Poverty, joblessness at root of tribal violence in S. Africa. Tensions rise after workers return to townships for holidays

Deep-seated tribal antagonisms, not sophisticated poltical differences, provoked the Christmas-day battle between two South African tribes. The violence, which left 53 dead, brought 2,000 Zulu tribesmen into conflict with 3,000 members of the Pondo tribe in the thickly populated black township of Umbumbulu near the east coast port of Durban.

The area was still tense yesterday, with police standing by to intervene if fighting started again.

Pondo tribesmen, charging that the Zulus were trying to evict them from the area, were reported to be patrolling the streets of the township.

The South African government uses such tribal conflicts to support its claim that divisions in South Africa should not be seen as just between whites and blacks. The government says there are huge divisions between various black groups as well.

The Zulus and the Pondos are sworn enemies with a record of frequent clashes.

Following yesterday's fighting, a reporter described the scene of the conflict: ``On one hilltop heavily armed Pondos sat under trees in thick grass. On another hill, across the valley, Zulus were gathered. Between the two groups was torn area were most of the fighting took place.''

Christmas is a time when tribal conflicts like this frequently erupt. The main reason, observers here note, is that young men who have been away working in the cities, frequently for months but sometimes for a year without a break, return home and then discover that they have time on their hands. This leads to a desire to settle old grievances or disputes that have arisen in their absence.

It is not clear what started the fighting that broke out first on Christmas Eve and which continued well into Christmas morning. But refugees who fled the area, taking with them their children and as many of their possessions as they could carry, say the dispute began over a young woman.

Zulus, whose tribe is the largest in South Africa, assembled along Umbogitwini River, chanting war songs and calling Pondos out to fight.

Tensions and general bitterness had been increased this year by extreme poverty, especially in the black areas outside the cities, caused by the depression in South Africa and huge unemployment which has its most devastating impact on blacks.

Many of those who returned home to Umbumbulu this Christmas face a bleak year. Some who have come back have no jobs to return to. Others were concerned as jobs become increasingly scarce.

Also, many people are entering black areas near industrial centers like Umbumbulu in hopes that they may be able to compete for the few jobs that are available. This competition increases resentment and frustration on all sides.

The differences that do exist among poverty-stricken people, like the majority who live in Umbumbulu and similar townships, are exacerbated by South African racial policies that have allowed such conditions to proliferate, analysts say.

Unless there is a rapid and significant improvement in the South African economy, few expect the development of a climate that would reduce tensions, even in areas where the friction is made worse by differences between tribes.

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