S. African riots gain in political impact
Elsie's River, South Africa
The stories about what happened here in the segregated ghettoes outside Cape Town are as numerous as the shards of glass that still glisten in the gutters. "My sister's husband was just standing wathcing," says Janette Jacob, a resident of one of the areas hardest hit by the worst rioting here in four years. "And the police shot him in the back."
Many such stories are circulating here in the Colored (mixed race) townships around Cape Town in the wake of rioting that left, by some reckonings, 43 people dead and many more injured.
South African police routinely deny opening fire at anyone but rioters and looters. But charges of police overreaction have turned what was, by most accounts, a "nonpolitical" uprising into a highly politicized issue in this country.
The South African police have compounded matters. First, they banned journalists from the country's troubled black and Colored townships, ensuring that no eyewitness accounts from disinterested parties are available.
Second, the police earlier (on June 18) announced that policemen had been given instructions to "shoot to kill" to quell disorders, then hastily withdrew the statement some two hours later.
Third, they have issued casualty figures only belatedly, and at variance with figures obtained by newspapers canvassing local hospitals. Police then ordered hospitals to stop giving figures to the press. The official death toll was put at 30 by Police Minister Louis Le Grange June 19.
There is one thing that police and many residents of the Colored township here do agree on: The violence that erupted on June 17 was not directly related to ongoing school and bus boycotts nor to labor unrest.
"Skollie elements" were behind the violence, says Charmaine Hamilton, a sidewalk vegetable seller here in Elsie's River, one of the hardest hit of the townships. The police, too, blame the "skollies" -- a colloquialism to describe young hooligans.
"They don't work. They can't cope on their own two feet. They have to cook. They just rob people to have something in their pockets," she contends.
But even on his point there is disagreement. "There's no such thing as a skollie," posits laborer Henry Oostenwal. "The government makes them slollies, because the money's too little. Decent people turn out to be skollies because there's no work."
Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that the violence here did not start out as a political protest. "It had nothing to do with equal rights," says one kerchiefed woman.
Similarly, there is widespread agreement that police were needed to quell the disturbances. It is the methods they used that provokes criticism.
"All right, the police had to do their duty," says one electrical worker, "but they can come with batons and grab people, not shoot them."
One man claims that a policeman wildly firing at fleeing youths was responsible for the death of a 17-month-old child who was killed by a bullet wound as she lay sleeping in her home: "The TV told us the police use rubber bullets, and all that nonsense. They don't tell the truth."
At least three other people joined him in relating incidents of innocent bystanders being shot without warning by angry policemen, some of them shouting racial slurs.
One young, bronze-skinned man in a red sweater grew more agitated as he spoke about the rioting that engulfed this segregated ghetto -- and what the police did to contain it.
"I sat the whole night watching by my window. I could see everything. They took five children out of this shop," he said, gesturing at the burned-out hull of what used to be a dry goods store called the Eureka Estate Bazaar.
"At the back of this block of flats they had a van," he said, "and they took the children to the van. But the children tried to get away. There were about 10 or 12 policemen. One of them sat down on his knee, and he started shooting. Then all of them started shooting."
"At the children?" he was asked. "Yah," he replied, "in the back."
An influential theologian in the Colored Dutch Reformed Church, Dr. Alan Boesak, says of the violence, "It makes me feel very bad, because it's so unnecessary."
"The elements of hooliganism inevitably came in," he says, "but even at that, do people honestly, really believe your so-called hooligan elements are ignorant politically? That they have no ax to grind? That they went on the rampage because it felt good? Who would be so naive as to believe that?"
"We have tried nonviolent methods so long," he goes on, and yet "there's no evidence the government took this community seriously."
"As long as this government continues with this policy, so long as it thinks it can buy off people with a few concessions," he warns, "Then you will have protests that end in this kind of desperate, futile violence."
Meanwhile, the US government has warned South Africa that relations between the two countries could be impaired if police here do not use restraint in handling racial disturbances. The message was conveyed in Washington when Richard M. Moose, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, telephoned South African Ambassador to the United States Donald Sole to deplore the violence.