The South African government this week faces its most delicate political challenge since imposing a state of emergency to quell black political unrest. At issue is how to defuse tension in the sprawling black city of Soweto, where clashes last week left at least 20 residents dead from police gunfire. It was the worst single burst of violence since the state of emergency went into effect on June 12.
Until the eruption -- which came after Soweto authorities began evicting families involved in a rent strike -- the emergency period had been marked by a gradual decline of unrest-related deaths.
Black community and political groups have now announced plans to hold a ``mass meeting'' Thursday to mark the burial of last week's victims of the unrest. But public meetings require official approval which, especially during the 11 weeks of emergency rule, the authorities have been reluctant to give.
As the government pondered its position on the funeral plans yesterday, there were further signs of tension, political defiance, and violence in Soweto, which is the largest of South Africa's segregated black ``townships'' and lies some 10 miles from Johannesburg. The government Bureau for Information said that, while there had been no repeat of last week's sustained unrest, a black man in Soweto was killed Sunday when a gasoline-soaked tire was forced around his neck and set a light. This so-called ``necklacing'' practice has often been used by black militants against blacks who are alleged to be collaborating with the white-ruled government.
``The feeling here is that, whether or not there is official permission, we are going to bury last week's dead as planned,'' declared a politically active Soweto clergyman interviewed by The Monitor. He said most families in the neighborhood where the worst of last week's two fatal clashes with police occurred, had contributed the equivalent of $.80 each to pay expenses for the funeral meeting.
And, he said, the meeting was likely to be as much a political rally as a funeral -- since it would be the first large gathering of anti-government militants since the imposition of the state of emergency. Among groups involved in organizing the funeral rally are the United Democratic Front and the Congress of South African Trade Unions, many of whose members have been jailed without formal charge under the emergency regulations.
At least five members of Soweto's black city council -- a body denounced by militants as a creature of the apartheid system of race segregation -- were reported Monday to be living outside the township following arson attacks on their homes. The recent rent strike was the latest in a long series of protests against these councils, whose main source of income is rental payments.
During last week's unrest, one councilman was hacked to death. But one of the five council members who have left Soweto told a Johannesburg newspaper yesterday they were determined to move back to the township as soon as their homes were repaired. ``We are not unduly concerned about our safety,'' he said. ``The trouble will soon die down.''
How to be sure the unrest does die down seems the South African government's top priority in pondering how it will handle the planned funeral rally.
At time of writing yesterday, the authorities seemed of two minds on how to respond. On the one hand, the government is determined to turn the tide on the militant political violence that has raged in black areas since late 1984. The central premise of the emergency crackdown is that only after capping such violence and reining in militants can more moderate blacks be brought into a process of political negotiation.
But the authorities also seem intent on doing all they can to defuse the tension in Soweto. In the aftermath of the Soweto trouble, Deputy Minister of Information Louis Nel has appealed for calm and announced there will be a public inquiry into last week's unrest. Official statements said the police fired in self-defense, but residents -- including some black newspaper reporters -- have challenged this.
Soweto's housing authority, for its part, has announced suspension of rent-related evictions at least for the time being.
In announcing plans for the funeral rally, black leaders said it would be held peacefully and ``in absolute dignity,'' similar to a meeting held six months ago in Alexandra, another township near Johannesburg. On that occasion, South African troops stayed clear of the rally, which was marked by militant speeches in a stadium adorned with flags of the outlawed African National Congress. The ANC is South Africa's most prominent black nationalist movement fighting to overthrow the Pretoria government.
But Alexandra is tiny, compared with Soweto. A source in one of the groups planning the Soweto funeral said privately it seemed unlikely the government would order troops out of the area, even if the rally is approved.
The source said that, given the political mood in Soweto, he feared there might be violence between troops and militants at, or after, the rally.
The government has blaimed the ANC for a string of recent bombings, including one yesterday that injured at least 12 people at a supermarket in a suburb of Durban.
This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit relaying information deemed subversive.