South Africa The War of Blacks Against Blacks

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The term is familiar by now, but the "necklace" is so benign a description that it barely hints at the horror of one of the world's most savage forms of execution. This is how it happens. In the townships of South Africa, militant black youths first capture a victim. Next they chop off his hands or tie them behind his back with barbed wire. Finally they place a gasoline-filled tire over the terrified victim's head and shoulders and set it ablaze. The melting rubber clings like tar to the victim's flesh, while flames and searing fumes enshroud him. Within minutes the execution is over. By the time the police arrive, the charred body is usually burned past recognition. Horrified family members, who may be forced to watch the killing, are often too intimidated to identify the murderers.

Such viciousness is a regular occurrence in South Africa today. Two people were killed by necklaces in Soweto, the sprawling black township outside Johannesburg, on New Year's Day. Steve Kgame, a well-known community leader in the Soweto-Witwatersrand area who has faced demands from radicals to quit his local government post, was in serious condition last week with gunshot wounds in the head and chest. Near Durban, two officials of Inkatha, a political organization made up mainly of members of the Zulu tribe, died earlier this month after fire bombs struck their homes. Outside Port Elizabeth, a vengeful mob last week murdered two youths in the Kwanobuhle township. Nearly 80 gold miners have been killed during the past ten weeks in tribal battles among black workers.

Since racial unrest broke out in South Africa in September 1984, more than 2,300 people have been killed. In the past six months nearly three-quarters of the victims have been blacks killed by other blacks. And for all its cruelty, the necklace is only one form of the violence that South Africa's blacks are inflicting on one another in segregated townships across the country. The bloodshed has made ungovernable many of the townships in which the country's 24 million blacks are forced to live and has given the government of State President P.W. Botha a potent propaganda weapon. Invariably referring to the slaughter as "black-on-black" violence, officials suggest that it proves blacks are too uncivilized to rule one another, much less the whites.

In fact, the reign of terror is in large part a grisly reflection of the apartheid system that gives power to South Africa's 5 million whites. Bottled up in teeming townships and denied any voice in the political life of their country, many blacks are filled with fury. The Rev. Nico Smith, a white Dutch Reformed minister who has moved into Mamelodi, a black township outside Pretoria, compares the situation to that of laboratory animals that begin to devour one another when conditions become unbearable. Says Smith: "Social pathology is consuming the townships. There is a loss of sensitivity for people's own lives and for the lives of others."

The relentless toll stems in part from the breakdown of traditional authority in the townships. Of about 20,000 blacks who have been arrested since the state of emergency was imposed last June, many were local leaders who headed activist community organizations and helped maintain order in the black townships. With them now in jail, new and more violent leaders have come forward. In some cases the toughest person on the street rules, exercising a savage authority that does not dispense much justice and drives many townships toward chaos. Some township residents have complained that white police authorities often remain on the outskirts, watching to make sure that the violence stays confined to the black community. Inside the townships, meanwhile, the mobs seize control.

In many areas the violence is part of a struggle among South Africa's black factions for the soul of the antiapartheid movement and for political power. The battle is waged between youths and their elders, between tribes, classes and political organizations. The names and identities may differ widely, as gangs call themselves the A-Team, the Green Berets, Amabutho (the Warriors) or Mabangalala (the Intimidators). In Soweto, the conservative Zulu tribesmen are often in open warfare with the more radical Xhosas. In Kwanobuhle, the fighting is between members of the all-black Azanian People's Organization and ) the multiracial United Democratic Front.

The most dangerous group is the militant youths known as the "comrades," who have been responsible for much of the killing in the townships. Ranging in age from about 14 to 22, they are typically poor, uneducated and overflowing with rage. In their fierce battle to gain control of communities like Soweto, they have become the chief users of necklaces, the executioners who make the night a time of terror for the black populace. Barbara Harker, training manager in Johannesburg for the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of Offenders, has studied the comrades. She concluded that the poverty and hopelessness of life in the townships make them impulsive and largely incapable of compromise. The primary object of their wrath is anyone suspected of collaborating with the government. The victim's "crime" can be trivial or wholly nonexistent. Even payment of rent for government-owned housing can be a capital offense. Some recent victims:

-- Mbuseli ("Freddy") Nqgene, 39, a mental-hospital attendant, was murdered in Kwazakele township near Port Elizabeth because the comrades thought he was a police informer. Nqgene had been mistakenly arrested on a rape charge and released within hours. His killers assumed that he was let loose so quickly because he was in the pay of the police. As a consequence, they struck him with axes, stabbed him 13 times and set him on fire.

