Another day, another 16 lives snuffed out

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The Independent Online
By the time we reached Tembisa township, flames were licking round the entrance of the station. A few hours before, 16 people had died in a stampede sparked by a clampdown on ticket-dodgers in which security guards used electric cattle prods on commuters.

Down the hill, hundreds of black youths stood in groups, eager to finish off the station they had already petrol-bombed. Smaller groups of men, teenage boys and a few women milled around the journalists and police. Cradling their rifles, the policemen - predominantly white - watched the crowd swelling below.

I'm a rookie foreign correspondent, new in the region. My experience of this kind of confrontation comes from television. Presented with the real thing for the first time felt like walking on to a film set. Everything and everybody is just where you would expect them to be - except for yourself.

The attack on our car came from nowhere. There was a ripple in the crowd, the buzz of voices rose to a crescendo and within seconds ripple became riot. The Daily Telegraph man was at the wheel when the stone-throwing started. I crouched behind the car as youth after youth ran forward to launch his missile. The stones rained down, hitting the car with dull thuds. I felt no panic, just the same sensation of being out of time and place.

I do remember thinking I never bought the oranges or drank the wine, not once in all those boycott years. But this was hardly the time for ripping off your jumper to reveal your anti-apartheid T-shirt. We were taking a pounding, the wheels were stuck. The man from the Times crouched beside me got back into the car.

To the left, police were advancing down the hill, rattling off rubber bullets. The oddest thing was that everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves: it was a return to the old days and to a game which could be deadly but whose rules we all understood. The stone-throwing continued from the front; the township - complete with gleeful, cheering audience - was on the right. I was embarrassed to find myself suddenly running, dodging stones, away from the police and into Tembisa. Behind me was the sound of shattering glass as a stone hit the driver's window, narrowly missing the occupants.

So I found myself behind the lines, alongside the stone-throwers and chorus. Two men ushered me into a shop and someone brought a seat. The woman behind the counter fussed over me. Between pats to my hands and shoulders customers ran back and forward to the door to continue cheering. My colleagues had by now driven off and the rioters turned on an empty red Volkswagen belonging to a local journalist.

He had never been to Tembisa before and it is unlikely he will rush back. Not one piece of glass remained in his car when they had finished.

As men danced on his roof, the police again opened fire. And so it went on: attack, scatter and run; consolidate, attack, scatter and run.

Near by, three little boys in smart school uniforms, not one over eight, stood watching and learning. It was just another lesson in the violence endemic in South Africa. It is such a background noise that only the grossest stories make the papers. It was the cattle prods that made the Tembisa story exceptional, not the loss of 16 lives.