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South Africa's Violent Road to Real Democracy

Mike Persson /AFP/Getty Images

It is around midnight, Easter Sunday. In the emergency room of Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital "casualties" have been mounting for hours. One after another, bleeding young black men and women from the township are wheeled in, unconscious from their injuries and their drinking. Most of the victims have ugly stab wounds in the back or neck. There's one youth with the telltale slice of a panga—the machetelike knife Zulus carry as a "cultural weapon"—across the crown of his head. Many of tonight's victims exhibit scars from previous trauma. Doctors call the ward "the pit." An American friend of mine who lives in Johannesburg calls it "an assembly line." Neither quite captures the sickening, yet businesslike, atmosphere in the only public emergency room serving Soweto's more than 3 million citizens.

"Hey, take a look at this," says Dr. Siego Wouters, a good-natured 35-year-old from the Netherlands who, like the many other foreign physicians here, came to "Bara" for an intensive dose of experience in trauma medicine—even if it means some must work armed for self-protection. The hospital welcomes them to replace South African doctors fleeing the country. Dr. Wouters thought he had seen it all, but Peter Mkezi, 18, presents a novel condition: shot twice in the genitals and still alive to tell about it. Peter, too, is a repeat customer. His left hand is partly paralyzed from a prior stabbing. "We were gambling, and he tried to take my money," Peter says of tonight's attack. "Then he shot me with a handgun."

Most of the attacks that land people in Bara seem like that—spontaneous, anomic. "To us, it's a kind of ritual, you either get stabbed or arrested, all these traumatic things that give a family sleepless nights," says Ntsieng Lenong, a 29-year-old community organizer in Soweto. Not even Ntsieng—educated, law-abiding, dedicated to improving the lot of his people—has been able to insulate himself. I met him as doctors treated his friend for a stab wound. He himself was once stabbed in the chest. Seven months ago his brother was murdered trying to prevent a man from beating up a woman. The assailant was arrested and released the same day; he has never been brought to trial. Ntsieng now carries a gun because he has been threatened by the man. "We have a lot of teen pregnancy here," Ntsieng says. "People say, when one person goes, 'Don't worry, we'll get another.' To a lot of people here, life is cheap."

None of the cases I saw at Baragwanath was caused by the political violence shadowing South Africa's first all-race national elections at the end of April. Horrific as the political toll is—more than 15,000 killed in the last four years—the vast majority of violence is criminal. The local news during my visit was dominated by the hunt for "The Station Strangler," who murdered twenty-one boys in the "colored" townships outside of Cape Town. In fact, on a per capita basis, South Africa's murder rate is ten times that of the United States. You can buy an AK-47 on the black market in Soweto for 50 Rand—about $15. Several residents told me you can order a "hit" for the same price. The casualties in Bara are casualties of war, all right—the war of all against all.

Yet South Africa's gory tableau of nonpolitical violence forms the necessary backdrop against which to analyze the political kind. Black-on-black violence is, in one sense, nothing more than a cruel legacy of the apartheid system—the predictable result of forced expulsions of blacks from traditional lands, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and abusive policing. In a more basic sense, however, the violence stems from a vacuum of legitimate authority. The vacuum is a result of apartheid, which, for blacks, left the very concept of public order discredited. But it is also a product of the struggle against apartheid. The African National Congress (ANC) battled the police and their informers for years in a largely successful campaign to make the townships "ungovernable." The struggle excused a multitude of sins, including the operations of local warlords and organized crime figures, and the mutation of some ANC "comrades" themselves into warlords and crooks.

An irony of the current situation in South Africa, then, is that the construction of a legitimate new order is in the hands of two parties that did so much, intentionally or unintentionally, to destroy the legitimacy of the old order: the Afrikaner-dominated National Party of outgoing president F.W. de Klerk, and the ANC of president-in-waiting Nelson Mandela.

Another irony is that these two organizations played a role in creating the most important political force attempting to disrupt the effort for a new South Africa: Chief Mangosuthu "Gatsha" Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the Zulu-based group that is boycotting the election and demanding an autonomous Zulu state in Natal province. Inkatha was initially formed in 1975 as a Zulu cultural organization, operating with the ANC's blessing and in the ANC's interests while the latter organization was banned. Gradually, however, Buthelezi moved closer to the National Party, which provided him with money, weapons and a Zulu "homeland" in Natal—KwaZulu. Even as he forged his own network of warlords, thugs and indunas (a Zulu word meaning, roughly, "ward boss") in Natal, Buthelezi became South Africa's Great White Hope abroad, the "moderate" alternative to the ANC. When the ANC's United Democratic Front moved in on Buthelezi's turf in the '80s, the war in Natal began.

