The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.
—Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856)
Across South Africa last week, events were proving the universal truth of the French historian's epigram. Full-scale black-against-black warfare in the townships of Natal province claimed at least 50 lives, leaving a trail of misery and wanton destruction. Eleven more blacks were killed and more than 400 wounded when police opened fire on an illegal protest march near Johannesburg. In urban and rural areas of the Orange Free State, rightwing white vigilantes, some wearing the Nazistyle regalia of the paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement, increasingly took the law into their own hands. And the police action prompted the once-outlawed African National Congress (ANC) to announce the indefinite postponement of its scheduled discussions with the Pretoria government on dismantling apartheid and creating what President F. W. (Frederik) de Klerk has called “a totally new South Africa.”
The week’s worst violence erupted in the sprawling black townships on the outskirts of Pietermaritzburg, the whites-only capital of Natal. Sporadic internecine warfare between ANC supporters and members of Inkatha, a conservative Zulu tribal organization, have claimed about 3,000 lives in the area over the past 30 months. But the intensity of the mayhem that occurred there last week went far beyond anything experienced before. Concentrated in a 120-square-mile region that has become known as the Valley of Death, the fighting involved pitched battles between thousands of heavily armed young men. Tens of thousands of civilians fled from their homes, huddling in school and church halls or in the bush. Said David Welsh, professor of political studies at the University of Cape Town: “There is no doubt that things have spun completely out of control in Natal.”
In an attempt to calm passions on both sides, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the semi-autonomous KwaZulu territory, had agreed to hold a joint rally this week. But, on Friday, Mandela called off the event. An ANC statement said that “the atmosphere is not yet ideal” for the two warring factions to share a platform, and that the group’s leaders hoped that the meeting would be rescheduled for a later date. But it seemed unlikely that even the country’s two most influential black leaders could stop the slaughter. “I’m dubious about their chances of success,” said Welsh. “I fear that nothing short of a national political settlement will end the fighting.”
But, at week’s end, the ANC called off preliminary talks on a political settlement that were scheduled for April 11 between a black delegation headed by Mandela and a cabinet team led by de Klerk. Said ANC internal leader Ahmed Kathrada: “The talks have been suspended as a protest against the killings” near Johannesburg. Earlier, de Klerk warned “certain elements on the left and on the right” that the government would “use the full weight of its power to restore law and order in an unprejudiced way.”
It remained unclear whether the formidable South African security forces had the manpower—or, in the case of black-against-black violence, the will—to deal effectively with simultaneous outbursts in various parts of the country. In the Pietermaritzburg area last week, senior police officials admitted that they were completely overwhelmed. And as the violence began to spill out of the black areas and into the commercial sector of Pietermaritzburg itself, Mayor Mark Cornell called on Pretoria to impose martial law.
Until then, many of Pietermaritzburg's white residents had regarded the township carnage with apparent complacency. Political author Shelagh Gastrow described how a group of whites watched the fighting from the safety of a garden overlooking Ashdown township. Eventually, seeing that the situation was getting out of hand, one of the group sent his Zulu servant, Grace Dombilo, home to check on the safety of her children. Dombilo went into Ashdown and opened her front door. Inside, she found her four children, aged 3 to 10, dead, their heads smashed open by clubs.
Attempting to explain the internecine Zulu fighting, Cape Town University’s Welsh told Maclean’s: “The situation has gone way beyond the original political differences between Inkatha and supporters of the ANC and the allied United Democratic Front. Ninety per cent of the combatants have no idea what the ideological basis of the feud was all about.”
In any case, de Klerk’s promise of farreaching constitutional and political reforms seems to have unleashed heightened political passions and power struggles among the country’s 28-million-strong black majority. In the two months since he rescinded a ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations and announced the pending release of Mandela after 27 years in prison, more than 400 people have been killed in black-against-black fighting. Unless those passions can be cooled, South Africa could well be plunged into a civil war.
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