KWAMAKHUTA, SOUTH AFRICA — ABOUT 50 refugees from the relentless political conflict in Natal Province have been living in the community hall of this typical south coast township for the past four years.
They are captives of a vicious political power struggle that is jeopardizing the country's first all-race elections scheduled for April 26-28.
A visit here, shortly before President Frederik de Klerk declared emergency rule in the strife-torn province on March 31, revealed a deeply divided community living in fear of the bloodshed that both sides believe will accompany the April ballot.
The KwaMakhutha refugees are supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), who were living in the Inkatha quarter when their houses were burned down in the intense political conflict that followed the release of African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela in February 1990.
The community hall, which stands on a hill above an open field with a school on one side and a police station on the other, is peppered with bullet holes that the residents have ringed with blue chalk to show peace monitors and police.
ANC-supporting residents say the building is often the source of gunfire that has claimed several lives in recent weeks. But Inkatha-supporters living in the hall insist that they are the ones who are always under attack.
``Both sides are involved in fueling the conflict,'' said Gail Wannenburgh of the Network of Independent Monitors. She is one of several peace monitors interacting with the polarized community to offer an impartial presence and establish the truth.
ANC community leaders, who claim the ANC enjoys the support of 75 percent of the township's residents, demand that the Inkatha residents be moved out of the hall so that it can again serve the entire community as a meeting place. But Inkatha community leaders also claim to have a support based of 75 percent, and insist the ANC should ensure alternative housing because ANC supporters burned down their houses in the first place.
Since the strife of 1990, the township of several thousand residents has maintained a tense truce due, in part, to the relatively conciliatory positions of ANC and IFP local leaders. But two weeks ago, the tensions surrounding the April ballot erupted into renewed conflict when Inkatha supporters tried to prevent ANC passage to an election meeting.
At least one Inkatha supporter was shot dead in the confrontation in which the KwaZulu Police, considered loyal to Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha, intervened on the side of the community. Further shooting and fatalities occurred at an ANC funeral on March 20 and an Inkatha funeral on March 26.
``The KwaZulu police acted like true policemen for the first time - they didn't take sides,'' says ANC branch chairman Amon Sibiya. But he insists there cannot be free and fair elections in Natal Province unless steps are taken to protect the community.
``I fear that we will be set alight and killed if we do not have protection. We will not be safe, and people will be scared to vote,'' he says. ``If the IFP does not take part in the election, then I cannot see how things will settle down after the election.''
But political violence, which claimed more than 300 lives in Natal in March, appears to have abated in the past few days as South African Defense Force troops rolled through the strife-torn townships around Durban in armored vehicles.
Although the SADF has not rolled through KwaMakhuta, Mr. Sibiya said he preferred the forces to the Internal Stability Unit (ISU), the mainly white riot police who were in charge of policing the townships before the emergency was declared.
Concern for the future
One ISU sergeant said he was demoralized, fearful, and hoped to seek alternative employment after the election. ``I would like to go on pension, but I am too young for that,'' said the 35-year-old.
Stan Mkhize, the IFP chairman in the township, lives in a section of the Inkatha quarter that he insists is a haven of peace and is not out of bounds to ANC-supporting residents. He said he has been involved in peace talks with ANC leaders for the past year or so but had failed to resolve the plight of Inkatha members in the community hall.
Mr. Mkhize said IFP members also fear for their safety during the vote. ``We are also frightened about election day.... When the ANC wins, we fear that they will come to burn down our houses.... But I will stay here ... I won't run away. This is my country.''
Mkhize still hopes Inkatha could take part in the ballot or that it could be delayed to accommodate Inkatha demands for greater autonomy for the KwaZulu/Natal region.
``IFP-supporting Zulus do not want to take part in the election until they know that KwaZulu and Natal will remain under the leadership of the Zulu monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini,'' he said. ``If our demands are not addressed - and the IFP does not take part - we will not accept the election result because we won't have been part of the election.''