South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission has said "free and fair" elections are impossible in KwaZulu. KwaZulu, an archipelago of territories splotched across the map of Natal, is fast becoming as Hobbesian as Bosnia. At dawn one morning (the best time of day to examine the results of the previous night's fighting, because the combatants take a rest) I visited KwaMashu, a sprawl of concrete houses and cardboard shacks just north of Durban. The township has seen some of the heaviest fighting between Inkatha and the ANC over the last month. Before this cool dawn had finally come the comrades of KwaMashu's Section K had spent the whole night fending off the impis ("warriors") of Inkatha. Time and again, the two sides massed and charged at each other with everything from sticks to pangas. Spent shell casings from semiautomatic weapons litter the ground.

A woman hurries by, carrying a table on her head and a baby on her back. She is joining thousands of others made into refugees by the fighting. A wiry, unshaven man emerges from a hiding place. He pokes through the smoldering remains of a shack, but there's not much left other than cinders. I ask him what happened. "Plenty of people came from over there," he says, pointing in the direction of Inkatha's turf. Fortunately, he wasn't home at the time. "I sleep in the bush," he explains. "I can't sleep in the house. Inkatha is coming." I ask his name. He freezes with fear, then flees. The sun rises higher in the sky, bathing the little homes in a soft red light. The glow illuminates charred interiors: every dwelling on this hilltop, astride ANC and Inkatha territory, has been gutted by fire and abandoned.

A short distance away a crowd of impis brandishes sticks and clubs. Their eyes are still bloodshot from the night before. They say the mayhem in KwaMashu is not Inkatha's fault, despite obvious signs that the latest upsurge is being orchestrated through indunas by Buthelezi. Still, the men make no effort to disguise their belligerent disdain for a vote most other people in South Africa see as a decisive step toward the liberation of the black majority and the democratization of the country. "We got these houses from the Inkatha Freedom Party," says "Spiwe," a 34-year-old induna wearing a cowboy hat. "We got to settle here because of the IFP. Some people who don't work get fed by the IFP. We get everything from the IFP. We will never reject it. The ANC stands for its own needs. But we are the Zulu nation. We don't want elections. We want to remain independent." He points down the hill at a crowd of ANC "comrades" no more than 200 yards away. "We are just sitting here having a look at them," he protests. "And they are shooting at us. What is the reason for that?"

Across a landscape of burned tree limbs and overturned oil drums, the comrades, too, proclaim their innocence. Their apparent leader, "Abdul," 26, complains that the comrades would like to go to work but are pinned down by sniper fire from the impis—exactly what the impis had just said about the comrades. "They are trying to block the way to elections," Abdul says. "It is not that they are the Zulu nation. I am a Zulu. But the ANC goes according to what is right for the whole world. The police are giving the impis a big helping hand. Half the time they instigate the other side. We are going to vote, even if it ends up like Mozambique." Yet here, too, the joy that should have greeted the advent of black empowerment seems to have dissipated amid the atmosphere of anger. I ask Abdul if he really thinks the voting is a moment of liberation for the black people of the country. "It might be worse," he replies, seemingly nonplussed by the question. "It might be calm. Or maybe, I might be dead before that time."

What does Buthelezi want? The chief's recent speeches—rambling, angry tirades full of threats of "struggle to the finish" with the ANC—revolve around a basic theme: his anger at being left out of the constitutional pact struck between two parties he is accustomed to dealing with on a more or less equal footing, and for whom he has carried much water in the past. Buthelezi has a point: it would have been better, in hindsight, if all constitutional disputes had been settled before an election date was fixed.

Yet the National Party and the ANC have little choice, and good reason, to resist these arguments. They represent the vast majority of white and black South Africans; they are the center without which the new South Africa cannot hold. The goal of democratization is a nonracial South African polity, as little poisoned as possible by tribalism, the curse of Africa. Conceding Buthelezi's demand for a Zulu state would open the door to similar demands by right-wing Afrikaners and possibly other black groups as well. Besides, polls show that a majority of the Zulus in Natal would vote for the ANC, not Buthelezi. So he has abandoned his past professions of deep democratic vocation and is playing his last card: violence. In this effort he has shamelessly cast his lot with ultra-right whites. A so-called Third Force made up of senior white police officials and assorted white freebooters has provided weapons, training and money to Inkatha's forces.

