A target of black S. African ire. For black city councilman, life means constant threats from young militants -- but he refuses to quit

Letsatsi Radebe's colleagues have been beaten, hacked to death, set ablaze. His own home has been stoned. Yet, when his wife begs him to quit his job, he replies: ``No. This is a task I've been given by God and my ancestors. We live in a time that demands people who are brave.''

In another time or place, Mr. Radebe's title would seem ordinary enough. He is a city councilor. He helps allot houses, ensure garbage collection, and keep lights burning and sewers unclogged.

But Radebe is a black city councilor -- in a city where a generation of young militants see his job as ``collaboration'' with South Africa's apartheid system of white rule. He was democratically elected, but later boycotted in a 1983 election by more than three-quarters of Soweto's voters. One prominent community activist, Nthatho Motlana, puts the case succinctly: ``We feel the Soweto council represents nobody except itself.''

The council and dozens like it throughout South Africa are targets of a rent strike unprecedented in its effect and threatening to deprive them of what is virtually their sole source of local income.

Yet as the rent strike takes its toll, and as fears of renewed violence swirl through the sprawling commuter city he governs, Radebe seems to exude a determination to stay put. ``These young people -- these `comrades' -- have no political direction. They are murderers! But no one in Soweto dares say so.''

When he left a printing job in nearby Johannesburg to join the Soweto council, Radebe figured he was signing on as a public servant. He would be one black providing services for the hundreds of thousands of others inhabiting South Africa's largest segregated black ``township.'' Politically, he saw himself (he still does) as a foe of apartheid. He dismisses as absurd the government's latest proposal: to tackle the issue of black political rights through race-segregated councils like his own by offering to make townships autonomous ``city-states.''

As a teen-ager nearly four decades ago, Radebe was active in the youth wing of the African National Congress. (The ANC, now outlawed, is a black nationalist group fighting to overthrow the South African government.) Briefly, Radebe felt the urge to press his views with violence.

But by the early 1970s he had become a leading figure in a community law-and-order brigade known as Magotla. ``We, like the comrades of today, had people's courts. We kept order.'' But, he says, there is a fundamental difference between that and present-day militants.

He says Soweto is gripped by a rule of terror, and parental authority has collapsed. ``We must remember: The people who are `necklacing' -- throwing tires around people's necks and setting them on fire -- are our own children.''

Radebe sees no quick fix. Though convinced that the rent boycott will peter out, he predicts it could take many months. Violence, too, he feels is likely to rumble on. ``The police can't do any more than they have to combat necklacing. The people of Soweto themselves must play a role.'' So must the South African Army. Radebe forthrightly backs the Army's continued presence in Soweto -- despite vocal protests from community activists. ``If they leave, the result will be ruthless murder.''

And nothing, says Radebe, is more urgent than to stop such ``violence and intimidation'' in its tracks. He says that only then will rents be paid, voters vote, and parents return to the age-old business of disciplining children. ``The people of Soweto are still foursquare behind this council. But they can't say so. They are scared of the necklace,'' says Radebe. This report was filed under South Africa's emergency regulations, which prohibit relaying information deemed subversive.

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