Shootout Jars South Africa
Killings of journalist and township residents again raise question of how to police disruptive worker hostels
KATLEHONG, SOUTH AFRICA — THE daily agony of the residents of this embattled black township east of Johannesburg is threatening to precipitate a national crisis following the weekend attack on a peace mission of the African National Congress (ANC).
Gunmen opened fire from the KwaMazibuko hostel on an ANC peace mission led by ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa and South African Communist Party Chairman Joe Slovo. This reporter was among a group of journalists traveling with the entourage when the attack occurred. Mr. Ramaphosa and Mr. Slovo escaped unharmed, but freelance photographer Abdul Shariff was killed in the gunfire, and two other journalists were wounded.
Two residents were killed in the cross-fire between the hostel and members of ANC-supporting defense units, who returned the fire. Police shot one man dead and arrested three others after the shootout. All four appear to have been defense unit members.
The KwaMazibuko hostel is a stronghold of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), whose central committee decided over the weekend to boycott the country's first nonracial ballot scheduled for April 27 and to defy the decisions of the Transitional Executive Council. The TEC is a multiracial commission charged with overseeing the government in the run-up to the election.
The conflict here is the subject of a meeting between President Frederik de Klerk and ANC President Nelson Mandela today that could have a vital bearing on the election. Political violence here and in the neighboring township of Tokoza will also top the agenda at a TEC meeting in Pretoria today.
Mr. Mandela said Saturday that he had repeatedly requested Mr. de Klerk to encircle the offending hostels with security forces, but De Klerk had failed to act on the request. De Klerk's government stated more than two years ago that it would fence off troublesome hostels but has so far failed to do so.
Mandela said in a television interview Sunday that he had called De Klerk after the Sunday shootout and made a proposal to deal with the situation. ``If he [De Klerk] does not act on that proposal, then South Africa is facing a crisis,'' he said. ``We cannot allow a situation where a hostel has become the center of the most blatant criminal action without the police doing anything about it.''
The police, who were conspicuous by their absence throughout the 30-minute gun battle on Sunday, did not enter the hostel from where the unprovoked attack emanated until more than 12 hours after the attack. Two men were arrested and an automatic weapon seized in a raid carried out before dawn on Monday.
A police spokesman conceded that law enforcement in the area was under severe strain. Regional police commissioner Gen. Koos Calitz told the Monitor on Sunday that it would have been too dangerous to send police into the hostel.
``They will kill our policemen if they go in there,'' General Calitz said. ``Normal policing cannot be conducted there because you are under attack all the time.''
Calitz conceded that fencing the hostel would contribute to controlling the movement of people but insisted that only a joint effort by the police and the community, and a program of socioeconomic upliftment, could address the problem.
Police spokesman Brig. Zirk Gous said the ANC had not made a specific request for protection for their leaders, and it was the policy of the police not to interfere in political events. He claimed police were on the scene of the attack within a minute.
But this reporter saw no evidence of police presence other than a police helicopter that surveyed the scene from the air well after the gun battle began.
AS the crackle of gunfire erupted from the direction of the hostel, journalists, residents, and members of the ANC entourage dived for cover. In scenes reminiscent of shootouts in Beirut or Somalia, black youths traveling with the entourage suddenly produced pistols and AK-47 rifles and began randomly returning fire. Soon the deafening boom of return automatic fire eclipsed the crackle of fire from the hostel. Journalists and residents huddled behind the ruins of residents' houses destroyed in the conflict.
Sunday's events have highlighted the crisis in Katlehong and Tokoza, where more than 1,600 people have died in political violence over the past year. ``Life is like this every day here,'' says 27-year-old Ronnie Malaza whose 11-year-old sister, Gloria, was wounded in a gun battle on Christmas Eve. ``We can never relax here. You have to fight. If you die, you die.''
Stephina Mosai lives in one of the few intact houses in the wrecked neighborhood that is separated from the hostel only be a wide, open field. Her 11-year-old daughter's hand received a bullet wound during the conflict.
Mrs. Mosai, who has sent her children to a relative in a safer part of the township, says she and her husband evacuated their home for several months last year but returned in November. ``We were hoping that the situation would get better, but it has only got worse. Everyday there is shooting,'' she says.
The hostel, which according to residents is the source of daily shooting attacks on residents, is situated about 800 yards from the wrecked houses of ANC-supporting residents. The neighborhood was being inspected by South African and foreign newsmen accompanying the ANC entourage to show journalists the extent of damage done by the conflict.
This township is the epicenter of political violence in the Johannesburg area and accounts for nearly half the national total of 3,600 deaths in political violence in 12 months. Thousands of residents who once occupied homes close to IFP-supporting hostels have been forced to flee.