Songs and dance in a tense night in the township: South Africa's blacks are increasingly inclined to answer terrorist attacks in kind, Karl Maier writes from Sebokeng

THE BLANKET of mist that descends over Sebokeng at dusk seems to cut it off from the outside world. Police retreat into their heavily fortified stations and the residents flee rubble-strewn streets for the safety of their homes where they combat the night cold by firing up coal heaters which spew thick yellow smoke, filling the air, and everyone's lungs, with fine black dust.

A hazy pink sunset brings a changing of the guard as bands of children playing in the dirt alleyways give way to ad hoc self-defence units. They patrol neighbourhoods known as 'Angola', 'Cuba' and 'Palestine' to ward off American-style drive-by shootings and gang fights that have made the sprawling black township of 700,000 people one of South Africa's most violent. All strangers are suspect.

Less than a month ago, on the eve of the funeral of the assassinated Communist Party leader, Chris Hani, 19 people were massacred by gunmen driving around in a white sedan. Sebokeng had been left undefended because the defence units which normally control roadblocks and provide security had gone to Boksburg for Hani's funeral.

The identity of the murderers remains unknown, as with the killers of hundreds of other people in townships such as Sebokeng, Sharpeville and Evaton in the industrial Vaal Triangle, about 65km (40 miles) south of Johannesburg. Suspicion is rife that the police were involved in the massacre. Residents said two police armoured cars escorted the assassins.

So tense has Sebokeng become that officials from the African National Congress (ANC) and the Communist Party, which enjoy great popularity in the township, are afraid to venture from zone to zone, as the neighbourhoods are known, without a local resident accompanying them. 'People are awaiting attack by the forces of darkness,' Lebohang Mahata, 26, the top Communist and ANC official in Sebokeng, said over beers at the popular La Mancha bar. 'Every time the ANC talks about launching mass action, the attacks come, and they always start in the Vaal.'

Impatience is running high with the drawn-out talks between Nelson Mandela's ANC and President F W de Klerk's white National Party government in the multi-party negotiating council, aimed at setting up a transitional administration and holding all-race general elections. Unemployment in Sebokeng is huge, and the schools have ground to a virtual halt, gripped by student protests against exam fees and general neglect. The murder of Hani, allegedly by extreme right wingers, and the recent formation of the far-right Afrikaner Volksfront movement, have deepened the worst fears that a race war is drawing near.

'Every time we hear that a white farmer is killed, the young guys are happy,' said Mr Mahata. 'The youths want to fight. We tell them that they can defend themselves but that there are people who want chaos to derail the negotiation process, so don't play into their hands.' That argument, he admitted, is increasingly difficult to make.

The chant of 'Kill the Boer, kill the farmer' is a popular one in Sebokeng and other townships, which together with the ten black 'homelands', are a legacy of South Africa's now discarded policies of strict racial separation. The chant was much in evidence at an all-night funeral vigil in the 'Angola' neighbourhood for Mzwakhe Stuurman, a member of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe, who had died after a long illness.

In between emotional eulogies by family members and former comrades, the 100-strong crowd stomped around to the toyi-toyi war dance and shouted 'whoosh' to mimic the sound of a mortar going off. 'Mothers are going to weep, they're going to fire a mortar at 7am,' went one song. 'They're calling us from 'Angola' to come and help,' went another.

The militant mood seemed distant from the compromise that will be necessary to bring to a successful conclusion the multi-party negotiations under way in Johannesburg. It was best captured in an impassioned, hardline address by Sakhiwe Khumalo, the Sebokeng general secretary of the ANC's Youth League. If the negotiations failed to set a date for the general elections and establish a transitional council by the end of May, he said to rapturous applause, 'We are going to return to fighting'. The night vigil became a virtual war rally, with speaker after speaker, from old women to Umkhonto soldiers, thundering: 'The spear has fallen, we must pick up the spear.'