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Old foes in Soweto unite to fight crime

SHANTY-DWELLERS lined the road, waving, smiling, gawping, as if the circus had come to town. Had elephants come marching down the road pursued by clowns and trapeze artists, the barefoot children, the pregnant women, the old men in trilby hats would have been no less delighted or amazed. What the poorer inhabitants of Diepkloof, in Soweto, were witnessing for the first time in South African history was a procession of policemen and ordinary black residents united by a common cause.

Cheering youths, African National Congress supporters, were piled high on a convoy of yellow armoured vehicles, the same 'casspirs' that until a few months ago the same 'comrades' would stone on sight. They shook hands, enjoying the pointed symbolism, with the same policemen who would fire tear gas at them, chase them down dusty alleys and pack them off into the police cells.

Bongane, who is unemployed, explained. 'We're protesting against the criminals. We want to stop crime in our area. We want to stop the criminals killing our policemen because they are here to defend us.' Since the end of the struggle for liberation, the battle against crime has surfaced as Priority Number One in Soweto. The official figures show that more than 50 murders are committed a day in South Africa, mostly in the black townships. Among the victims since the beginning of this year have been 160 policemen. The statistics are not startlingly new. What is new since the April elections is the perception, prompted by President Nelson Mandela, that the community and the police should work together, not against each other.

The Diepkloof march stopped outside the local civic hall where a portly white policeman grabbed a loudspeaker and addressed the crowd. Parked behind him a was a white hearse draped with a banner carrying the remarkably altruistic message: 'Avalon cemetery is full. Stop the killings]' The policeman, pale in a sea of black faces, said: 'We will be your friends] We invite all of you to be our friends so we can have a future together]'

The crowd cheered when a local community leader, took up the cry. 'We want the criminals out of our township] Beware] We're coming after you, the people and the police together] Beware]' The Minister of Safety and Security, Sydney Mufamadi, stood alongside the white policeman, earnestly conversing, until his turn came to speak and he stressed the need for the community to help the police solve crime.

The festivities ended with 40 small children singing in praise of the police and holding pink and blue posters with messages such as: 'Stop killing us', 'Why use AK47s?' and 'Thugs: stop shooting police. They are our friends.'

Major Francois Vercueil was spending his happiest day since his appointment 19 months ago, after a placid 25 years down in the Cape, to one of the hottest jobs in the South African police force. He was so relaxed he had even brought along his twin 15-year-old daughters, Melissa and Maritza, on the first visit of their lives to a black township. ('Hey, it's not so weird,' Melissa observed.)

'Listen to how the people cheered me,' Major Vercueil said. 'This morning I feel very good. Things have changed totally since the election. Six months ago it was so different. People wouldn't talk to the police. They were afraid of the police. We were the enemy. Now people drop into my office and we have coffee and a chat.'

The man who had addressed the crowd after the major was Isaac Mogase, president of the Soweto Civic Association. 'I always saw the police as the enforcers and defenders of the apartheid laws. I myself was in detention for three years, from 1986 to 1989. We used to say 'police out of the townships' but now it's the criminals we want out. It is the most important thing for the people, ending crime, and we are going to hold events like this one here all over Soweto.'

Mr Mufamadi, an ANC minister in the government of national unity who knows a thing or two about police detention, noted that the success of his police force would depend to a great degree on the success of the government's economic strategy, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). 'If you can't create jobs people will become desperate and they will go out and commit crimes. But at the same time, and this is what the people are saying, it is no use trying to build a new society in a crime-ridden environment.'

Richard Mokwena, a young man in a 'Together against crime' T-shirt, expanded on the minister's theme. 'Fighting crime is the most important thing for us. I will tell you why. Even if you have a perfect education system, the hooligan and criminal element will continue to disrupt classes. If you try and build houses, the criminals will steal the materials. When the electricity workers come, we have to give them protection otherwise the criminals steal their vehicles. Last week two Telkom technicians were shot dead with AK-47s.'

Mr Mokwena was eager, however, to dispel the notion conveyed by the day's proceedings that all was sweetness and light. 'You can't change everything overnight. Some white cops are still going around at night with unlicensed vehicles shooting people and asking questions later. Some cops are corrupt and they work with the criminals. And generally, many of the white policemen are insensitive to our problems.'

The crowd was dispersing and Major Vercueil walked towards one of the casspirs waving goodbye. The children waved back. Mr Mokwena smiled. 'To summarise, there are still problems but we are living harmoniously with the police. Like everything else in South Africa, you can't have miracles overnight but we're moving in the right direction. Three months will not solve everything but lots has changed. Lots.'