JOHANNESBURG — A HORRIFIC, racially motivated attack in which two black men and a child were brutally murdered near Johannesburg on Dec. 13 presents a stark contrast to the recent mood of hope in South Africa. The attack comes on the heels of progress: a multiracial accord on a democratic constitution was reached on Nov. 18, and a multiracial commission to oversee the transition to democracy was installed on Dec. 7.
While political violence has continued unabated over the last few months, attacks motivated by overt racial hatred are rare. But the attack could trigger a cycle of racial violence in South Africa unless the culprits are swiftly apprehended, according to the independent Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.
``Swift arrests would limit the potential for retribution and revenge attacks which could be triggered by these killings,'' said Lloyd Vogelman, director of the Center. ``It was clearly an organized and paramilitary attack in which the attackers perceived themselves to be part of the organized right,'' he said.
The right-wing Afrikaner Volksfront, which represents about 20 right-wing groups, has joined government and anti-apartheid groups in condemning the attack that took place about 20 miles east of Johannesburg, and which has shocked an entire nation.
A police spokesman said the attack was clearly racially motivated and arrests were ``imminent.''
Reacting to the attack, African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela said on Dec. 14 that violence in South Africa would end only with the creation of a democratic government because the present government was indecisive and had ``no will to maintain law and order.'' Mr. Mandela said that the Transitional Executive Council, a multiracial body charged with monitoring the government until the first nonracial election in April, was a starting point for democracy but still lacked the necessary resources to end the violence.
``It was clearly an act of racial hatred by people fearful of being ignored and overwhelmed by the transition to democracy,'' Mr. Vogelman said. ``This kind of act is perceived by such people as a way of asserting themselves and striking against the enemy, which they see as all black South Africans. They were probably former members of a police or military unit who had killed before,'' he added.
Eye-witness accounts from shocked survivors say that about 10 white men set up a roadblock near Randfontein and forced the blacks out of two cars, shot and mutilated them, and torched one of the cars. Four people were seriously wounded, and two children were later found crying in one of the vehicles.
One survivor told police that the attackers spoke Afrikaans and wore camouflage uniforms, except one man who was dressed in black. Black uniforms are worn by the so-called Iron Guard, an elite unit that provides protection for Eugene TerreBlanche, leader of the neo-fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB).
An AWB spokesman says he doubts the AWB, which is a member of the Volksfront, was involved in the attack. Volksfront spokesman Steven Maninger called the attack ``shocking'' and said it should be condemned along with attacks on school children, farmers, and church-goers - references to recent attacks on whites by black gunmen.
Vogelman said such attacks damage the right's reputation and more responsible leaders like the Volksfront's Gen. Constand Viljoen. ``They will want to distance themselves from such acts,'' he said. ``It will also make elements in the ANC far more hard-line in their dealings with the right wing, and we can expect revenge attacks on whites unless arrests are made immediately.''
``This kind of racially motivated attack must be condemned in the strongest possible terms,'' Law and Order Minister Hernus Kriel said after describing the attack as barbaric.
A statement from the ANC said the organization was ``deeply shocked and horrified'' at the murders. ``The ANC demands that immediate steps be taken to ensure the arrest of all those responsible for this dastardly act,'' the statement said.