KATLEHONG AND TOKOZA, SOUTH AFRICA — THE bleak wasteland that separates these two strife-torn townships - a deserted road flanked with rows of abandoned and vandalized houses - is now a venue for soccer matches between township youths and soldiers.
``It would have been unimaginable to see people walking freely like this in [this] no man's land even three weeks ago,'' observes Primo Covaro, a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is assisting families of victims of political violence in the embattled townships east of Johannesburg.
The change in atmosphere can be attributed to the replacement of the mainly white riot police of the Internal Stability Unit (ISU) with the mainly black soldiers of the South African Defence Force (SADF) over the last few weeks.
As Mr. Covaro speaks, a group of black youths wave, salute, and give the thumbs-up sign to an armored military vehicle. Two weeks ago, those same youths could well have hurled a rock at a similar vehicle staffed by the riot police or even taken a shot at one of its inhabitants.
Armed township youth who belong to self-styled protection groups called Self-Defence Units regularly taunted the riot police in a bid to drive them from the townships. And white policemen, who were perceived by the black community as siding with the hostel-dwellers, were the cause of constant tension.
``The police were always searching for weapons,'' says one aid worker. ``The soldiers do not have a mandate to do that. They are seen by the people as protectors.''
Despite a sharp escalation of political violence in Natal Province over the weekend, these townships remained relatively quiet. Although there have been several recent incidents of violence - last week two white traffic officers were shot while on duty in Katlehong - the weekly death toll has been far lower than in recent months.
AFTER a shooting incident on Jan. 9, in which a journalist was killed during a visit by senior officials of the African National Congress, President Frederik de Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela agreed to a peace plan that replaced riot police with SADF soldiers.
The soldiers, who also supervise clean-up campaigns in the townships, have been readily accepted by the black community loyal to the ANC but are regarded with suspicion by hostel-dwellers loyal to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
``The police of the ISU would first arrest you and find out what you had done ... but we fear that the SADF will shoot people if they find weapons,'' says Alson Mbatha, headman (induna) at the notorious Kwesine hostel, where Zulu migrant workers live in conditions of severe neglect.
As he spoke, a white SADF officer entered the hostel and asked Mr. Mbatha if he could make an appointment to talk. There had been a shooting incident earlier in the day in which a hostel resident was shot in the foot - hours after the opposing sides had reached a peace agreement.
They may not be entirely welcome, but in the two weeks that SADF soldiers have been operating here, the death toll has dropped substantially and tension levels have plummeted.
``We don't want the Army out altogether,'' Mbatha says. ``We would like the Army and the police to work together....''
The SADF declined to take part in an ANC welcoming rally addressed by Johannesburg ANC chairman Tokyo Sexwale on Feb. 13, but they did turn up to protect the community at the rally.
Whether the Army's presence will achieve lasting results, however, is unclear. The people of the townships are tired and appear ready to talk peace, but the socioeconomic causes of the violence - poverty, deprivation, unemployment, and overcrowding - will take much longer to address.
``I think what you are seeing here is a honeymoon period between the community and the soldiers,'' says Jakkie Cilliers, director of the independent Institute for Defence Politics (IDP) in Johannesburg. ``It could last for a month or two but - unless the underlying causes of the violence are tackled - it will not be a solution in itself.''
Thousands of displaced residents have not yet returned to their abandoned homes, although some have begun visiting and cleaning their residences devastated by conflict.
``We can't say that the situation is normal because people have not yet returned to their homes.... But there is an improvement,'' says a civic leader who asks to be identified only as Peter.
``I am hopeful that we can achieve peace eventually, but it is not going to be easy to unite with an enemy you have seen destroy your houses and kill your relatives,'' he adds. ``On the other hand, fighting and more fighting is not the answer either.''