Natal shantytown fights intimidation: John Carlin went to Bambayi, where Gandhi lived, to discover the roots of the violence threatening South Africa's elections

IN December 1904 Mahatma Gandhi visited what is now Bambayi and decided this was the place to establish a rural commune where he could develop the idea that simplicity and sharing were the recipe for a harmonious life.

It requires only a small leap of the imagination to see why he chose this spot. The big city, Durban, is a safe 20 miles away. The Indian Ocean, provider of fruitful rains and balmy semi-tropical air, lies across the gentle green hills to the east. Today Gandhi's house offers the only reminder - a sadly ironic reminder - of the grand old ideal. Bambayi (a Zulu corruption of Bombay) is a shanty inhabited by 30,000 people. More than 200 have died in the past year in clashes between supporters of Inkatha and the African National Congress.

Indications are that things will get worse. For Bambayi is in Natal province where Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Inkatha leader, has decided to make his last stand against the ANC. This is Zulu country and although the majority of Zulus appear, according to all the polls, to support Nelson Mandela's ANC, it is the only part of South Africa where Chief Buthelezi can entertain any hope of preserving a political foothold after the April elections.

What is still uncertain is whether he will lead Inkatha into the elections or not. If he does not the bloodshed will increase. But either way, fear being Inkatha's favoured instrument of political persuasion, more violence is guaranteed. Already during the last eight years Natal has endured what academics call a 'low-intensity', Zulu-on- Zulu war in which close to 10,000 have died. The massacre two weeks ago of 15 ANC youths planning a voter education workshop offered what looked like a taste of things to come. Which was why last Tuesday Mr Mandela went down on his knees, as he put it, before Inkatha's leader and pleaded for peace.

The chief's trump card, Mr Mandela knows all too well, is the threat of what the media call 'civil war'. But the truth is that Mr Mandela is begging in the dark. Neither he nor anyone else in the ANC's Johannesburg headquarters appears to have a clear idea of what the nature of the violence is.

A visit to Bambayi on Thursday afternoon offered some answers. Geoff Blose, 32, is an ANC election organiser in the Bambayi area and, as such, is an endangered species. Stanley Blose, no less endangered, is a thin, bespectacled young man who describes himself as the Bambayi 'chairperson' of the South African Communist Party. Amos Khweshube is a grey-bearded man who speaks no English and bears two bullet wounds from the fighting last year.

Mr Kweshube's house was attacked at 3am last Monday, he said, by the Internal Stability Unit (ISU) of the police. One man died and two were injured. 'There's only very few Inkatha people in the area. The problem is they have guns and the support of the ISU. Bring in the army here, preferably black soldiers we can communicate with in our own language, and then we'll talk to the Inkatha people and find peace.'

Stanley Blose had read in the papers that the ISU had been withdrawn from Katlehong, until recently the most violent of the townships outside Johannesburg, then the army had come in and, 'just like that', the killings had gone right down. 'We just need impartial security here. Everybody knows, especially the police, that the problem comes from a small group of Inkatha people who call themselves 'the Greens'. They're called that because they wear green belts when they attack. A chap called Denis leads them. He's an outsider who Inkatha brought in.'

Geoff Blose, no relation to Stanley, listened quietly to the two men and then took stock. 'The worry is that we hear from our underground structures that people trained by Inkatha are being deployed all over the area. They are hit squads, they say, trained in Umfolozi.'

This was not necessarily idle gossip. Last week Inkatha displayed at a passing-out parade 1,400 men trained in the use of automatic rifles in Umfolozi, 100 miles north of Bambayi, by a former security policeman called Philip Powell. 'We don't believe,' Mr Blose said, 'that these people are capable of starting a big civil war, like some say. It's not a face-to-face war we fear. We have 15,000 paid-up ANC members here alone. But they have hit squads that move around and attack under cover of night, with the help of the ISU. What we fear is the terror created by the hits and the massacres. Our people fear campaigning and maybe they will fear voting. On election day five people can be shot, then people hear the news on the radio and are not willing to leave home and vote. Intimidation is the weapon of Inkatha to cause chaos for the elections.'

And how did he feel? 'I'm worried because some of these Inkatha people know me. I don't feel safe walking around on my own.' Why did he do it? 'I will continue election organising, voter education, canvassing. I do it with the knowledge they can shoot me because we believe that when the ANC takes over we'll end the violence.'

Events in Bambayi two days later, on Saturday, would have challenged Mr Blose's resolve. The Greens, in a version confirmed by the police yesterday, attacked a section of Bambayi where ANC feeling is dominant. Armed with AK47s they killed 12 people, destroyed 20 shacks and burnt two vehicles. The ISU, according to eyewitnesses, stood by and watched.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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