The government structures in many of South Africa's black townships are collapsing under the sustained assault of black violence, which erupted this week in the country's largest black community of Soweto. Political analysts see the deterioration of official township authority as a crucial feature of current unrest, already regarded as the most serious in the country's history.
Increasingly, government authority in the townships depends on the physical presence of armed police and soldiers. But once they withdraw, authority collapses and black radicals -- many of them young -- become the de facto rulers.
The government, not having the manpower to police all townships permanently, is exercising its authority only sporadically.
Yesterday in Soweto, youths burned cars and houses for the second day. Even schoolchildren joined in the violence, police reported.
Thousands of blacks took to the streets of Soweto Wednesday. A tour bus carrying Americans and West Germans was attacked and blacks suspected of cooperating with whites were made targets of attacks. Cars were torched, as were the homes of two black policemen.
It is estimated that more than 475 people have died in unrest during the past 10 months.
The clearest sign of the collapse of local government structures is the virtual disintegration of black town councils, which are elected by blacks. But they were first established by the white-controlled central government -- a feature that has caused many blacks to reject them as tools aimed at perpetuating apartheid.
At least 240 councilors had resigned by the end of last month, according to research conducted by Indicator South Africa. Published by the Center for Applied Social Sciences in Durban, the periodical concluded that fewer than six black councils were operative in the entire country.
This collapse is the direct result of a sustained campaign by black militants to force councilors to quit, using verbal persuasion and physical coercion.
The homes of more than 300 black councilors have been attacked, many by arsonists. Steve Kgame, president of the Urban Councils Association of South Africa, described the impact of these attacks, saying, ``There is nothing you can do. You live with these people. You can only pray that they won't come.''
At the time of his comment, his house had been attacked twice in the past six months. Within 24 hours of his remark, it was attacked for the third time and largely destroyed by fire.
Mr. Kgame has urged councilors to resist attempts to intimidate them into resigning. Black township policemen are also targets for petrol-bombers.
Attacks on councilors are almost a daily occurrence. The purpose of the attacks is to drive councilors out of the townships. That objective has been fulfilled in at least two townships.
Where black policemen still live in black townships they do so in a state of siege. Their houses are mini-fortresses.
Another apparent change in current violence versus previous unrest is that events in the townships now follow the pattern outlined by the African National Congress (ANC), the black nationalist group seeking to overthrow South Africa's government. The organization is outlawed in South Africa.
The ANC, caught off guard by the first upsurge of violence in the townships last September, is now seen by analysts to be more at the center of events.
In April the ANC issued a ``call to the nation,'' urging ``fighting youth to organize themselves into small mobile units'' and to act in an ``organized way . . . against the enemy and its agents.''
Black police and soldiers, it added, must be shown that ``there is no place in our communities for those who wear the uniforms of apartheid and who carry out orders to kill, maim, and torture their brothers and sisters.''
The rising appeal of the ANC to what it terms the ``fighting youth'' was apparent at the recent funerals of four members of the Congress of South African Students. Speakers made defiant calls for action against the police and the army.
They openly proclaimed loyalty to the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). A huge ANC flag was hoisted above the funeral procession as it wound its way from the stadium to the cemetary where the speeches were made.
The young black men died when grenades which had been given to them by an unknown person exploded prematurely. Post mortem results suggest that the men died when grenades exploded as the safety pins were pulled out. That, in turn, suggests they were given booby-trapped grenades by an agent provocateur.
Ironically, however, the young militants who accepted the grenades primed to go off when the safety pin was removed may have been responding to the ANC's call in April.
``The people must find ways to obtain arms by whatever means from the enemy and from any other source,'' the ANC said in its exhortation to the young to form themselves into small mobile fighting units.
Their deaths are a reminder that the established order is still strong and resourceful even if the balance of power has shifted to the government's disadvantage.