-- Patrick Marenene, a community council member in the township outside Oudtshoorn in the Cape province, was watching television at his home when a mob gathered in front and demanded that he come outside. Marenene managed to escape as the comrades threw his furniture into the street and ignited it. As Marenene was picking through the rubble two days later, the youths returned. This time they quickly hacked and burned him to death.

-- Masabata Loate, a leader of the 1976 antiapartheid student uprising, was slain with axes and knives near her Soweto home after serving a five-year prison term for treason. Loate, 29, had angered the comrades by speaking out strongly against necklaces.

So intimidating have the comrades become that in many parts of South Africa they can terrify township residents simply by holding up boxes of matches. When they are not carrying out spontaneous attacks, they may hold kangaroo "people's courts" that are designed to intimidate the public. In a typical court session, young toughs drag the accused forward, inform him or * her of the charges and then pronounce and execute the sentence. The outcome is never in doubt.

The people's courts are a brutal offshoot of street committees that were once promoted by the United Democratic Front and the African National Congress, South Africa's outlawed antiapartheid group. Initially formed to discuss grievances and political protests, the committees have since turned to more direct and violent action.

After first expressing support for the comrades, the A.N.C. now disavows their tactics. Winnie Mandela, the wife of jailed Black Leader Nelson Mandela, caused a furor last April by declaring, "With our boxes of matches and our necklaces, we shall liberate this country." A.N.C. leaders later told her to stop making such statements, and at the group's 75th anniversary celebration in Lusaka two weeks ago, A.N.C. President Oliver Tambo declared, "Of course we are not in favor of necklacing. We don't like necklacing, but we understand its origins. It originated from the extremes to which people were provoked by the unspeakable brutalities of the apartheid system."

The violent radicals are not responding to calls for moderation. Notes Allister Sparks, a liberal South African journalist: "An element is emerging in the black townships of South Africa that is beyond anyone's control, an element so brutalized that it now seeks only to kill and burn in blind revenge."

A black and just as violent backlash, however, has grown against the comrades. In the Crossroads squatter camp near Cape Town, community leaders known as "fathers" have donned white headbands and armbands and organized patrol groups called vigilantes. "The people of Old Crossroads will hunt them down and beat the comrades," said Sam Ndima, a leader of the fathers. Frequent clashes have claimed dozens of lives on both sides and destroyed thousands of shanties. In Soweto, the city council has called for the formation of vigilante bands to stamp out "political renegades" and protect local citizens.

Many vigilantes are middle-class people who are willing to strike back at the comrades to protect their property and the positions they have achieved. A recent study by Jeremy Seekings of Witwatersrand University found that they include shopkeepers, taxi owners, teachers, police officers and town councilors. Seekings says such people are driven by their "material interest in stability, a related inclination toward conservatism and fear for their lives and property."

None of the vigilante groups that have recently sprung up are linked, and none have a political agenda. Many of their battles with the comrades come down to generational conflicts. Says Wilfried Scharf, a lecturer at Cape Town University's Institute of Criminology: "The clashes between the vigilantes and the comrades are indicative of the youth movement's attempts to shatter the older generation's power." To that extent the feuding is, quite literally and tragically, a battle between fathers and sons.

White police forces look favorably upon the vigilantes. In fact, many blacks suspect that the police are secretly advising and supporting groups like the fathers. "I wouldn't have any trouble choosing sides," says one white officer. In Crossroads, witnesses have reported seeing men atop armored police vehicles firing at comrades in support of the fathers. The Rev. Allan Boesak, a U.D.F. founder, has charged that the government is behind much of the township killing. Says he: "It is not a question only of black-on-black violence. It is a question of the South African government deliberately creating groups and supporting them, even creating situations of violence."

The issue of who is ultimately responsible for the bloodshed is one of the most politically charged in South Africa. While many black leaders blame whites, the Botha government insists that the violence Proves that ever more crackdowns and restrictions are needed to maintain order. While that debate goes on, the appalling parade of violence is one more sign of a people in agony.