AN eruption of political violence in black townships around Johannesburg has shattered confidence in a six-week-old peace pact between rival groups. "It's one thing for the leaders at the top to reach agreement," says African National Congress official Popo Molefe. "But it takes time to get the message through to the people on the ground."
Mr. Molefe is referring to the peace accord struck six weeks ago by ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party.
The latest violence, which has claimed at least 84 lives in the past 10 days, was most intense in this urban ghetto of some 185,000 people where 41 people have died in three days of feuding. At least 34 deaths have been recorded in the townships around Johannesburg and a further eight in strife-torn Natal province.
The fighting between supporters of the ANC and the Inkatha members has reached levels which have shocked political leaders and civil rights workers.
"People are resorting increasingly to violence to settle political conflicts," says Lloyd Vogelman, director of Witwatersrand University's Project for the Study of Violence.
"In their view, violence is serving a positive social function. It is a quick and easy method of resolving conflicts. It increases their social standing and there is a growing sense of confidence that they can get away with it," he says.
Mens-only hostels - the most glaring examples of deprivation and neglect - have emerged as the major flashpoint of recent political violence. The violence began in Mzimhlophe mens-only hostels in Soweto a week ago between supporters of the two groups. Violence also began in Alexandra's mens-only hostels, and spread to the shanty section of the township, but the intervention of heavily armed soldiers and armored vehicle patrols restored a tense calm by March 12.
Inkatha leaders blame the ANC, who they say killed one of their members in Alexandra by setting him on fire.
The ANC denies that it was responsible for starting the violence but has refrained from publicly blaming either Inkatha or the security forces.
Molefe says residents had reported the presence of "mobile hit squads," including whites, who had been firing shots from automobiles. Police have requested further details.
Causes of conflict
Residents also claimed that Inkatha members had been infiltrating the township for the past six weeks.
Molefe says that the violence had been sparked by an argument between two men - one Xhosa-speaking and one a Zulu - who had been fighting over a woman.
"The eruption of violence in Alexandra does not prove the involvement of any third force, rather it shows what a complex and volatile society this is," says Azhar Cachalia, a human rights lawyer and ANC member.
Calls for intervention
The intensity of the violence led to the first joint call by the ANC and Inkatha on the security forces to keep the warring factions apart. "The police are the only ones with the physical means to keep the two sides apart," concedes the ANC's Gill Marcus.
Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok welcomed the joint call for police involvement, the first of its kind since widespread violence erupted eight months ago. But Mr. Vlok responded to the new wave of violence by declaring six black townships "unrest areas" Monday night and imposing a 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew.
The move, taken under the country's Public Safety Act, effectively restores emergency powers to the authorities on a temporary basis in specific areas. Other areas affected by the curfew are Soweto, and its sister townships of Meadowlands, Diepkloof, and Dobsonville, and Tembisa east of Johannesburg.
Political scientists say the renewed violence underlines the urgency of an interim political settlement which would legitimize black groups condoning police intervention.
"At present the ANC has no legitimate peace force to exercise control," says Professor Mervyn Frost of Natal University. "The joint call by the police in Alexandra is an admission that it is only effective police action that can stop this kind of violence in the short term."
Last week the ANC, Inkatha, and the Alexandra Civic Association - a community-based body - signed an accord which establishes the ACA as the legitimate voice of the community. The accord represents a victory for the ANC's campaign to force discredited black town councils to resign.
In terms of the accord the Alexandra Town Council will be dissolved, and Alexandra will become part of a broader local authority, including the affluent white areas of Sandton and Midrand.
Decades of neglect
Alexandra, a highly politicized and close-knit community, is the only black township contained within Johannesburg's white neighborhoods because it successfully resisted an official forced removal bid. In recent months Alexandra had been relatively free of the internecine strife and ethnic tensions which swept black townships between August and November last year.
Decades of neglect are evident in the gross overcrowding, lack of basic services such as roads and sewerage, and inadequate schools, housing, and health facilities.
Despite a $40 million crash program of rehabilitation in the mid 1980s, the township stands out as an island of deprivation when compared to the surrounding white neighborhoods with their manicured gardens and swimming pools.
Vogelman says that if the present trend continues South Africa could be heading for a "Beirut" or "Northern Ireland" situation within the next four to five years.
"A culture of violence is taking root," he says. "There will be ebbs and flows, but we are into a massive phase of violence over the next few years." The only way to avoid such a scenario in the short-term, he adds, is to create effective policing which means intensive training and a larger police force.
There is also an urgent need for institutions to resolve conflict, he says. "The ANC must develop strong local-level structures. This must be accompanied very quickly by some form of political settlement. We need a culture of political democracy and massive socio-economic upgrading to remove the basic cause of the conflict."