Out of South Africa: Silent terror that keeps Zulus under control

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ESIKHAWINI - I'm in a position, now as I write, to sign the death warrants of half a dozen people. All I have to do is mention their names and report what they said to me.

Less a dilemma than a frightful responsibility, protecting people's lives is part of a journalist's routine in South Africa. Especially if you spend any time in those black townships which, in three years of political violence, have contributed to a nationwide death toll of 10,000.

Take Esikhawini, a small township, with a population of maybe 15,000, in the 'homeland' of KwaZulu - a 'self-governing territory' depicted on a map of Natal province as 50 or so blobs of assorted shapes and sizes. When the apartheid engineers carved out those pieces of Natal they deemed fit for black rule their main concern was to ensure that the choice towns, farms and industrial areas remained in white hands, under Pretoria's control.

Esikhawini, whose function it is to provide labour for neighbouring Natal factories, falls under the KwaZulu government and the KwaZulu police force. Every seat in the KwaZulu parliament is held by a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party whose leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, is Chief Minister and Minister of Police. Which is perhaps why the mood in the township, where 100 have been murdered in the past year, brought to mind visits in the Eighties to El Salvador and Cuba.

El Salvador because of the fear, Cuba because of the party control. Talk to people about the weather, about the warm waters of the nearby Indian Ocean, about the beauty of the forests (across the main road in Natal) and you will meet with a cheerful response. Talk about politics to ordinary people - Zulus all - and they freeze up. Unless you manage to insinuate yourself into their trust, which you can only do by persuading them that you won't reveal their identities in print.

The first man who spoke to me - even to tell what he does for a living would be too dangerous - said it was common knowledge that the KwaZulu police and associated hit squads were doing the bulk of the killings in the township and that the agenda of the local police chief was to 'make vanish' sympathisers of the African National Congress. Which is why, as a second man confirmed, local ANC or trade union officials either never sleep at home or, if they are prominent enough, live under constant armed guard.

The first woman to speak to me, educated with a good job, told me she always made a point of being home by nightfall, of locking the doors and never re-emerging until sunrise. 'You never move in routine ways. You never phone to say where you're going, unless you speak in code. You watch always for suspicious cars. You don't budge - you certainly don't call the police - if you hear shots.'

Someone else told me that in the mid-Eighties all university students with KwaZulu bursaries were summoned to Chief Buthelezi's office and ordered to sign a pledge of loyalty to Inkatha. This included a promise never to criticise the chief himself. Most refused and the upshot, especially in the case of the medical students, is that most now work in other parts of the country.

What I also learnt - and here the Cuban analogy was particularly compelling - was that pensioners who do not possess Inkatha membership cards cannot collect their pensions; anyone who wishes to open a shop cannot obtain the necessary licence without providing demonstrable loyalty to the ruling party; and the same goes for those who wish to purchase a site on which to build a home, never mind obtain a job in the KwaZulu civil service.

There is always someone in communities like Esikhawini - a Sakharov figure - who provides an exception to the rule. Dorcas Luthuli's husband, a doctor, was assassinated in his consulting room in August 1990 and she is past caring - or says she is. The local police having made no visible effort to investigate the case, she has written to President F W de Klerk to help her. He merely passed on the letter to the commissioner of the KwaZulu police, who promptly returned the letter to Mrs Luthuli without comment. 'I want the killers of my husband,' she declared. 'I will speak out until they are brought to justice.'

In December last year she learnt she was on a local hit-list. Last month her neighbour, a trade union member, was shot dead outside his house. Did she know who had killed her husband? Who had killed her neighbour? Who had drawn up the hit-list? She smiled. 'I need to stay alive. I have two daughters at school. I have the answers to your questions. I'll tell you. But, please, can we make this off the record?'