A POWER struggle between rival armed groups of the African National Congress (ANC) is threatening to turn some strife-torn black South African townships into seething cauldrons of internecine war.
It could also weaken the hand of black leaders at the negotiating table in their bid to force President Frederik de Klerk into relinquishing some power during the transition to democracy.
"Obvious divisions in the ranks of the ANC and elements who turn to crime give the security forces an opportunity to get tough," says a human rights lawyer familiar with the new conflict.
According to activists in Sebokeng township, the basic rivalry is between disillusioned ANC guerrillas who have returned to the country under a selective amnesty agreement and established ANC township leaders who chose to remain inside the country during the three decades when thousands were in exile.
Since the ANC was legalized more than two years ago, it is estimated that some 5,000 of its members have returned from exile. An estimated 1,000 returnees are former guerrillas of the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). MK cadres, who return with high expectations of change and a self-image of conquering heroes, easily become alienated when the ANC can offer them neither jobs nor money.
Some of the MK cadres, who are armed and trained, turn to crime for a source of income. Others fit naturally into the defense units - armed groups mandated by civic and residents' committees to protect township residents from attack by quasi-official state hit-squads.
Conflicts are taking place in Phola Park and in some areas of Natal province as well as Sebokeng. In Phola Park, shoot-outs between armed groups and security forces are a daily occurrence. A local defense unit, bolstered by rogue elements of MK, ousted the ANC-aligned residents committee in April. Response from the top
Top level ANC officials, including President Nelson Mandela, met with trade union leaders and regional ANC officials last week to address these internal clashes. A delegation led by former ANC military Chief-of-Staff Chris Hani visited Sebokeng last Wednesday.
At a meeting Friday, top ANC officials decided to establish a reconciliation committee to seek a truce between the warring factions, and an ANC commission of inquiry was appointed to probe the causes of the conflict. Mr. Mandela is due to visit Sebokeng this week.
Anti-apartheid leaders are concerned that the internal strife could erupt into open warfare when a season of protest begins tomorrow, the anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising.
Nationwide rallies tomorrow will test the climate for ANC-national protests planned for mid-July if the deadlock over multiracial government negotiations is not resolved by that date.
"I think the ANC is going to have to review its whole strategy of defense units," says the human rights lawyer. "The situation in some townships is already beyond control."
The new divisions occur against the backdrop of sustained violence between the ANC and its political rivals.
Two recent reports by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists have laid much blame for the township violence on the reluctance of the government and the security forces to engage in impartial policing.
In the past five weeks, escalating violence here has seen scores of attacks on policemen and black councilmen perceived as state collaborators. There has also been a return of dreaded "necklace" killings - whereby a gasoline-soaked tire is placed around the victims neck and ignited.
At least five anti-apartheid leaders have been assassinated in the new power struggle between rival ANC factions. Turbulent hostels
Sebokeng is a sprawling residential complex 35 miles south of Johannesburg. Its makeshift barricades are manned by armed youths who impose a dusk-to-dawn curfew. The fear is almost tangible and few dare leave their homes at night.
The focus of the conflict is the Sebokeng and kwaMasiza hostels which house about 8,000 workers of the nearby state-run Iron and Steel Corporation plant. The workers are members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).
The largest group of hostel dwellers is loyal to veteran ANC official Ernest Sotsu, who moved into the Sebokeng hostel after his wife and two children were gunned down by assassins - and his home torched - while he was attending the ANC's national conference in Durban last July.
While Mr. Sotsu's followers number in the thousands, the core of his operation is about 200 former MK guerrillas who defended the two ANC hostels from attacks by the rival Inkatha kwaMadala hostel near the town of Vanderbijlpark.
"In those days [before the internal ANC rivalries] we had no doubt who the enemy was," says a resident of the Sebokeng ANC hostel. "But now the enemy is all around us and there's a much greater chance of being gunned down by an insider."
The turning-point in the rivalry over defense units appears to have come when an official MK initiative to coordinate defense units in the area known as the Vaal - which includes Sebokeng, Sharpeville, and four smaller townships - was launched at the beginning of the year.
When the ANC-aligned residents' committees tried to form new defense units earlier this year they confronted the established units loyal to Sotsu.
"These new units boycotted this [MK] initiative," Sotsu told the Weekly Mail in an interview last week. "MK was prepared to give skills but they rejected the MK cadres. We called them to meetings and they didn't come."
"The Vaal area could explode at any moment," says Lloyd Vogelman, director of the Project for the Study of Violence at Johannesburg's Witwatersrand University. "These townships have a history of enormous repression. The creation of defense units in this atmosphere gives marginalized MK people a lot of leverage." Advantage to Pretoria
Anti-apartheid leaders, weary from two years of sustained township violence which has left more than 7,000 people dead, fear that the escalating internal strife in ANC ranks will play into the hands of government.
"The most obvious area of concern is that these divisions will ensure that the state will start killing the one side ... and we won't know who is attacking whom anymore," says Shele Papane, education officer of the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).
Mr. Papane says the "problems and divisions" in Sebokeng were hampering the normal work of the federation as most of the victims in the strife have been officials and members of NUMSA, a COSATU affiliate.