Former ANC Self-Defense Units Threaten South Africa's Future

Infiltrated by criminal elements, vigilante groups that once protected black communities have now become a menace

THE commander's body goes rigid and he rocks gently from the waist as he describes how his colleagues shot and killed a fellow commander.

Seated in a chair in a small, cramped room in Katlehong's strife-torn Radebe section, the self-styled vigilante explains how the man was shot by angry comrades who suspected him of acting against the interests of the people and ``harassing'' members of the community. The final offense, adds Judge, an articulate, 29-year-old who prefers to be identified by his military code name, was that the commander apparently stole the automatic weapon of a 15-year-old Self-Defense Unit (SDU) member.

His account offers a vivid illustration of how SDUs - part of a black community protection group loosely aligned with South Africa's African National Congress (ANC) - have be-come objects of fear. Once revered by the black communities they served, SDUs are now unaccountable to anyone but themselves, settling their scores with guns.

The ANC has all but lost control of the units, which were formed at the height of the ANC's campaign to render the country ungovernable in the mid-1980s. Today - infiltrated by criminal elements and disillusioned with the ANC leadership - the units threaten to make some areas ungovernable even under an ANC-led government.

``Without drastic reform, those units which are not controllable are on a path of direct confrontations with the ANC,'' says Tsepe Motumi, a researcher at the independent Institute for Defense Politics.

Mr. Motumi says that unless the units are included in a general demobilization of armed formations, the country could be plunged into chaos.

The demobilized unit members would then have to be absorbed in national skills training and development programs. Given the present government's lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the majority, it appears that this awesome task would have to be fulfilled by the future government, he says.

The SDUs, formed at the instruction of the ANC, were initially revered by the black communities as an effective shield against state repression. They were most active and effective in areas with the greatest strife - townships around Johannesburg and the urban and rural concentrations in Natal province, where bitter conflict between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) began around 1984.

Ninety percent of the violence in South Africa over the past year has taken place in these areas.

The units were disoriented by the legalization of the ANC in February, 1990 and - when they regrouped in the violence that followed the ANC's decision to suspend the armed struggle in August, 1990 - they were infiltrated by criminal elements and became a law unto to themselves.

As the violence intensified, the units became more powerful and less accountable to the ANC and the community.

``The Self-Defense Units have become a menace to the communities they were originally meant to defend and protect because of the infighting and killing of those seen to be detractors,'' says Motumi, a former member of the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

A recent visit to this strife-torn township gave some chilling insights into the culture of violence that has taken root. Shadowy figures with automatic weapons patrol the web of dark allies and back streets to maintain a four-week standoff with hostel dwell-ers loosely aligned to the IFP.

Fire can come from several quarters: armed IFP supporters, members of the mainly white riot police - known euphemistically as the Internal Stability Division - or from rival SDUs.

Several units that are currently the subject of an ANC commission of inquiry have had to be disbanded after shootouts with rival units and criminal gangs.

As the six-month-old conflict with the hostel dwellers has subsided in recent weeks, ``comrades'' of the SDUs have directed their resources at taunting mainly white riot police, who are widely perceived by black communities to be in cahoots with the hostel dwellers.

The ANC, which supports the call for the riot police to quit the townships, appears reluctant to confront the growing problem posed by the SDUs, but is willing to welcome soldiers of the South African Defense Force.

But increasing rivalry and lawlessness among the SDUs is frustrating efforts to restore peace in these strife-torn townships and implement an agreement struck on Jan. 11 between ANC President Nelson Mandela and President Frederik de Klerk.

Judge and his colleagues, who refer to Mr. Mandela as ``the old chap,'' say ANC leaders who live in affluent suburbs cannot relate to the problems experienced by communities in places like Katlehong. ``The ANC gave us nothing,'' Judge says.

He adds that the SDUs had no formal training and devised their own military tactics that were centered around pinning IFP supporters into the hostels and keeping them there.

``IFP people have not attacked for a month because we won all the battles,'' he says.``Our section is now rid of IFP supporters.''

Judge, who goes away on extended trips to secure weapons in neighboring countries, insists there is a system of discipline in the units and accountability to the community through local civic associations.

He says their guns were bought with ``contributions'' from the community, and he denied recent press reports that money was extorted from residents under duress.

It was open season against the police, but there was a general rule not to shoot black policemen, he adds. ``The members of the ISU are soft targets,'' Judge says. ``They have bulletproof vests, but they wear nothing on their heads.''

He says that the Self-Defense Units were prepared to discuss being disarmed, but this would have to be negotiated with the civic associations, and the problem of the hostels would have to be solved.

He warns against an attempt to unilaterally disarm the SDUs. ``We will resist up to the end,'' he says, adding that he saw increasing danger in the run-up to the country's first all-race elections in April.

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