South African riots reflect 'tragic alienation'

Simmering political and social discontent among the Coloreds (people of mixed race) once again has erupted into violence, bloodshed, rioting, and looting here.

At least 36 people have been shot dead by police trying to control crowds who have stoned cars, set fire to buildings, and plundered shops and supermarkets, almost entirely in the Colored townships. About 200 people have been wounded.

One policeman was stabbed to death during a baton charge, and others have been injured by bricks, bottles, and other missiles.

It is the worst outbreak of violence in Cape Province since the nationwide riots in 1976 which followed the demonstrations by black schoolchildren in Soweto.

Additional police now have flown to Cape Town from other parts of the country.

The violence reached its peak the night of June 17 after a day of sporadic confrotations between the police and crowds that stoned cars and buildings and set them alight.

Firemen in some areas rushed from fire to fire through the night. A knitting mill was gutted. The damage there alone is estimated at more than $3 million.

The police blame young "skollies" -- meaning loafers and criminals -- for that violence. But it comes after many weeks of low-key political boycotts, followed by a two-day general strike supported by at least half of Cape Town's black and Colored workers. During that time, tension generally increased and tempers became inflamed, especially among younger, less disciplined Colored people.

Colored politicians and leading white opposition party politicians all say the violence clerly has its roots in political and social issues.

They point to the "tragic alienation" of the Colored people from the whites through South African government policies that have removed thousands of Colored families their homes in areas proclaimed for whites only. The Colored families have been sent to unattractive townships farther from the city. Moreover, government policies have left the nearly 3 million Coloreds without any franchise rights at all.

This is in spite of the fact that the Coloreds are descended from the whites, largely go to churches of the same denomination, have similar cultural ties, and speak Afrikaans and English, the two main "white" languages.

Many so-called Colored people also are lighter in color than some South African whites, earn more money, and are better educated.

It was the younger section of the Cape Town Colored community that first gave vent to its frustration.

Senior school pupils called for a boycott of clases because of their dissatisfaction with the lack of sufficient schoolbooks, the inadequate facilities at many schools some still have broken windows and other damage dating back to the 1976 riots), the second-rate pay of their teachers, and the generally lower standard of their "racist" education, compared to that provided for whites.

After blustering for a while, the government promised considerable relief.

But by then tensions between the Colored community and the authorities had been increased by a sudden sharp increase in bus fares -- which led to a widespread boycott of the monopolistic bus service -- and by an industrial dispute which led to strikes and a meat boycott.

The police arrested several people, sometimes in an apparently haphazard way, but instead of cooling things down, this increased tension and led to more ultimatums.

Then came June 16, the anniversary of the start of the 1976 riots, and although it was not possible to identify the organizers, the word went around that there would be a commemorative two-day general strike by black and Colored workers, starting on June 16.

Although a trickle of Colored and black workers risked re-tribution by going to work, the strike call was markedly effective, cutting production in all major factories and greatly reducing the traffic on Cape Town's usually bustling streets and sidewalks.

At the same time, some demonstrators started stoning cars, and gradually the violence built up. At one stage on Tuesday, the national highway leading from the city to the airport was closed and littered with smashed glass.

The workers were back in force June 18, and the violence seemed to be abating. Colored leaders meanwhile have called for high-level talks with Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to try to find a long-term solution for Colored Problems.

Says Colored Labor Party leader, the Rev. Allan Hendrickse:

"I keep trying to impress on the government how strongly people feel about their situation, how serious things are. . . . I hope the government will take note of the mood of the people. . . . I hope it will accept that the root cause of the trouble is government policy and the high-handed and arrogant actions of the governmet."

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