A Tale of Anarchy in South Africa
As the political crisis deepens, clashes between residents and police shake Sebokeng township
SEBOKENG, SOUTH AFRICA — NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Andrew Motaung sees little reason to be hopeful. In the height of township unrest two years ago his brother was shot and killed in a clash with police.
"I don't see any change from two years ago," Mr. Motaung said as he gathered with mourners Saturday at the two-room home of a man who was shot in the township's strife-torn Zone 14 neighborhood on July 3.
"When we see the police coming we run away. We don't know what to do," he said. "If we could get weapons everything would be all right. The political organizations should provide us with weapons."
Sebokeng, a dusty township of about 250,000 people roughly 30 miles south of Johannesburg, has become a symbol of impending anarchy as South Africa's political crisis deepens.
Political violence has intensified since clashes first broke out between supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party two years ago.
The violence here, which began in the single-sex hostels, has claimed hundreds of lives. Today, however, the conflict has shifted: Community members are now trying to protect themselves from those who are supposed to protect them.
The township is regarded as an ANC stronghold and a no-go area for Inkatha supporters. Fighting now is between residents and the police. Several policemen have been killed by unidentified gunmen in recent weeks in a pattern reminiscent of a failed insurrection in the mid-1980s.
Two policemen were killed here over the weekend prompting the Law and Order Ministry to issue a statement yesterday hinting at tough security action to prevent "a slide into anarchy and lawlessness."
Strangers enter the township at their peril, even by day. At night the combination of dust and coal-smoke from fires - trying to keep the bitter winter cold at bay - reduce visibility to almost nil.
This reporter was met at the outskirts of the township by ANC officials before dusk and escorted through the streets to the home of a recent victim of police shooting.
Once darkness fell, the streets became eerily quiet, a silence punctuated by an occasional gunshot or a passing police vehicle.
Six weeks ago, after a weekend in which 18 residents were gunned down by unidentified assailants, the community decided to take control of the township. Residents dug trenches and erected makeshift barricades with boulders, metal drums, and tree trunks.
Youths manned the makeshift roadblocks, questioning motorists about their identity and searching vehicles.
The youthful revolutionaries soon began to claim that Sebokeng was a "liberated zone."
But on July 7 police moved into Zone 14 and shot dead three residents in an attack that shattered the windows of dozens of homes.
Several eyewitnesses describe the incident as a random attack by police officers who had been targeted by the community because of their alleged role in shooting residents in an earlier clash.
"They went on a killing spree," says an emotional Mary Mpshe, a neighbor of Joseph Gosenyane, who was killed in the attack.
Later that day residents retaliated, torching the homes of several policemen. That evening, according to residents, police returned to Zone 14 and threw gasoline bombs into several homes. One victim of a gasoline bomb was this reporter's host - the ANC deputy chairman in Sebokeng, Sam Mothibeli.
After the attack, which shattered all the windows of his three-room house and damaged the bedroom, Mr. Mothibeli sent his family to a safer place. For the past three days he has been trying to get the glass replaced but the glaziers are reluctant to enter the township.
While this reporter spoke to Mothibeli in his home, a police armored vehicle parked opposite the house. Plain-clothes figures emerged and stalked in the shadows on-and-off during the evening.
Police have dubbed the Zone 14 neighborhood "Beirut" because of the barricades and trenches that make many of the streets impassable to police Caspirs - armored vehicles that patrol the township and launch unexpected raids on activists.
ANC officials and residents in the area reject this description and blame the police for destabilizing the neighborhood.
"There is no protection from the police," says Lily Matloung. "They are the ones who are attacking and killing the people. They are the cause of the problem."
ANC Youth League leaders insist that the barricades are an attempt to establish control in the township. In some neighborhoods, however, barricade patrols were hijacked by criminals who then demanded money from motorists even if they were residents returning home.
"After the barricades were erected the rate of killings dropped sharply," says Lebohang Mahanta, an executive member of the Youth League in Sebokeng and chairman of the Sebokeng branch of the South African Communist Party.
"The barricades are the only way of defending the community," Mr. Mahanta says.
He sides with those in the ANC advocating insurrection rather than negotiation with the government. He has high expectations that the ANC's campaign of national protest - which culminates with a five-day work strike on Aug. 3 - will succeed in pressuring President Frederik de Klerk to accept the principle of majority rule.
"But a political solution will have credibility only if people perceive some practical results on the ground," Mahanta says. "Winning the vote is important but it is not all we want. We want to see an improvement in conditions, too."