The threat of terror from white extremists is real and probably will be for years. But generally speaking, the white right is weak, divided and confused. The number of Afrikaners who want to resist a "new South Africa" is probably no more than a million—approximately the number who voted "no" in de Klerk's whites-only referendum on reform two years ago. And this minority within a minority can't agree on a strategy. Some, like the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement, advocate civil war. But these weekend warriors have been thoroughly demoralized by their recent experience in Bophuthatswana. White paramilitary forces came to the rescue of homeland president Joseph Mangope, an operation that consisted mainly of firing randomly at black people. That led to a televised incident in which black police executed two wounded Afrikaner fighters as they begged for their lives. The survivors, exposed as the pathetic racists they are, had to be escorted home by the South African Defense Forces (SADF), which arrived to take control of the homeland. The Freedom Front, led by a popular former general, Constand Viljoen, subsequently broke with the ultras and decided to participate in the election. Its goal is to negotiate a measure of Afrikaner autonomy after the vote.

In electoral terms, the most important phenomenon among whites is last-minute jitters. In supermarkets in white suburbs, canned goods, flashlight batteries and other staples are being snapped up in panic buying: rumors of a post-election looting spree by blacks have swept the white community. Some suburbanites are even preparing to use the contents of their swimming pools as emergency drinking water.

The majority of whites are resigned to the coming revolution. A significant minority welcomes it. But many are deeply frightened. For many whites (and blacks, too), March 28, Bloody Monday, was a post-apartheid nightmare come true. On that day violence erupted during a march of 20,000 pro-Inkatha Zulus through Johannesburg. Fifty-three people died. Several were killed by the Zulu marchers. The majority, however, were Zulus killed in a shoot-out begun by the ANC. The ANC claims that the Zulu royalists, armed with cultural weapons—spears, clubs and sticks—as well as guns, were trying to storm its headquarters. Though it is true that the rally was poorly policed and highly provocative, neutral witnesses say the ANC opened fire without being attacked. In a display of raw political self-interest that dismayed even some ANC supporters, Mandela refused to let the police search the ANC building after the fight.

Horrified, Sholto and Colette Hellman watched the melee from the eighteenth-floor offices of Sholto's law practice. The Hellmans, members of South Africa's large and politically active Jewish community, have always opposed apartheid, working and voting for the old white liberal party led by Helen Suzman. Sholto, a family law specialist, represents battered women from Soweto seeking divorces under the laws of their respective tribes. His father, Henry, gave Nelson Mandela his first job as a law clerk. The Hellmans still drop "Nelson's" name proudly in conversation. Yet crime and violence, plus what they see as the unrealistic economic promises of the ANC, are shaking the couple's confidence. "I always said I would rather cut off my right hand than vote National Party," Colette says. "But I came close to it this time."

Their daughter, Andrea, 23, will join her brother Saul, a 28-year-old doctor, in England during the election. The parents regard this as a safety measure. It is sobering to realize that these highly intelligent, proudly anti-racist children of white liberals are possibly more conservative than their parents. Colette says that Saul, after a training stint in Bara during which hospital workers staged a violent strike, "must be a Conservative Party voter by now." Andrea, who once leaned ANC, is thinking of voting for de Klerk.

For Andrea, the watershed experience came during her senior year as an international affairs student at Witwatersrand University. An ANC-aligned student organization went on a protest rampage, assaulting teachers and setting off firebombs in some classrooms. They were demanding an end to fees and lowered admission standards for blacks. Now Andrea frets that "the victim is going to be the oppressor and the oppressor the victim." At the stationery store where she works as a night manager, the same gang of armed shoplifters comes regularly every two weeks to clean out the shelves. "Don't report us," they say. "We know where you live." Sometimes, she visualizes a vivid scenario in which she faces black gunmen trying to hijack her car. "I'd drive the car into a wall," she says. "I'd rather die that way than have my head blown off."

Andrea's fears find a faint, yet unmistakable, parallel in the experience of 23-year-old Ntsoaki Mohapi and her family in Soweto. Like the Hellmans, the Mohapis are middle-class people who opposed apartheid actively. Ntsoaki's mother, Betty Mohapi, a community leader who works as a nurse at Bara, speaks passionately and movingly of her support for the student strikes against the inferior educational system imposed by "the Boers." The Mohapis, too, have a Mandela connection: Ntsoaki, a former international relations student at Emmanuel College in Boston, worked in the ANC leader's entourage during his first visit to the United States. The Mohapis' home is almost identical to the one occupied by the Hellmans in their white Johannesburg suburb—during the years of apartheid Ntsoaki's father, Josiah, carved out a home construction business in Soweto. The advent of government by the ANC, which has promised to build a million new homes for blacks, could be a boon to his company.

