Township strikes gold in 'peace Olympics': John Carlin in Alexandra meets residents who are determined to live without the gun

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The Independent Online
WINNING a beauty contest carries with it important social responsibilities. Miss Alexandra carried off hers with grace on the day Johannesburg's most crowded black township held its rival version of the Olympic Games.

Seated, as befitted her station, on the front row of the VIP marquee, she and the runner-up in the Mr Alexandra contest looked on with properly restrained interest as the women of the Alexandra Aerobics Club displayed their talents. Not like the gawky youths who, in a more natural response, just gaped. For this was not the sort of spectacle to which they were accustomed there on the township football pitch.

No less astonishing was the fact that the war in Alexandra had ended, that young people could cheerfully gape away with no thought of the possibility that someone might come up behind them and plant a spear in their backs. Until March this year, and for two years before that, this was one of the most dangerous townships. Hundreds died in the battles between the Inkatha hostel-dwellers and township residents.

But today, as in Soweto, Kagiso, Tembisa and other townships on Johannesburg's outer perimeter, Inkatha and the ANC are at peace. The violence continues unabated in Katlehong and Tho koza, where more than 1,000 have died since June, but what is sometimes forgotten by political commentators who presage civil war is that the killings are not nearly as widespread as before.

It was in celebration of this new dawn that Alexandra held its Peace Games. The aerobics display was but a sideshow. On the same pitch a man from the north of England by the name of Dave Southern refereed a chaotic game of under-14 rugby league; there was the women's football match; five-kilometre 'fun-runs'; paraplegic basketball; on a new pitch behind one of the squatter camps, a game of cricket; and under the shadow of the once-fearsome Madala hostel, on a mud-caked square, more football.

An Oxford cricket blue deserves much of the credit for the outbreak of peace. Liz Carmichael, a qualified medical doctor ordained earlier this year as an Anglican minister, is the motor driving the Alexandra Interim Crisis Committee (ICC), a body that has brought together all the factions - police and army included - and persuaded them that war is in no one's interest.

'The huge task was to break down the barriers of distrust,' she says. 'We found that once the talking started, imagined fears were dispelled.'

It was not just talking that had done the trick. An impressive logistical operation has been mounted, its purpose to put out fires before they become blazes. The ICC office, which Dr Carmichael effectively runs, is a welfare clinic and barracks combined. Refugees displaced from their homes in 'Beirut', the name given to the area adjoining the hostel, come for advice. Soldiers lounge in the control room, where a radio keeps them in touch with the patrols, township residents - ANC and Inkatha combined - who carry walkie-talkies, drive two cars and function around the clock.

Prominent among these is Mandla Maseko, a member of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), to whose instructions the South African Defence Force men willingly respond. 'The other week there was a flash of trouble in Tembisa. We heard a rumour that it was coming to Alexandra so we went and talked to the Inkatha people at the hostel - they said they had heard something too - and we set up new controls for a quick response. We've had no problems.'

The hostel itself is like a vast fortification, a red-brick Norman castle commanding a view over the township. Simon Mlambo, Alexandra's Inkatha secretary, is more concerned today with the problems of sanitation than with the township 'comrades'.

'The hostel,' Mr Mlambo said, 'is not a place for human beings. But yes, the ICC has brought peace. But we started it, we went to the residents in March this year with a declaration of peace. War will never start here again. We will never attack them.'

What about the elections next year? Won't they bring war again? Mr Mlambo bristled. The Zulu warrior reared up from inside the man of peace. 'Elections are not important. The Zulus must get their land back. If elections happen on 27 April, like the ANC says, all the Zulu people will go to Ulundi (the Zululand capital) and that day at 12am the sun will disappear.'

A nerve was touched and Dr Carmichael sighed. 'Oh dear. Things are OK for now but we're not quite there yet, are we? There's still work to be done.'

Work was done the next day at the Randburg City Council, neutral territory, in whose air-conditioned conference room Mr Mlambo, ANC officials, refugee representatives and white councillors sat, in the very image of a polite modern democracy, with Dr Carmichael and other members of the ICC. Minutes were taken, committees formed and plans hammered out for the reconstruction of the hostel and the houses destroyed by war. Mr Mlambo did not open his mouth. This was not his natural environment. But he left the encounter happy.

'Yes. I trust the ANC people here. I think in Alexandra we will have peace,' Mr Mlambo said.

(Photograph omitted)