welcome us." Cautious trust builds

Du Plessis's claim was borne out by a ride with one of his police units on a train traveling from Vereeninging, an industrial town 40 miles south of Johannesburg, to the city.

The commuters in the coach were all supporters of the anti-apartheid Congress of South African Trade Unions. They use the train ride to hold meetings and chant liberation slogans to the rhythmic movement of the toyi-toyi dance.

These commuters danced and banged the sides of the coach when the policemen and reporters boarded the train, but interactions between police and blacks also suggested some mutual respect.

Nonetheless, Du Plessis and his colleagues admit they have a formidable task and that there is no quick fix.

"Human life has lost its value in this harsh environment," the captain says. "It is not a problem that can be solved in a single generation. It will take two or three generations."

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