For both personal and political reasons, all the Mohapis will probably vote ANC. Yet Josiah Mohapi's company pick-up truck was recently hijacked at gunpoint; he narrowly escaped with his life. Betty Mohapi complains of underfunding and chaos at Bara, where political battles sometimes spill over into the wards. The parents don't want Ntsoaki going out at night, in spite of the fact that she, like several of her black middle-class friends, has moved into a relatively safe, formerly all-white suburb. At some point, she wants to return to the United States for more study.

For all their enthusiasm toward the prospect of a black government, the incessant violence tempers what should be a moment of triumph. So, too, has the evident mismatch between the ANC's promises and the country's economic capacity to deliver. "The ANC has the theoretical background," Josiah Mohapi says. "But it doesn't have any functional experience." I pointed out to him that I had heard similar expressions of fear about crime from the white Hellmans. "It's the common denominator," he conceded.

Many in the ANC believe that Inkatha is little more than a creature of the white-right Third Force. Mandela himself has fed this mood by denying "biased" police access to the Bloody Monday scene and by labeling de Klerk "a political criminal" because of Inkatha's war. But Buthelezi also draws on Zulu myth and tradition to fashion a critical mass of support. The most important symbol is the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelethini, who happens to be Buthelezi's nephew. The king, cultural weapons and the ancient name of KwaZulu still arouse militant loyalty in Zulus who live under traditional tribal authorities—or among urban Zulus who see tradition as an antidote to the chaos of the townships.

Ulundi, site of KwaZulu's capital, is the Zulu Kosovo: on the fourth of July, 1879, a force of 4,165 British troops and 1,152 African allies defeated 20,000 Zulus. The British side suffered only thirteen killed. A monument on the site commemorates "the brave warriors who fell here in 1879 in defense of the old Zulu order." Ever since, some Zulus have dreamed of restoring the Natal empire built by Shaka Zulu. To such people, the end of whites-only government heralds not liberation but apocalypse at the hands of the ANC, which they regard as dominated by the rival Xhosa tribe.

In Ulundi, I attend a wake for a 32-year-old part-time delivery truck driver named Rafael Veli. Candles flicker in a corner of his two room house. Two-dozen women dressed in black dresses, wide white collars and leopard-skin fezlike hats sit cross-legged on the floor. They rock back and forth, singing funeral hymns in Zulu, filling the air with haunting harmony. A minister rises from a rough wooden bench and leads the group in the Lord's Prayer, also in Zulu.

Rafael Veli spent the last few years of his life far from his home town, living as a migrant laborer in the Nancefield hostel, a grim collection of brick structures in Soweto. Veli's family insists he was a peaceful man, but Nancefield houses some of Inkatha's most violent impis. Whether or not he lived peacefully, Veli died violently, gunned down outside ANC headquarters on Bloody Monday. Just as Bloody Monday frightened many whites, it tapped into the currents of victimization that feed Zulu nationalism. In Buthelezi's telling, it was a slaughter of the innocents, a latter-day Battle of Ulundi, complete with the shields and spears of the warriors lying broken on the field. Rafael Veli is a hero to his family, a loyal subject who died for his king, and who should be avenged. "We are driving toward a river of blood," says Veli's brother, Cmbangayiya, who belongs to Buthelezi's notorious KwaZulu police force. "God will help us if we help ourselves."

The last hopes for a settlement in Natal seem to have been extinguished by Bloody Monday. Shortly after my visit to KwaMashu, a delegation of nine ANC members from the township went to a prearranged peace parley with Inkatha fighters at an Inkatha-controlled hostel. It was a double cross. The ANC men were thrown in a van, driven to a railway station and shot in their heads by a crowd of impis screaming for revenge for Bloody Monday. De Klerk has sent the SADF to Natal in a desperate bid to establish order. But more than 100 more people have been killed since the army moved in. A summit meeting among de Klerk, Mandela, Buthelezi and the Zulu king produced nothing but recriminations. "There is all probability that all-out war will take place unless a miracle occurs," says Chief Simon Gumede, a former Buthelezi lieutenant who broke with him over the latter's boycott of the election. "And of course, if there were miracles, people wouldn't be dying today."

Mandela is under enormous pressure from within the ranks of the ANC to quit humoring Buthelezi and crush him militarily. After all, for many comrades Inkatha is nothing more than the enemy in a bitter war stirred up by the whites. Their model is the takeover of the Bophuthatswana homeland by the SADF, of which Mandela will become commander in chief after the elections. Indeed, the SADF, once rightly denounced by the ANC as an instrument of apartheid, has become something of a deus ex machina in the Congress's political script.

