Message of hope for two townships sick of violence

A SENIOR African National Congress official, kept in chains three years ago because he was suspected of having led a plot to overthrow the government, read out a statement written by President F W de Klerk yesterday before 1,000 ANC supporters.

The official was Mac Maharaj; the venue a community hall in Katlehong; the response rapturous. The statement provided a detailed plan to bring peace to this, South Africa's most violent township.

Flanked by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo and other ANC grandees, Mr Maharaj delivered the first piece of evidence that, three months ahead of the first democratic elections, joint black and white rule had taken hold.

Three weeks ago, after Mr Slovo and the ANC Secretary General, Cyril Ramaphosa, were shot at in Katlehong, Mr Mandela held an urgent meeting with President de Klerk and told him this and the neighbouring township of Thokoza (known as the East Rand townships) should be declared a national disaster area. Close to 2,000 people had been killed here since May (80 per cent of the national total in political violence); thousands more were driven from their homes; public services had broken down.

Mr Maharaj, who serves in South Africa's new power-sharing body, the Transitional Executive Council, declared that the East Rand held the key to peace in South Africa.

Mr Mandela and Mr de Klerk, working closely with the TEC, hammered out a plan. Yesterday the TEC formally approved it and Mr Mandela, anxious to convey the good news, cancelled all engagements and rushed to Katlehong.

After the fiasco of the shootings three weeks ago, when a journalist was killed, the police were also anxious - this time to make absolutely certain that the ANC party was safe.

Four police armoured vehicles met Mr Mandela's convoy outside Katlehong and, with a police helicopter hovering overhead, escorted him to the community hall. The scene outside the hall conjured images of the D-Day landings, so massive was the police and army presence. Inside the mood evoked the liberation of Paris.

No community has suffered more in South Africa and now, the expressions on the faces said it, the redeemer had arrived. 'I have come here on a very important matter - in order to save lives,' Mr Mandela declared. And then he introduced Mr Maharaj.

The announcement of the first part of the peace plan brought the house down. In response to demands from the people of Katlehong, Mr de Klerk had agreed to withdraw the Internal Stability Unit, previously known as the riot police, from the township. In its place - this news was greeted with no less enthusiasm - would come the army. The soldiers would, among other things, provide for the safe return of people forced out of their homes by violence.

They would also assist in a repair and reconstruction programme backed by ample government funds. The township's electricity and water supplies, roads, sewage and refuse removal would be substantially upgraded.

The aim, Mr Maharaj said, was to make the East Rand 'a model of peace, stability and development'. Miracles, he warned, could not be expected overnight but the era of despair had ended.

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