South Africa Something Burning Inside

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The rumors raced through the maze of jam-packed shanties like a burning fuse: a fleet of government vehicles had arrived to relocate all 60,000 residents of the settlement, and a squad of toughs had been brought in to add muscle to the operation. The rumors proved false, but by dawn, the men of Crossroads, a wretched black squatters' camp in the sand dunes just outside Cape Town, began blocking the roads around their shacks with makeshift barricades of logs, stones, oil drums, old tires and anything else they could find. Then they set the barriers ablaze.

As uniformed policemen and riot squads raced to the scene with canisters of tear gas, they found themselves confronted by roughly 3,000 protesters, some of them lifting their arms in a black-power salute and chanting "Amandhla!" ("Power!"). The slum dwellers hurled stones at passing vehicles; the authorities opened fire with rubber bullets and bird shot. For hours, police chased rioters through a labyrinth of tumbledown shacks. By the time the battle had subsided the following day, 28 police vehicles had been damaged and 26 policemen injured on the one side; 18 were dead and 250 wounded on the other.

Just as the smoke was beginning to clear in Crossroads, the government struck back with its biggest nationwide political crackdown in years. In a carefully choreographed maneuver across several cities, South African security police swooped down on 70 homes and offices belonging to opponents of the government and, in particular, members of the United Democratic Front (U.D.F.), a broad- based alliance of more than 700 nonwhite community organizations, trade unions and church groups. Over a dozen dissidents were detained. Seven were charged with treason and joined eight other political activists in jail, awaiting what is expected to be a "show trial" in Durban at the end of March. If convicted of treason, they could face life imprisonment.

Again, South Africa seemed trapped in a vicious cycle: the fear of repression had sparked resentment, and the expression of that resentment had set off more repression. But last week's disturbances were especially dispiriting because they seemed to mock a host of recent hints by the white minority government that it might be open to relaxing its system of apartheid, or official separation of the races. Less than three weeks before the rioting at Crossroads, the government had pledged to suspend, and reassess, its policy of forcibly resettling blacks. A week before the sudden arrest of the opposition leaders, attention was focused on Executive President P.W. Botha's offer to release Nelson Mandela, 67, the nation's best-known political prisoner, and to recognize Mandela's outlawed, militant African National Congress on condition that the A.N.C. lay down its arms. But the eruptions last week suggested that peaceful negotiations between South Africa's white rulers and their black opponents may still be a distant prospect. Said the moderate Johannesburg Star: "We fear that the government may be on a course of conflict resolution that stifles the national debate before it has started."

Signs that Pretoria might be taking two steps backward for every reformist step forward challenged Washington's belief in the Botha government's commitment to real change. Since 1981 the Reagan Administration has steadfastly pursued a line of "constructive engagement," under which the U.S. refrains from openly criticizing the South African regime and hopes instead, through diplomatic pressure and behind-the-scenes negotiation, to coax it toward easing the strictures of apartheid. While making it clear that U.S. policy was not going to change, Washington officials publicly warned that last week's show of force "cannot help prospects for a dialogue, which the government itself has said it wants." Privately, officials were even franker about their disappointment. "We are obviously extremely unhappy over the violence and detentions," said a senior State Department official, "and we have said so."

Crossroads has long been almost a paradigm of black communities in South Africa, and its history a parable of the agonies and anomalies of apartheid. For ten years, blacks have streamed into the area and patched together flimsy huts out of odds and ends--bits of wood and plastic, old garbage bags, corrugated iron and cardboard. Most of the settlement's residents were "illegals" from the impoverished government-created tribal homelands of Transkei and Ciskei, which offer no employment, no money and no food. Almost as fast as the blacks kept pouring in, the authorities kept pushing them back, smashing their shacks and returning the illegals to the homelands. Despite the government's efforts, however, the population of Crossroads mushroomed.

In 1980 the government decided to "consolidate" the black population of the western Cape in a new township called Khayelitsha, some eight miles from Crossroads. Many blacks complained that the program was a scheme to confine them to remote quarters they could not afford and, worse still, to pit legal black workers against illegal squatters. Two days later, Minister of Cooperation and Development Gerrit Viljoen spoke of "speeding up preparations" for the relocation of all Crossroads settlers to Khayelitsha.

After last week's riots erupted, a chastened Viljoen hurriedly agreed to talk to representatives of the squatters. By then, however, the damage had been done. "People here live in fear of today, tomorrow and the next day," said Crossroads Resident Jacob Mkhuzi. "There are so many scares and rumors here that no one can trust anyone anymore."

That same air of mistrust and turbulence has soured relations between the government and its opposition. Last August, for the first time, the government held elections for parliamentary candidates to represent the nation's 2.8 million people of mixed race and its 850,000 Indians. Yet under the new constitution, South Africa's 23 million blacks still have no national voice whatever. In protest, the U.D.F. led a boycott of the elections that resulted in less than a third of the eligible nonwhites casting votes. Afterward, the government detained a number of the organization's top representatives without charge. Last week's sweep effectively silenced many of those remaining.

The reasons behind the sudden crackdown remain shadowy. Critics charge that the government will use the forthcoming trial to portray the avowedly peaceful Front as a champion of the militant African National Congress and thus justify a purge of all such opponents of apartheid. But Botha's supporters claim that he is trying to defuse "revolutionary elements" before negotiating with black moderates and point out that the fist of short-term law enforcement is by no means incompatible with the open hand of long-term conciliation. Nonetheless, said U.S. Ambassador to Pretoria Herman Nickel, "The plain fact is that images of repression will always blot the more complicated story of reform."

Even if the government is seeking reform of apartheid, it seems certain to come into further violent confrontations with its foes. Both the rioting and the police sweep worked in effect toward a common end: fanning the flames of unrest. "When I see people dying like that," said one black as he surveyed the debris in Crossroads, "I feel something burning inside me."