Yet it is the SADF itself that has best demonstrated the folly of adopting a partisan political-military course. The army's Afrikaner-dominated professional officers face a delicate future under black rule. If the army divides along racial or political lines—the majority of its officers and commando reservists are conservative whites, the majority of its enlisted troops are black—it would lead to civil war. If, however, the officers hold the army together, successfully integrating former members of the ANC's armed wing and developing a relevant mission in the post-apartheid world, their own careers and pensions will be secure. Thus, the watchword of the SADF today is nonpartisan professionalism.

I witnessed the importance of this in the East Rand, a vast sprawl of townships housing 1.8 million people about twenty miles from Johannesburg. In 1993 the East Rand was even more violent than Natal: about fifty people a week were being killed in battles between the comrades, most of whom were Xhosas, and the impis, who are mostly Zulus. The "War Zone" between ANC and Inkatha territory, a large area of neat middle-class homes, each of which cost its owner approximately $20,000, was destroyed, looted and abandoned in the conflict. The police, regarded correctly by the ANC as sympathetic to Inkatha, had been routed. Joe Slovo, the Communist ANC leader, came under fire himself on a campaign visit to the area.

That was the last straw. On February 2, with the ANC's blessing and over Inkatha's protests, de Klerk withdrew the police from the East Rand and sent in the army. The result has been a near-total cessation of the violence. Some of this must be due to the ANC's decision to call off the fight now that it has gotten its way: the Congress, whose slogan was once "no soldiers in the townships," actually staged welcoming demonstrations when the armored vehicles rolled in to the East Rand. But the army also deserves credit for pursuing an intelligent strategy. Its "Operation Protecto" derived from counterinsurgency doctrine developed during South Africa's wars in Namibia and Angola. It called for the army to pour a division of troops into the area to search out weapons and suppress the fighting, then follow up with dispute resolution and public works projects to restore services destroyed by the fighting.

The rich irony of the situation—an Afrikaner-led organization seeking to be the one force that can bring peace to warring African factions—is lost on no one. But after talking to both ANC and Inkatha residents in the East Rand, my impression was that, while the two groups still expressed hatred for each other, the army had won respect as an honest broker. On the ground, the opinion of Inkatha cadres seemed to differ from the anti-army stance of the Inkatha leadership. Amos, a 36-year-old resident of the Inkatha-controlled New Crossroads squatter camp, doffs his cap to reveal a huge panga scar across his scalp. He sings the army's praises. "Now we can sleep peacefully," he says.

The SADF's performance in the East Rand probably won't be repeated in Natal: the army just doesn't have enough troops to cover a province that encompasses one-quarter of the country's population. And it doesn't have enough time before the election to develop a plan in Natal as comprehensive as the one in the East Rand. Operation Protecto itself is scheduled to end soon. The National Peacekeeping Force, a ragged 3,000-man force consisting largely of former ANC armed cadres, will move into the East Rand, albeit under the SADF's direction.

However impermanent, the army's operation in the East Rand did demonstrate basic principles the new government would do well to follow in pacifying the country: highly visible strength, no-nonsense law enforcement tempered by negotiation and, above all, impartiality. The ANC could have advantages in such an effort: its support from the majority of voters, its nonracial ideology. But it must transcend major deficiencies: the rabid anti-Inkatha sentiment within its own ranks, its relations of mutual suspicion with the police and Buthelezi's own apparent determination to fight on after the elections.

The new government will probably have no choice but to use force against Buthelezi and the residual white right-wingers. But if it wishes to avoid permanent instability, the ANC must recognize that many traditional Zulus and Afrikaners—as opposed to their opportunistic chiefs—have real insecurities and have drawn attention to real weaknesses in the new order. It must deal with these in ways that enhance, rather than erode, the legitimacy of the new state. It won't be easy.

But South Africa needs legitimate, nonracial, nontribal authority more than anything else—black empowerment and economic growth included—to quell the violence. Such authority is the only thing that can keep the confidence of the Hellmans and Mohapis, who want to make a new South Africa work, but are afraid that criminals will steal the fruits of their efforts. True democratic political legitimacy has never before existed in racist, war-torn South Africa. Its establishment would be the crowning achievement of the liberation struggle.

At Bara, Dr. Siego Wouters knows what the alternative is. Toward the end of my visit I notice him talking with a smiling young man who only hours ago had lain semiconscious and bleeding from a triple stab wound. I ask if the patient had come by to say thanks. Dr. Wouters replies: "No, he just told me he's going out again tomorrow to get revenge on the guy who did this to him."