In the early days of unrest in Cape Town's black townships, some whites tried to laugh it off as a kind of ``street theater.'' But as the violence escalates and the death toll mounts, they are having second thoughts. In a series of sustained confrontations with authorities, more than 60 people have died here in the past three months. Damage, mainly by arson, has amounted to more than $3 million.
A weekend of violence both here and around Johannesburg continued with reports of at least four more deaths, including one woman burned to death and three rioters shot, one killed by a white citizen, and the others shot by police.
The violence in Cape Town broke out after thousands gathered for a rally organized by the United Democratic Front, one of the largest legal black opposition groups in the country. The UDF speaker, Trevor Manuel, urged listeners to fight apartheid through boycotts of school and white businesses. Mr. Manuel also attacked attempts by white businessmen and the leading white opposition party to set up a national convention to negotiate South Africa's future. He called them efforts ``to keep South Africa safe
so that [whites] can continue to exploit the people.''
Three funerals for victims of the past week's violence were held at the weekend, attracting thousands of mourners. They followed an outbreak of racial violence Friday in Johannesburg, when blacks went on a rampage after a memorial service for Benjamin Moloise, a black nationalist poet, who was hanged for killing a policeman.
Mr. Moloise had argued that his confession of involvement in the killing came under ``pressure.'' His plea for a commutation of the sentence was turned down.
The increasingly coordinated acts of hostility and defiance of blacks and mixed-race South Africans toward the government and the whole apartheid system are matched by an enormous buildup in political tensions.
The continuing violence and political tensions are seen as two reasons why President Pieter W. Botha himself said recently that there is an ``appalling and distressing state of affairs'' in South Africa today. The indications are that pressure on the government for political change will increase steadily and with calculated premeditation from all sides, observers say.
The UDF, analysts here say, is the coordinator of what now amounts to a calculated revolt against the present political system. The UDF is an organization with enormous and diffuse support claiming as affiliates about 600 organizations, including major trade unions, and a wide range of church and civil groups. All government attempts to break its power have failed.
Dressed in bright yellow T-shirts, with slogans proclaiming ``UDF Unites -- Apartheid Divides,'' the Cape UDF leadership celebrated the release from prison of eight of its executives Oct. 10 with a press conference at which they spelled out future strategy.
This strategy includes a continuation of the boycott of black schools -- which affects about 500,000 young people -- and intensification of the boycott of white businesses, the withholding of payments for rents and other civil amenities, such as power and water.
The boycott of white businesses has had only limited effect so far in the major urban areas. But in some small towns, some businesses have been closed down.
The UDF leaders repeated ``short term'' demands that the government release all political detainees -- including black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela, an end to the state of emergency, and removal of police and Army from black townships.
Until these demands are met, the UDF says, it does not believe violence will abate.
This violence -- mainly stoning of cars and trains, arson at government buildings, including schools, and isolated attacks on business premises -- has been limited mainly to black areas, but sometimes it spreads into white areas.
Whites have become jittery and more politically uncertain. Even groups that have previously supported the white National Party government unquestioningly are beginning to ask more often if President Botha really knows what he is doing.
These people are increasingly interested in political alternatives. One such alternative is direct talks with the outlawed African National Congress, which seeks to overthrow the white-minority government.
President Botha considers this ``disloyal.'' The minister of justice suggests it might even be treason. Apart from voicing its objections, the government did nothing to stop a group of businessmen and journalists and, later, a delegation from South Africa's main white opposition party from visiting ANC headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, last month for talks.
But President Botha apparently took as a personal affront an announcement by a group of students that they planned to travel to Lusaka for talks with ANC leaders. The students are from Stellenbosch University, of which Botha is chancellor. Botha ordered the seizure of their passports.
The students are now talking about meeting ANC representatives ``at another venue,'' insisting that dialogue with the ANC is essential.
Observers here feel it is significant that all the major Afrikaans newspapers that support the government appear to agree with the students and not the President. This could itself be construed as an implied criticism of the government's assertion that it will not, under present circumstances, talk to the ANC itself.